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Rubin: New owners at Art Van, but the same generosity

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Back there in the corner is the wizard, brought to you by Art Van. Straight ahead, says Tony Michaels, that’s the dragon and the hydraulic castle, part of the same gigantic float.

They’re parked behind the Motown float at the Parade Company warehouse in Detroit, and come to think of it, Motown is also sponsored by Art Van — literally, on Thanksgiving Day, and metaphorically in so many other ways throughout the year.

The title sponsor of America’s Thanksgiving Parade Presented by Art Van announced Wednesday that it’s being sold to a private equity firm from Boston, a potentially ominous transaction for the many nonprofits aided over the years by both the company and its larger-than-life founder.

Art Van Vice President Diane Charles, however, promises that “nothing is going to change” in terms of Art Van’s commitment to charity.

“That’s what we like to do,” she says. The show will go on.

In the 58 years since Art Van Elslander opened his first store in what’s now Eastpointe, he and the company have donated tens of millions of dollars to charities and causes — everything from trifling three-figure grants to collecting and hauling 3 million bottles of water to Flint.

The chain’s most visible beneficiary is the parade, which Van Elslander literally saved 26 years ago. With the music on the verge of stopping at the city’s most iconic event, he wrote a $250,000 check.

A consistent corporate donor since then, Art Van stepped forward in 2013 and became the main sponsor, picking up an annual tab well into six figures. Until last year, Van Elslander himself rode in the procession. He ceded that role to sons Gary and David, Art Van executives who rolled down Woodward Avenue in convertible Mustangs, but he watched from an office building along the route.

“He gets it,” says Michaels, the parade’s president and CEO. Befitting of someone with 10 children and 35 grandchildren, “in all the conversations we’ve had, it’s always about the kids and families and memories.”

Van Elslander will tell you matter-of-factly that he rescued the parade. No boasting, no soliciting thanks; there was a need, and he met it. But “there’s so much he does that nobody knows about,” Charles says, and in an empire built on sofas, donations have become part of the fabric of the firm.

One campaign, the Art Van Charity Challenge, has awarded $8 million across eight years to nonprofits in the areas where Art Van has furniture or PureSleep mattress stores — Michigan, Toledo, Fort Wayne and Chicago. As part of the process, the charities have raised $24 million on their own.

The Power Company Kids Club of Pontiac collected $50,000 last year as the contest runner-up. The grant “underwrote the larger part of our summer programming,” says executive director John Gunn, helping to provide leadership training and also making sure at-risk children were fed two daily meals and a snack.

Charles says the challenge will continue under new owner Thomas H. Lee Partners.

“That’s going to be a relief,” Gunn says. “It’s huge for the community.”

Art Van has a contractual commitment to the Parade Company of two more years, and Michaels says he’s sure the spiritual commitment runs even deeper.

A new Art Van float is in the planning stages. The wizard and dragon will be replaced by November — but they won’t be forgotten, he says, and neither will the company’s roots.