Getting Schooled By a Stand-up CEO

Matt Missad

Matt Missad has a way of keeping himself on top of his game and helping others do the same. When you walk into his office, be prepared to stay on your feet. The CEO of Universal Forest Products, Inc. has a standing office table rather than standard office chairs, the better to cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation and to limit idleness.

He got his start at the company mowing the lawn and cleaning restrooms. Missad believes the anti-nepotism policy the company put in place in the 1970s made his merit-based ascent possible. He also believes governments, and bureaucracies in general, rely on tenure and politics, resulting in a central command that grows out of touch and ineffective.

“If you’re poor, high taxes will keep you from ever being rich.” Missad saw the reality of that statement in his own father, whom he described as a small-business owner in the waste removal industry. While his business struggled financially, he worked exceptionally hard, took care of his customers, played by the rules and never lost his integrity. At a young age, Missad saw how government regulations, well-intentioned or not, hurt his dad and other hard-working Americans. He continues to see burdensome and wasteful rules and regulations, such as the archaic spirits industry rules and high tax rates, penalize consumers and entrepreneurs.

The Mackinac Center’s fact-based research and approach to public policy sets us apart from the political class and other organizations, he said. Missad enjoys civil discussion and exchanging ideas with people in his personal and professional life who disagree and think differently. “We can have differing opinions but operating on a set of facts is essential to actually solving problems,” he said. The Mackinac Center truly tries to present the facts and allows for robust discussion to shape solutions.

Missad’s free-market philosophy was influenced by a high school economics teacher who happened to believe that government was the solution to economic issues. He recalls discussing the merits of a government-mandated minimum wage in class and having to expose the teacher’s flawed theoretical arguments with the real-life experience of a small business. He went on to publish free-market perspectives in his high school newspaper with a final piece on government’s dangerous tendency to grow. Through various seasons and positions in life, Missad has not lost touch with the humble beginnings that shaped his worldview and values.

For Missad, the Mackinac idea of “opportunity for all and favoritism to none” holds personal appeal and was at the forefront of his recent venture in the business and education space. “We found college graduates coming to us looking for jobs but not being well-prepared. And then there’s the cost: They [leaders in academia] forget who the customer is!” He went on to articulate his belief that increased government involvement in higher education has artificially inflated its cost while cheapening its outcomes.

Rather than sit around pontificating about the errors of government involvement in higher education or the lack of qualified employees in the up-and-coming generation, Missad and his company’s leaders did something.

Universal Forest Products began a specialized school last year to make sure students were well-prepared for employment — and employment at Universal, should they choose to stay. The program is built upon a four-year business administration degree program, but with only the business courses, which makes it a two-year endeavor. Missad stated that 60 percent of traditional undergraduate coursework is not related to a student’s major, and his company decided to not emulate that pattern. Full company scholarships are offered and the students receive a 20-hour-per-week paid internship during their two years in the program. The company, with annual sales of $3.3 billion, is increasing the number of employees it hires from the program.

Nine students enrolled in the company school last year and a class of 11 began this fall. It is clear that this CEO and business decided to rethink education in a bold way, bettering the lives of students while considering both short- and long-term company vitality. Rethinking education and taking action on the issue is a way Missad believes he and other private sector workers are different from government leaders and the political class. “They talk about the same problems for years. If anyone in the private sector dealt with problems the same way, they’d be fired!” The future is brighter for many next-generation workers because of leaders like Missad and his team, who are grounded on free-market principles and dare to think differently. Missad is another shining example of innovative and courageous Mackinac Center supporters who make the active defense of liberty and pursuit of free-market policy possible.