Twenty-five years ago today, the nation was slipping toward turmoil in the Middle East, Coleman Young was mayor and an entrepreneur launched her dream.
Strategic Staffing Solutions Inc., based in Detroit, is now a global IT staffing company with 3,000 employees and offices in the States and across Europe. Its pioneering CEO, Cynthia Pasky, never seems to stop moving — emphasis on the pioneering part.
Back when impresario Dan Gilbert was building his mortgage empire in a suburban office park, and his municipal empire-building boom had yet to capture international attention, Pasky bet on Detroit long before anyone thought it cool.
She’s not alone. Whatever credit Gilbert earns for his downtown real estate roll-up, almost all of it deserved, the truth is that he’s not the only power (or early mover) behind the gutsy recapitalization of Detroit. Not even close.
“We have the best CEO leadership of any city I go to,” says Pasky, also chair of the Downtown Detroit Partnership. “It’s very rare. There’s so much that needs to be done. We’ve got so many other investors.”
She’s right. Business owners with names like Mike Ilitch and Peter Karmanos, Jim Nicholson and Dick Dauch focused their time and investment on Detroit long before Gilbert, a rejuvenated auto industry and a restructured City Hall ignited an enthusiasm that is making Detroit one of the hottest plays in the country.
DTE Energy Co. is developing its own campus on either side of Bagley, most recently renovating the old Salvation Army building into DTE offices. Henry Ford Health System is planning a $500 million redevelopment near its flagship hospital in Midtown. Rival Detroit Medical Center added a heart hospital and is breaking ground on a new Children Hospital of Michigan.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan consolidated its southeast Michigan workforce into offices downtown. Lear Corp., the global seat and interiors supplier, plans to open a design center in Capitol Park. The Ilitch family’s $650 million “Detroit District” effectively will connect downtown to the southern reaches of Wayne State and Midtown.
Every week brings news of a hot new restaurant or wine bar; plans to renovate a city park or community center; announcements of market-rate housing and condos; increasing emphasis on spreading the revitalization to neighborhoods and the folks who live there.
These are the makings of reinvention, not the comeback of a bygone era. It’s a 21st-century reinterpretation of a city that reached its zenith in the middle of the last century, a revival grounded as much, if not more, in finance, technology, health care and higher ed as the defining auto industry and related manufacturing.
Add a leadership ethos, business and political, more interested in fixing what’s broken than in claiming credit, and Detroit today is at an inflection point buttressed by the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy and the federal prosecution of public corruption.
“The biggest risk is not engaging all of our Detroiters,” says Pasky, who moved to the city in 1986. “That makes it sustainable.”
So does serving your customers. S3, as the company is colloquially known, has 31 offices across the United States. Its information technology consultants work for 21 customers in 47 states and 11 countries, including Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom.
Revenue this year is expected to top $300 million for the privately held company, up from $264 million last year. The company carries no debt, and its compound annual growth rate is running at 21.4 percent — not bad for a company founded in Detroit on the precipice of armed conflict.
“In January 1991 we went to war,” Pasky said in an interview Wednesday. “It didn’t matter how much money you saved, how many business plans you had. Not only did everything stop ... access to customers went to zero, and nobody knew if they should spend money.”
Pasky persevered, much like the city where she chose to launch her business. Twenty-five years is a long time — and a heartbeat in a city founded in 1701, the place that defined industrial America and its inexorable slide to collapse.
Business — privately owned and, yes, publicly held — is helping to reshape that narrative with action and support for its community, not hollow talk encouraging others to go where they don’t have the courage to go themselves.
There may only be one Dan Gilbert in this town, but there are a lot of Cindy Paskys. Detroit needs every one of them to make its renewed promise become sustainable reality.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.
Catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.