Cummings: Remembering Max Fisher, Al Taubman

Peter D. Cummings

When I moved to Detroit with my wife and children in 1989, our mission was to provide for our children a Cranbrook education, which my wife had received and cherished. A native of Montreal and a long-time resident of South Florida, I had no intention of becoming involved with Detroit. My business was based in the Southeast and I commuted weekly back to work from Detroit.

As often happens with the best-laid plans, another force intervened. It was a force called Max M. Fisher, my late father-in-law.

One day he asked me to evaluate a real estate deal that had been presented to the family. My brother-in-law Phillip was engaged in other aspects of the family business, so I gladly took on the assignment. Within a year I was involved with most of the family's real estate. Within two years, I had moved my local office from Troy to the Fisher Building, where the family office was located.

At the recent funeral of Alfred Taubman, these memories came flooding back. I also recalled a breakfast meeting I had with Bobby Taubman shortly after my arrival in town 26 years ago. Bobby loved and admired Max. He said it would be good for Detroit that I had come to town but such a shame that it was so late in Max's life. Max was already 81. Little did either of us know that Max would live to be 96 and I would have 15 years with one of the world's best mentors.

What about Max and Al made them so unique?

First, they were a pair. Max and Al. They operated in tandem frequently in their Detroit initiatives, as was also the case in many of their non-Detroit ventures. Look at the picture of them with Mayor Coleman Young at the groundbreaking for Riverfront Towers and you can see the personalities — so different and distinct — united in a common cause. They were determined to create a quality community of almost 900 apartments on the Detroit River and they got it done, in the 1980s and 1990s, when very little else was happening in the city.

When it came to Detroit and Michigan they were first and foremost philanthropists. Al's causes were legion: the Detroit Institute of Arts, the College for Creative Studies, Lawrence Technological University and the University of Michigan. Ironically, Al's only peer in terms of contributions to the University of Michigan would be Stephen Ross, Max's nephew and another beneficiary of Max's mentoring.

Max was a powerful sponsor of Detroit's civic institutions: The Community Foundation, United Way, Detroit Renaissance and New Detroit. In the end, Max was a Detroiter and Michiganian through and through, so much so that his local friends came to tolerate the one apostasy — his support for the Buckeyes of Ohio State, Max's alma mater.

So how is all this relevant today? What are the enduring lessons of Max and Al? First, the power of partnerships. Max and Al accomplished things together that required a blending of their different skills, styles and perspectives. They understood that big jobs often required that forces be paired to increase capital resources and to create a culture where ideas can be aggregated, challenged and tested. It is this spirit of collaboration that Max and Al embraced that we should aspire to today in Detroit.

The second lesson has to do with giving and getting. Max and Al were pretty much all give when it came to Detroit. This is not to suggest they got nothing. But the simple fact is, when they were giving in the early years, there wasn't much to get in Detroit.

Times have changed. After two generations of false starts and dashed hopes, the stars have lined up for Detroit. Government and business are mostly aligned, a prerequisite for successful urban regeneration. The auto companies are thriving. The bankruptcy is now a rear-view mirror phenomenon. A generation of younger people, along with a cadre of courageous boomers, actually wants to live in the city. Dan Gilbert, a force unto himself, is almost single-handedly revitalizing the central business district. In this moment, finally, there really may be something to get in Detroit.

So as we craft our business plans, as we romance capital sources that now view Detroit as an attractive "value play," as we get caught up in the buzz downtown where, at last, demand for housing exceeds supply, let's not forget that for many of Detroit's neighborhoods and residents, life has really not gotten better. At a time when we can get, it is more important than ever to give.

If Max and Al were around today, that is what they would encourage us to focus on.

Peter D. Cummings is a longtime Detroit philanthropist and developer and is the son-in-law of Max Fisher.