Dan Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and Gerry Anderson, the chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, are regarded to be among the important business leaders in Detroit.
One in health care and the other in the energy business — two far-reaching industries — they each see Detroit’s trajectory as intertwined with the future of their companies that have headquarters in downtown and employ thousands of people including Detroiters.
Long before the advent of the comeback narrative, their companies had been making conscious and deliberate investments in the city — or exhibiting corporate social responsibility. These leaders, whose organizations touch the lives of many in the city, were asked recently to offer their perspectives about where the city is headed and how to include the many who are left out of the recovery.
“I’m a native Detroiter, and I lead a company that’s been a business resident of Detroit for nearly 80 years. I remember how uneasy it felt to be in Detroit when the national economy collapsed 10 years ago. It was hard and scary,” Loepp said. “From then to now, I strongly believe Detroit’s comeback is one of the best stories in America. The downtown is pulsing with growth and action. You’ve got business and residential development that has connected the river to Midtown and is now expanding into neighborhoods.”
He said that with the city now clear of debt and venture capital flowing backed by a city leadership that is “working well together,” Detroit is “now positioned to compete and win investment and jobs against any city in the country. All of this is great for Detroit.”
But challenges remain, the executive said.
“The bankruptcy, while hard, gave the city’s leadership a clean slate to solve challenges faced by residents. The mayor and council are working together on issues like lighting, infrastructure, zoning and demolition,” Loepp said. “The mayor, especially, has spent considerable energy advocating for the people of Detroit — doing things like making sure new housing developments hold space for working people of all incomes. This will promote a stronger, more diverse Detroit.”
“Institutional issues, like improving the city’s schools and making neighborhoods safer for city residents, will take time to solve. They will take a constant, steady focus. And they need people within state and local government to work hand-in-hand with people from the neighborhoods to do the tough labor of finding sustainable solutions.”
Blue Cross, with its 6,000 employees downtown after moving 3,500 employees from Southfield to its headquarters, was among the first business entities to help fund new police cruisers and EMS ambulance vehicles at the behest of former Mayor Dave Bing and businessman Roger Penske.
“This is a small example of how we need to come together to solve problems that are solvable,” Loepp said. “No challenge is too big to overcome when people work together, and perseverance is a critically important quality to have in leaders.”
And like others have emphasized in the past, Loepp said he also believes Detroit’s recovery is incomplete without participation of the majority.
“Detroit can’t truly ‘come back’ if people living in the city are left behind. We need to always make sure there is a focus on people and that we make people a priority. Schools need to be improved. Transit needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Employment opportunities and housing need to be part of the master plan,” Loepp said.
Anderson, the DTE chairman, agrees.
“We need to broaden participation in our city’s recovery. The ultimate measure of success for Detroit is our ability to reestablish a thriving middle class in the city. Key to this are quality youth employment, persistent workforce development efforts and practical steps to improve our schools and link them to work opportunities,” Anderson said.
“The economic engine of our society resides in the private sector, and we need to tie that engine to the task of re-establishing broad-based health in the city. There is already a lot of energy and activity in this area. There will need to be more.”
He said DTE officials are working with nonprofits, the city and the school district to address a number of pressing issues tied to the recovery.
“We are working with a range of parties to build upon our city’s signature youth employment program — Grow Detroit’s Young Talent — to ensure it’s one of the best in the nation,” Anderson said. “It is estimated that up to 50 percent of Detroiters in their 20s don’t have jobs. An important reason so many young adults struggle with employment is that they never had meaningful jobs in their teen years to prepare them for full-time employment, to give them that mental map of potential career paths.”
He also cited the coalition of companies that are investing $10 million to revive the Randolph Career Technical Education Center, now serving 300 high school students.
“We need to do a lot more of this,” Anderson said. “The trajectory of the city is most certainly upward and there is reason for optimism. Now our challenge is to broaden the recovery.”
Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.