The Century Club
Along with other fresh arrivals from nearby farms and the faraway South, these new, European immigrants were headed for factories and other businesses that were building a global reputation for producing industrial merchandise and products.
Detroit was already the leading maker of cast iron stoves, played host to a glut of other small shops that made a profusion of goods, and was home to the world’s largest provider of automobiles. There seemed to be no limit to what Detroiters could accomplish.
Often, the business activity that made this ferment and growth possible was the work of young men with ideas, the ability to innovate, and the tenacity to bring their visions to full fruition. Prior to and during 1911, such men launched firms like National Bronze Manufacturing, Detroit Tube Products, Chevrolet, Armaly Brands, and Doetsch Environmental Services, and created vital cultural institutions like The Players Club and the Detroit Zoological Society — all of which continue to operate today. The pioneers of these institutions and businesses have long since passed, but their legacies persist, with some still run by the same family.
Fred Conway, who now co-owns National Bronze Manufacturing, was in his early 20s in the 1970s when his father, Dean, and his uncle, Paul, began grooming him to take over their family business. Today, as the company celebrates its centennial, Fred and his partner, Bill Austerberry, recall how their productive partnership was almost sabotaged before it began.
When Paul suggested that Austerberry, a nephew by marriage, become part of the company, the idea didn’t appeal to Fred. He had agreed to join the company only if he could take over when his father and uncle were ready to call it quits. But he reluctantly went along.
“I said, ‘I thought I had an agreement,’ ” Fred recalls telling his uncle. After grudgingly agreeing to let Austerberry into the company’s inner circle, Fred crafted a secret plan: “I was gonna run him out.”
His strategy? Give Austerberry the worst possible job, in the hope that he wouldn’t be able to handle it and would quit.
At the time, National Bronze, located on Detroit’s east side, operated a foundry and cast parts in molds made of sand. Once the castings had cooled, it was the job of the “shake-out man” to clean them. The pieces were hot and still smoking, and the sand had to be beaten off. It was dirty, hot, heavy physical labor.
“I watched day to day, to see if he (Austerberry) was going to show up in the parking lot,” Fred says with a smile. “But as it turned out, Bill was the best shake-out guy we ever had.”
The foundry’s gone now, shut down in favor of machining products from bronze that is cast elsewhere. But Austerberry stayed, and in 1984 the pair became partners and bought the business.
They kept the company near Mount Elliott and Gratiot for another 18 years, in a building that started as a stable for horses. By 2002, however, after more than 82 years of service as a factory, “the building, frankly, was a disaster,” Austerberry says. So National Bronze moved to an industrial area in Clinton Township.
Today, National Bronze arguably maintains the largest bronze bar and tube plate inventory in Michigan. The company manufactures and distributes to a variety of industries — transportation, machinery, heavy equipment, aerospace, and military. With one partner tested by the intense heat of the factory floor, and the other by the sudden change in the deal he thought he’d clinched, Austerberry and Conway are part of a rare breed. “Why is the second generation more likely to fail than the first?” asks Fred, who then answers his own question. “How often would the second generation have the same passion that the founders had?”
Therese Bellaimey, CEO of Detroit Tube Products, can go Conway and Austerberry one better.
The 53-year-old Detroiter is the third generation of her family to run the company that sits just west of the Ambassador Bridge. Her grandfather, Henry E. Bellaimey, set up business in his mother’s former horse stable in 1911 to make fuel and cooling lines for the engines that powered the boats he raced on the Detroit River.
Henry, a third-grade dropout who took correspondence courses to learn physics and chemistry, made his own machinery for bending the tubing. Some of that machinery, as well as other components made by Bellaimey’s son, Henry E. Bellaimey Jr., are still in use at the company. Staffing his quality control department early on were the physics and engineering professors at the University of Michigan, who would look over the plans he unrolled on their desks in Ann Arbor. Soon, he was turning out custom work and small runs for the marine and automotive industries, eventually specializing in engine parts for Detroit Diesel.
Perhaps surprisingly, he never patented the machines. “I think he was focused on, ‘What could I do to make my work easier?’ ” Therese says. “He wasn’t out to make a buck on the machines.”
Soon after her grandfather died in August 1941, the company was essentially nationalized for war production. Therese Bellaimey’s father, armed with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Detroit, became general manager. His first task was to entirely redesign processes and machines so women, the elderly, and teenagers could produce parts for PT boats and B-24 Liberator bombers.
The new general manager and his workers kept getting draft notices, so their clients wrote letters in support of their deferments, pointing out their vital role in the war effort.
“We cannot subscribe or tolerate a condition of this nature, as Detroit Tube products has been our main source of supply for a period exceeding 25 years,” wrote G.L. Conklin, purchasing agent for the Sterling Engine Co. in Buffalo, N.Y., in March 1944. “Our own money and Navy money has been expended in the manufacture of various types of special tools necessary to complete the assembly of various types of oil pipes, water pipes, manifolds, etc., which eventually enter into construction of Admiral and Coast Guard engines for the Navy, as well as the Army.”
The war opened up markets beyond Michigan for Detroit Tube, including Hobart Corp., a food service equipment manufacturer in Troy, Ohio. Hobart remains a major customer.
Therese Bellaimey had dabbled in ad agency copywriting and digesting legal transcripts before the memorable day in 1990 when she suggested a solution to a personnel problem her dad faced. “Before I knew it, here I was,” she says. She worked side by side with her father for 17 years, until his death in 2007.
Therese Bellaimey read from the same conservative fiscal management pages as Conway and Austerberry at National Bronze.
“ ‘Flash’ is not in our vocabulary,” she says, adding that Detroit Tube carries “not a penny” of debt. That’s one reason why, Bellaimey says, 2007 and 2008 were “fabulous” years. She didn’t lay off anyone during the current recession; instead, the doors were locked every Friday for more than a year, spreading the necessary cutbacks between everyone.
One of her values for success is to focus on customers’ needs. She shares this bit of advice: “Ask yourself, ‘If this is really what they want, how do we get there?’ ”
EARLY ENVIRONMENTAL MEASURES
To find a role model for how to survive a recession, look no further than Doetsch Environmental Services of Warren. The company survived the Great Depression as well as every other economic fluctuation since it began in 1898 — all while remaining a family operation.
“The company was founded on quality values. Through the years, we did not waiver from these,” manager Joe Schotthoefer says. “Without this longstanding reputation, it would be very difficult to employ five generations of family.”
Doetsch Environmental Services provides inspection and wet and dry cleaning for oil spills, hazardous waste, solid waste, and sewer lines. One key to its success has been its desire to pioneer cutting-edge technologies to municipalities, manufacturing facilities, power plants, foundries, chemical plants, and refineries — all while continuously improving its traditional services.
For example, the company was Michigan’s first to introduce an electric sewer machine in the late 1920s, when such work was done in a manhole with a bucket. The company automated the system by attaching a bucket to a cable and anchoring it to the manhole for debris removal.
It also introduced hydraulic sewer cleaning to Michigan in the 1970s through the use of combination machines, and recently launched its latest process, which uses recycled sewer water for cleaning and requires no bypass pumping. The procedures help clients conserve water.
“All of (our family’s) generations have been focused on completing the job we were contracted to perform,” Schotthoefer says. “Many times that meant going above and beyond the scope — often [without being] compensated for the extra effort — to complete the job and satisfy the customer’s needs.”
For a family business to succeed, it takes exceptional effort to move forward with one mind, in spite of individual differences. Business decisions aren’t always “black and white,” and often become family decisions, Schott-hoefer adds. At any given time, there are three generations of family members that are very active in Doetsch Environmental Services management, and Schotthoefer likes the role of being the idea “incubator.”
“It helps that the older generations give the younger generations opportunities to experience services outside of the norm, but under a watchful and guarded eye,” he says. “There also is great respect given to the older generations and the hardships [they] persevered [through] to remain a solvent company today.”
DRESSING UP AND DRINKING BEER
The wealth manufactured by people such as Henry E. Bellaimey and the founders of National Bronze created a new leisure class in Detroit. They were people with the time, money, and desire for more cultural pursuits that would help them fit in with the “older money” class. The 1911 founding of The Players Club, a men’s amateur theater group, was one result.
The club originated during a dinner hosted by Guy Brewster Cady, a former wholesale grocer and advertising designer, at Richter’s restaurant, a favorite hangout of Detroit News staffers. Its membership through the years has included such giants of Detroit business as Edsel Ford, Gari Stroh, John Lodge, Walter O. Briggs, James Couzens, Henry T. Ewald, and Al Larned, along with notables like Edgar A. Guest, George Pierrot, William “Bill” Kennedy, Edward V. Rickenbacker, and David DiChiera.
During its 100 years, the size of the club, limited to 425 men, has varied — shrinking during the Depression and World War II, for example, and swelling in the 1950s. Currently, it has nearly 175 members. They come from all walks of life, and hold jobs ranging from pipe fitters to professors. Its motto, “Nunquam renig,” loosely translates to “None shall refuse,” and is interpreted to mean a member will accept and complete any assignment.
The Players Club was founded at a time when amateur theater was flourishing, private clubs were eschewed for more egalitarian groups, and new industry was producing a Detroit leisure class with the time and money for such endeavors, according to Detroit on Stage, a history of The Players by Marijean Levering.
One-hundred years later, the club retains its original function: to give members the opportunity to produce plays in the Elizabethan tradition, where men play all the parts. Its season runs from October through April, beer is the official drink, and formal dress at performances is mandatory.
“One, it was to have a good time,” says past president Jim Turnbull, a member since 1979, on why men have joined The Players over the years. “And second, it was a chance to dress up.”
The organization has had an influx of younger members in the past two years, and club leaders want to create a more ethnically and racially diverse group. Women are still not allowed to join, but are welcome at any monthly performance, referred to as a “frolic,” except in November, when it’s members-only.
“The fact that we’ve held on this long is a pretty amazing feat,” says president Henry Nelson, a member since 1986. “We wonder sometimes how long we’re going to go.”
A SOFT SPOT FOR ANIMALS
Some of the men tipping beer mugs and memorizing lines at The Players had an interest in creating another Detroit cultural attraction — a zoo.
The Detroit Zoological Garden debuted in 1883 after Detroiters opened their hearts to the animals in a bankrupt traveling circus, but these 20th century men wanted a “grand zoological park.”
“I love the fact that the zoo comes from a community that tried to rescue animals in distress,” says current director Ron Kagan. “I think that has been a thread throughout the zoo’s history.”
Men like Ford and Larned, among others, helped form the Detroit Zoological Society in 1911. Walter Briggs, a Players Club member and eventual owner of the Detroit Tigers, went on to become president of the Detroit Zoological Commission, formed to further develop and operate the zoo.
The Zoological Society’s early members spent a lot of time scouting the city for a good location for their new project. One property they bought and later sold became the site of the Ford Rouge Plant.
Eventually Society members, using their own money, bought 100 acres at Woodward and 10 Mile in Royal Oak, where the zoo is today.
On the surface, a trip to the zoo is meant to be fun. But underlying that experience, Kagan hopes, is the inspiration to appreciate and protect wildlife. The zoo was a pioneer in uncaged animal exhibits that mimic natural habitats. It’s also where the first incubated ostrich egg was hatched, and the first captive polar bear birthed a cub.
When the city of Detroit stopped subsidizing the society in 2006, the Zoological Society — which operates the Detroit Zoo — started working to convince voters in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties to pass a millage to keep the place in business. They succeeded in 2008.
“Without regular support we couldn’t see any way to fund the zoo so it would be a quality experience for the animals and the visitors,” Kagan says. Now the Society is promoting a millage increase to offset revenue lost due to reduced property values.
The zoo also depends on individual donors and corporations such as DTE Energy and Masco Corp. As for the future, Kagan recently traveled to Antarctica to gather ideas for a new penguin conservation center, now in the conceptual stage, but which is expected to open in three years.
“It’ll be more dramatic than the Arctic Ring of Life,” says Kagan, referring to the zoo’s popular polar bear exhibit, North America’s largest, which features a clear tunnel that travels underground through the marine environment.
John Armaly, the third generation of his family to work at Armaly Brands, now based in Walled Lake, says the consumer and industrial products company — it acquired Brillo last year, and has offered natural and polyester resin sponges since 1908 — has survived numerous challenges by sticking to one key ingredient.
“We work hard, but in a smart way,” says Armaly, president and CEO. His brother, Gilbert, serves as vice president of manufacturing, while his sister, Ann Marie, is CFO.
“We have good products that people want, and the Brillo brand has 93-percent consumer awareness worldwide,” Armaly adds. “But we never take that for granted. Quality and customer service are our top priorities.”
Founded in the Bahamas, the company moved to Detroit in the 1920s and counted Ford Motor Co. and the S.S. Kresge Co. as its early clients. The business survived the Great Depression, in part, by working with its customers. When Kresge started paying for sponges in K-Script instead of cash during the 1930s, Armaly Brands extended the script to its workers, who would in turn shop at Kresge stores.
“After World War II, a red tide destroyed much of the raw material supply for the sponge industry, so we had to pull back and service our best customers,” Armaly says.
With last year’s acquisition of Brillo, Armaly doubled its size and picked up a manufacturing facility in London, Ohio. As it stands, the company has 102 employees, half of whom work in Walled Lake.
Beth Gotthelf, an attorney who represents Armaly and several other family-owned businesses, says one reason companies last decade after decade is continuity. “The businesses that survive have been able to adjust their product offerings to market conditions,” says Gotthelf, a shareholder with Butzel Long in Bloomfield Hills, and general counsel of the Michigan Association of Metal Finishers in Lansing. “Family businesses also are more open to new ideas, whether it involves technology, production efficiencies, or social networks.”