Finley: Top execs put heads together to fuel Detroit’s revival
Mackinac Island — A few of Detroit’s super CEOs are quietly working together to decide how they can collectively use their considerable cash and clout to further the city’s rebuilding.
The group, so informal it doesn’t yet have a name, has been meeting for the past year to plot strategy and set priorities. They are now engaged in helping Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan win legislative support for auto insurance reform, and to reopen and supply the Randolph Technical Center to train both students and adults for skilled trades jobs. And they intend to do much more.
“The business community has been uncoordinated and diffused,” says Gerard Anderson, chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, who began recruiting executives a year ago during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. “We can be more effective together. This is a great moment of opportunity for the city. We need to be coordinated to take advantage of it.”
It’s an elite membership — auto mogul Roger Penske; Dan Gilbert and Matt Cullen of Quicken Loans; CEO Mary Barra and President Mark Reuss of General Motors Co.; Chairman Bill Ford and Executive Vice President Joe Hinrichs of Ford Motor Co.; Cindy Pasky of Strategic Staffing Solutions; Christopher Ilitch of Ilitch Holdings; Daniel Loepp of Blue Cross Blue Shield; David Dauch of American Axle; Richard Manoogian of Masco; Jim Nicholson of PVS Chemicals; Wright Lassiter of Henry Ford Health Systems; venture capitalist Chip McClure; and Matt Simoncini of Lear Corp. The business titans are joined by Rip Rapson, head of the Kresge Foundation, and David Egner of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.
Egner says to think of it as a high-powered supper club where members dive into discussions of the city’s needs, and then commit to meeting them. The executives, he says, fill a void left when Detroit Renaissance became Business Leaders for Michigan and adopted a statewide policy focus.
“It really is as simple as people getting together to exchange ideas around topics to see if they can act in a collective way on solutions,” he says.
Except these people have deep pockets and really big muscles. When they ask for something, they expect to get it.
That’s why Duggan feels they can help him lobby for specific initiatives critical to the city’s success.
“They are highly committed,” Duggan says. “And they can make a lot of difference in key areas.”
Anderson says the idea came to him after hearing his fellow business leaders complain there was no forum where “senior private sector leaders could come together to discuss critical issues, coordinate our interactions and decide where we could jointly put our shoulders to the wheel.
“These are people who already do the lion’s share of the funding for various civic projects. So we stacked hands and agreed to pull the group together.”
Members established six priorities: Youth employment, workforce development, career and technical education, regional transit, economic development and placemaking projects that give the region its personality.
Membership is intentionally limited to encourage greater engagement by the individuals who are involved, and to avoid becoming a bureaucratic organization. They’ve met three times so far, with nearly unanimous attendance.
“We wanted to become effective first, larger later,” Anderson says. “We want to prove that we can work together and make change before we make it more complex.”
Rapson was skeptical when he was first approached by Anderson, fearing it would be hard to corral such large figures into a cohesive force willing to act on very targeted assignments. But, he says, “They are coming together very nicely. They have a real sense of what they want to do.”
The group is currently helping to negotiate a deal to reform Detroit’s no-fault insurance system with the goal of reducing insurance rates in the city by 30 to 35 percent, a change that will knock down a barrier to repopulating the city. And they are working with Grow Detroit’s Young Talent to employ more interns and teens this summer.
Notable is the strong presence of Detroit automakers, who since the 2008 economic collapse have had a limited civic role in Detroit.
“For a while they had to go internal to fix their businesses,” Anderson says. “Now they can focus on fixing the city.”
Fifty years ago, Detroit’s business leaders came together in the aftermath of the 1967 riot to attack the causes of the conflict. Since then, various initiatives have enlisted executive talent to assist the city.
But there’s rarely been such a concentrated group of CEOs working at their own direction to problem solve on behalf of Detroit. While they will align themselves with Duggan’s agenda, they aren’t directed or bound by the mayor. Nor are they acting in their own financial interests.
“You might presume with a group like this that we’re working on a business agenda,” Anderson says. “It’s really an agenda around the renewal of the city.”