Rags-to-riches entrepreneur to launch run for governor

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Democrat Shri Thanedar is making it official: He is running to be Michigan’s next governor.

The Ann Arbor businessman is set to kick off his 2018 campaign Thursday at TechTown Detroit, where he is expected to outline his vision for the state and emphasize his focus on small business growth and start-up culture.

Thanedar, an Indian immigrant and founder of Avomeen Analytical Services, was named 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year by multinational finance giant Ernst and Young and made local headlines in December for giving his employees a collective $1.5 million in holiday bonuses.

“The day I won that award, I said it’s no more about doing good for myself and doing good for my family,” Thanedar told The Detroit News last week at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

“It’s no more about adding more zeros to my net worth. I have to do something different. I have to do something better. This country has given me so much. This state has given me a break.”

Thanedar, who is not well-known statewide and has no political or policy experience, filed candidate committee paperwork with the state in April as he explored a run. He’ll enter the gubernatorial race as an underdog.

The Democratic field already includes former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs. Ann Arbor attorney Mark Bernstein and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel are seriously considering runs.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder cannot seek re-election in 2018 due to term limits. GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley are contemplating bids to replace him. Jim Hines, a Saginaw-area obstetrician, is already running for the Republican nomination.

Thanedar sold a majority share in Avomeen in December to High Street Capital of Chicago. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Thanedar told The News he sold the company “for a lot of money” and is “doing pretty well” financially.

The 62-year-old businessman said he is prepared to put his own money into the race but would prefer supporters contribute because he wants them to be committed to his campaign.

Thanedar made and lost a fortune in Missouri before moving back to Michigan in 2010 and finding new success. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported he bought and built up a chemical analysis firm there, eventually purchasing a Ferrari and constructing a 13,000-square-foot mansion.

But the Great Recession and financial industry crash hit his company and acquisitions hard, reportedly prompting a lender to take him to court, where a bankruptcy judge appointed a receiver to sell the business.

“I lost everything in the recession,” Thanedar said. “Michigan is not anything new to that. Michigan suffered more than any other state in the 2008-2010 recession. The state was hurting, and it had a tough recovery. It has been a long process. The difference between the poor and the rich is growing, and people are suffering. I feel from them, because I have been poor.”

Thanedar grew up in India, where he said he started working as a janitor at age 14 after his father was forced to retire from a government job. He came to United States in 1979 to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Akron, where he said he slept in his car and in a school seminar room during the summer when he did not receive a stipend.

He came to the University of Michigan as a post-doctorate scholar in 1982.

“That’s when I decided to stay in America,” Thanedar said. “I said I’m going to make a career here, and I’m going to live my American dream. I’m so grateful to Michigan and the break that I got.”

Thanedar returned to Ann Arbor in 2010 and founded Avomeen, a material and chemical testing services company. By 2015, the business was pulling in $8.5 million a year in revenue, according to an Inc. Magazine ranking of the country’s fastest-growing private companies.

At the Mackinac conference last week, Thanedar acknowledged several attendees cautioned him against running for governor. He said some told him Democrats already have viable candidates or that it could be difficult for an immigrant with an accent to win a statewide race.

But he shared his repeat rags-to-riches story with anyone who would listen.

“My comeback happened only because of Michigan and because of America,” he said. Now my friends tell me I should be touring the world and living on beaches and yachts, drinking martinis all day. That’s not me.”