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Jacques: Shinola rebuilds Detroit, one watch at a time

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Willie Holley is dressed like a doctor, with a hair net, lab coat and booties. But his patients aren't people — they're watches.

Holley, 27, is the watch movement line supervisor at the Shinola factory in Detroit. His job is to oversee the beginnings of these popular timepieces. Think of watch movements as the engine of a watch — what makes it tick.

It's intricate work, and Holley is responsible for ensuring his team of 28 employees is getting all the tiny pieces properly in place, and that the small engines are meeting Shinola's high quality standards.

Holley keeps the bigger picture in mind, too.

"I believe a company like Shinola, the way it's expanding, is allowing people outside the city to see the city is still doing these different things and still has the heart of manufacturing," says Holley, a Detroit native who attended Cass Technical High School.

Holley's career is on a positive trajectory, thanks in large part to his own initiative. But his success is also a testament to the value and opportunities small companies like Shinola bring to the city and its residents.

Holley wasn't trained in watch manufacturing. In fact, just two years ago, he was working as a security guard at the College for Creative Studies. When Shinola started setting up its factory operations in the building in 2012, Holley got curious when making his rounds.

So he struck up a conversation with Olivier De Boel, Shinola's watch factory manager. Holley wanted to know what the company was going to make, and was intrigued when he learned more. He wanted on board.

"I was instantly interested," Holley recalls. "It was this big opportunity to do something different and new in my own city, which was the biggest perk."

De Boel, impressed with Holley's initiative, gave Holley a dexterity text to see if he had the ability to put a watch together. Holley did. And in two years, he's moved up to his supervisor role.

"I liked him from the first time I met him," De Boel says. "And he rose naturally as a leader."

For Shinola, branding is vital to the company's success. Its marketing is top notch, and it uses its Detroit roots to its advantage in advertising, even as the company is expanding. It has opened other stores around the country and world, including New York, Los Angeles and London.

But its Detroit location is more than just a marketing schtick. The company's leaders have an active interest in hiring people who live here, and helping to make the city a better place.

"It's very important to us to get people from Detroit," De Boel says. "We don't have to import talent. We have everything here."

Currently, Shinola employs about 130 people at its factory, between its watch-making and leather facilities. It's a lean operation that is able to produce around 1,000 watches a day.

And recently the company announced it would add another aspect of watch production in Detroit: dial manufacturing. Shinola plans to hire between 10 and 14 new employees for the dial production, which will take place at the company's flagship store in the Willys Overland Building where Shinola bicycles are assembled.

"The growth for me is really unbelievable," says Holley of Shinola's development. "I've seen this seed get planted. You see people grow, you see people move up. It's just been amazing to see the opportunities Shinola has given the people of Detroit."

Earlier this month, Shinola received an award for best brand launch from the Accessories Council in New York City. And rather than having someone like Shinola president Jacques Panis head to New York to accept the award, the company sent Holley.

As one of Shinola's first hires, and a vested part of the watch-making process, Holley was a perfect choice. He got to spend time in the Big Apple, and rub shoulders with celebrities at the award event. Other awardees included Google Glass, Lord & Taylor and actress Kerry Washington.

"It felt good to represent the company," Holley says.

Panis also gave a shout-out to Holley at an October launch of the Henry Ford pocket-watch, which was held at the Henry Ford Estate.

Shinola's investment in its employees is paying off with loyalty and a desire to make the company thrive.

"Just given what I've been able to accomplish here and the growth that I've achieved, I don't see myself anywhere else," Holley says.


Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.