Dr. M. Roy Wilson
President, Wayne State University, Detroit • Students: 27,326 • Budget: $631M
Why he’s a Champion of the New Economy
When Dr. M. Roy Wilson arrived on campus in the summer of 2013 to become Wayne State University’s 12th president, there were a handful of recently completed student apartment buildings, a business school in need of a new home, and lots of people working on research projects in individual departments. “There were silos in the various schools we operate, and in the various departments within those schools,” Wilson says. “Over the last three years, our research teams have become much more collaborative, and that has provided a much more enriching experience for our students, our faculty, and the greater community.” Wilson also worked out a deal to build a new business school — the Mike Ilitch School of Business — at the southwest corner of Woodward Avenue and Temple Street, immediately north of Little Caesars Arena (set to open in September). The business school, which will open in April 2018, was named after Ilitch and his wife, Marian, who provided a $40-million gift. Mike, who co-founded Little Caesars Enterprises, passed away on Feb. 10 at the age of 87. The $59-million project will include multiple classrooms, a 260-seat auditorium with room for vehicle displays, a trading room/finance lab, graduate and undergraduate services, a comprehensive career planning and placement center, an executive MBA suite, a café, and an expansive atrium, among other offerings. “It will really be a jewel in Detroit,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t popular when I first talked about it, but everyone loves it now.”
What impact will the Mike Ilitch School of Business have on the university and the business community?
The reason why I (thought) we should have a business school in the downtown area is comparable to why we have a medical school where the hospitals are. The students are that much better trained because they’re working within their chosen field. Soon after I got here, I was getting reports that the business community wasn’t as connected to us as they’d like to be. The new location is certainly one aspect of what we did to improve things, but we also improved our interaction with the business community in terms of learning about their needs and how, in part, that reflected on our curriculum. It’s important we hear from businesses about the skills and talents they’d like to see in our graduates, who we hope will eventually work for them. That’s what made things so exciting when we started working on the new school with the Ilitch family — and it goes two ways. (The Ilitch companies), and other businesses in the city and region, will get a steady stream of well-trained business school graduates who have been trained with general knowledge, but also, for example, very specific knowledge of the Ilitch business operations. Through internships and other programs, our students will get a very well-rounded education. That’s one reason why interest and enrollment in our business school is skyrocketing.
Soon after you arrived, you helped to instill team science and cluster hiring of scientists. How has that effort been going?
It’s going great. We’ve broken that silo mentality we had, but not completely. In our new iBio (Integrative Biosciences Center) Building (at Cass Avenue and Amsterdam Street ), we didn’t separate the space (so that) a portion was given to the medical scientists, another portion to pharmacy studies, and another area to another discipline. There are no separated areas, and now different teams work on projects such as how diabetes and metabolic diseases affect our urban communities. In addition to the pure medical aspects, there is psychology, social aspects, and the chemical imbalances of obesity to consider. It takes a team approach to tackle the problems that take into account the quality of life in our urban areas. We’ve really been organizing a team approach across so many things we do. And when we hire new faculty, we look for the best candidates in their respective fields who also embrace that team approach and have different perspectives. As a result, our research funding has grown more than 30 percent (since) 2013.
How have you improved student learning opportunities?
We’ve been putting more and more of our students in learning communities, where students with like interests live and learn together. A good example is the (historic) Thompson House (at Cass and Hancock Street), which was the home of our School of Social Work. We’re renovating the Thompson House into 60-some apartments for students (the apartments are scheduled to be completed in time for the fall semester) who are in the performing arts. They will all be together, they will study together, and they will be part of an overall learning community. It’s the same for students in medical, engineering, and our other programs. This means students will work together and not be by themselves. That’s why we’ve had such success by having students living on campus. We’re 98-99 percent full, and we’ve been renting places like the (nearby) St. Regis Hotel and other apartment buildings so our students can be together in their chosen disciplines. We like to encourage as much campus life as possible; we live in a nice neighborhood, and it’s safe. Soon (we will) start work on 800 new apartments along Anthony Wayne Drive.
What other areas of the campus are you working on?
The area around TechTown, in the north part of our campus, is really expanding. We had to do something with our (former) Criminal Justice building, which was an old Cadillac showroom. It was a very difficult building in terms of renovation prospects, but it’s beautiful — it was designed by Albert Kahn and built in 1920. It had been vacant for many years, and was pretty decrepit. We had to solve the parking problem, especially with TechTown nearby, and we were looking for a place to house our art collection, much of which is in storage. Peter Cumming (a developer) expressed interest, and we worked on a plan to build a parking deck (across Cass) so it will be part of a larger development that includes housing and retail, both in the historic building and the parking deck. It’s going to be a magnificent project at the north boundary of our campus. At Cass and Canfield Street, next to our University Towers, we’ve leased that land to Broder and Sachse Real Estate Services to bring in new housing, retail, a West Elms hotel, and parking. Now we’re going to take a little break and conduct a detailed master planning process so we’re not doing things as (they) come to us.
President and CEO, OPS Solutions, Wixom • Employees: 25 • Average Annual Grow Rate: 100%
Why he’s a Champion of the New Economy
Automation and assembly line production have long fascinated Paul Ryznar, president and CEO of OPS Solutions in Wixom. A former vice president of Detroit Diesel, Ryznar worked at night and on weekends in his basement to develop a projector-based software technology platform that guides workers with step-by-step instructions of assembly processes. In 2005, he launched what he calls Light Guide Systems, which utilizes overhead light from a projector to lead new and experienced workers through the proper assembly of an automotive component, an aerospace system, or a medical device. “We also recently launched Light Guide Medical, to assist hospitals and life sciences companies where there are a lot of manual processes such as cleaning a medical device following an operation,” Ryznar says. “Since hospitals are pretty standardized around the world, we see a lot of growth in this sector in the U.S., Europe, and beyond. We project that in the next two years, the medical sector will make up 50 percent of our (overall) business.” Ryznar and his team have also developed rolling workbenches, so the platform can be easily moved around an assembly floor or loaded on a truck for delivery to another factory.
How have you been able to expand overseas from your offices and lab in Wixom?
We have what we call channel partners in Italy, Germany, China, Mexico, and the U.S., and from those partnerships we’ve been able to serve customers in 13 different countries. In the next few months, we expect to be in around 20 countries because we just got an order from a large customer to install Light Guide Systems across their worldwide footprint. We’ve really created a new industry here, and a lot of our marketing comes from word-of-mouth and the request for information on our website. When we started, we did a lot of cold calling and had a presence at a lot of trade shows, but now many of our multinational customers are getting the word out internally throughout their global footprint. Typically, we develop a system for a specific client, they test it, and then it expands from there. We’re in the automotive, aerospace, electronics, agriculture, defense, and medical industries.
Does Light Guide Systems preserve and enhance jobs?
Yes. Initially, our customers come to us because they want to reduce mistakes on the factory floor and speed up the production process. Light Guide Systems is very much a job-creation and job-retention tool. We preserve jobs because, by using colored lights and simple instructions, our customers and their workers can build their products with high-quality precision — and they won’t see their workers replaced by a robot. In fact, the system works in tandem with an existing or new robot, especially where heavy parts are present. The person on the factory floor can work on an engine, for example, and then they direct a robot to do a more labor-intensive task, and then it goes back to the laborer for more work. We’re also working on the relationship between automation and humans in Chicago at the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, where we’re working with world-class assemblers like Boeing, Microsoft, and GE. Our system is imbedded in the institute, and with technology advancing so quickly, the working relationships between humans and robots is at the forefront of the assembly industry. In fact, our technology was inside the display exhibit of Universal Robots out of Denmark for the (recent) Automate Show in Chicago.
What are some of the new industries you’re exploring?
Perhaps the biggest industry sector going forward is defense, especially with all of the planned investment by the U.S. government. Defense contractors are starting to call us to begin to ramp up for all of the (expected) work. There are a lot of mission-critical parts and practices in defense, so the need to get everything right in the factory (to ensure) there are no problems in the field is paramount. In turn, we’re able to easily expand around the world in the automotive and medical industries, for example, since so much of our system uses colored lights and a limited amount of text. If you look at IKEA, they don’t even have any text in their assembly instructions; it’s all done with drawings. We’re the same way. The overhead projector lights up a bin, and it lights up where a bolt from that bin goes, and the worker can perform the task of screwing in the bolt in the proper place very easily. If there are lan- gauge issues, whether in Poland or China, we can plug into their systems and the workers there can utilize the keyboards they use every day.
What is the cost structure for customers?
From the low end, our prices start at around $10,000 per system up to $200,000 for different sensors and other automation that may be needed. The product is very scalable, so our customers can ramp up quickly with whatever their needs are. Once we have a purchase order, we can design and deliver a system and have it up and running within four to six weeks; sometimes the lead time is as short as two weeks. Plus, the system is very flexible. Since the projectors hang above the workspace from a truss or a beam, they can be removed, say, late Friday and be set up over the weekend somewhere else and be ready to go on Monday morning. We also developed rolling workbenches, where everything is integrated into a portable system. (The workbenches) can be rolled around easily and, in most cases, the projectors are mounted above what is typically a 6-by-3-foot workbench. We can project from underneath (a work surface), but most of it is projected from above.
Are there recent case studies that measure the platform’s efficiency?
A lot of our customers have seen similar results to a study that was conducted by Chrysler in 2014, which revealed assembly errors were reduced by 38 percent using Light Guide Systems over standard work instructions, while productivity (output) increased by 82 percent. The other benefit we see is how fast a new employee gets up to speed.And because you always have new parts, designs, and products coming out, it helps experienced workers, too. Plus, the system reduces overall stress. Think of it as (similar to) driving someplace you haven’t been to, and how much easier it is to get there using GPS. Or, put another way, you don’t have a factory engineer waking up at 2 a.m. wondering how he or she is going to meet an aggressive delivery schedule.
Frank Venegas Jr.
Chairman and CEO, Ideal Group, Detroit • Employees: 800 • Revenue: $300M
Why he’s a Champion of the New Economy
Frank Venegas Jr. turned luck into opportunity. After winning a Cadillac in a raffle in the late 1970s, Venegas drove the car around for a few days before selling it and using the proceeds to launch Ideal Steel in Howell. At first he sold and fabricated steel, but then branched out into demolition, grading, and other work as the building industry struggled during the 1981-82 national economic recession. Over time, Venegas launched Ideal Contracting, Ideal Utility Services, Ideal Surplus Sales, Ideal Setech, and Ideal Shield, all of which operate under Ideal Group. In 1996, Venegas moved his headquarters to the former Cadillac Motor Car Co. headquarters at Michigan Avenue and Clark Street. “We’ve been in business for 38 years now, and I can see the difference in working and being headquartered in Detroit,” says Venegas, chairman and CEO of Ideal Group. “We moved here 21 years ago, and to see what’s happening today as the city is rebuilt, and the impact it’s made on our ability to grow, is amazing.” Across its portfolio, Ideal Group works with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., FCA, DTE Energy, Barton Malow Co., Ilitch Holdings Inc., and many other companies. Ideal Group also has been a major supporter of community activities, including helping to fund educational endeavors such as Detroit Cristo Rey High School, Holy Redeemer Grade School, and Detroit Hispanic Development Corp., a nonprofit after-school program that includes a robotics laboratory.
How is the construction at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit coming along?
It will be the busiest job Ideal has ever done. It reminds me of when we worked on building Comerica Park — the involvement of our (construction) partners, the complexity of the work, and the pressure and excitement of knowing you’re working on a stadium that people will enjoy for years to come. When you’re working in Little Caesars Arena, you know they’re going to have an Opening Day faceoff (in October), and you always think about getting the job done. Normally, the people on the outside say it won’t be done in time, but we know on the inside that it will be done. The Ilitch family has really reached out to provide opportunities for Detroit-based businesses and workers. As we became more skilled, we landed more work. I remember at Comerica Park we were asked if we’d ever built a Ferris wheel. I said, “No.” And the response was, “Well, you are tomorrow.” And then we were asked if we’d ever built a merry-go-round. Again, I said, “No.” And the response was, “Well, you will be tomorrow.” Those things really helped grow our business. I remember before Comerica Park opened, there was a press conference with Mr. Ilitch and some people doubted the stadium would open on time. And I just knew our company and the other contractors had his back. We were installing the tigers you see atop the scoreboard at midnight the night before, in a misty rain. We didn’t leave that job until the day it opened, and we’ve been back adding things since then. At Little Caesars Arena, we didn’t do the super steel (trusses and other major components), but we’re fabricating steel parts and we’re working on all the buildings that are attached to or near the stadium. We just installed the last piece of steel for the large skylight (an enclosed atrium at the southeast corner of the arena, called The Via). We’re also doing the steel for the Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business (located immediately north of the stadium, and scheduled to open in April 2018), as well as concrete, digging, and other work with our partner, Barton Malow.
What other big projects are you working on?
We do quite a bit of work with General Motors, (and) not only on the contracting side. We’re there when natural disasters occur, such as that huge rain storm (in August 2014) that flooded quite a few buildings at GM’s Warren Technical Center. We worked around the clock for weeks to get everything back in service and we improved things, should it ever happen again. We’re also building, selling, and installing our new invention, a (10-by-10-foot) ballistic barrier wall that we’re introducing in Florida and at DTE Energy in Monroe. People were shooting out the electric substations with guns, so we designed and built these (metal) ballistic barriers that can stop bullets, whether single shots or .50-caliber multiple blasts. We have it patented and we manufacture them right here in southwest Detroit. It’s a saw-tooth design, so the angles of the wall deflect the bullets right into the ground. We can make it any way you want, so we could do 20-foot-long sections. The barrier wall allows wind to go through it, so temperatures don’t impact you if you need a square barrier . We can put doors through it, or put it on wheels and roll it around for portable protection if, say, a barricaded gunman was in a building or a house. We’re always inventing things and coming up with new processes. We have hundreds of patents. For Ideal Shield, which are plastic sleeves and bollard covers that go over metal poles that you see in parking lots or airports or at Wal-mart stores, that’s my invention. We can secure the poles to a foundation to prevent a truck from driving into a building, and we can make them in numerous colors and styles so we can brand them for McDonald’s or Comerica Bank. We sell them all over the world.
What inspired you to support the Robotics Center at the nonprofit Detroit Hispanic Development Corp.?
Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway, inspired me. He’s also invented medical devices, and he started FIRST Robotics, where schools compete every spring on building a working robot that has to perform a set of common tasks or challenges. Three years ago we started the robotics lab, for the students to learn and have fun after school. The first year we didn’t have enough time, but the students still built a working robot in a month. The second year our team went to the world championships, and we went back there the third year. We have 50 mentors from GM who bring in their engineering talent, as well as technical assistance from MIT, Stanford University, Cranbrook Educational Community, and the University of Michigan. There are about 500 students we work with at Detroit Cristo Rey High School and Holy Redeemer Grade School, and there are about 1,000 students in southwest Detroit that we work with or support. They are our future, so we have a responsibility to prepare them for their careers. Right now we’re building a library at Holy Redeemer, and the books are cool, but the students can check out STEM games and art projects. It’s been a big hit with the students so far.
President and CEO, Walker-Miller Energy Services, Detroit • Employees: 60 • Revenue: $27M
Why she’s a Champion of the New Economy
Following 18 years in the electrical engineering field, Carla Walker-Miller struck out on her own in 2000 and founded Walker-Miller Energy Services in Detroit. At first, the company served as a non-stocking distributor of large power equipment, and the business grew steadily until the global economic meltdown hit in 2008-09. “During those first few years I felt like a small business owner, and we were profitable and growing organically,” says Walker-Miller, president and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services. “Then in 2009 the bottom dropped out, so I had to lay off all of my employees, my contracts were canceled, and I was $250,000 in debt.” With twins in college, a home and a 401(k) plan she says had been “devalued,” and no new business on the horizon, Walker-Miller says she was determined to pay off her debt. “Instead of being a small business owner, I became an entrepreneur who had to make something work no matter what,” she says. “I had to grind my teeth, look good while doing it, and find a path to success. That’s an entrepreneur. You have to look good and talk about the positives, because people want to invest and work with someone they see as being successful.” To propel revenue, Walker-Miller pivoted to the emerging energy mandate and the resulting business opportunities it would bring. Signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2008, the mandate called for 10 percent of the state’s electricity to come from wind and renewable sources by 2015 (which the industry has met). Last December, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation setting a new mandate of 15 percent by 2021, and utilities have to aim for a goal of 25 percent by 2025. “I’ve always had a passion for the residential market, so I focused on energy audits in 2009 and grew the business from there,” Walker-Miller says.
How did you come back after the bottom dropped out?
It was tough. I didn’t want to tell my husband know how bad things really were. I had dry mouth and sleepless nights, but I was determined to get back to zero (debt-free) — which I did, but it took some time. If I couldn’t make it work, I was going to get another professional job, which I did for a little while. To get things going again, I followed the (2008) energy mandate very closely, and I knew once it passed it would serve to boost energy efficiency in the state. I know there’s an energy burden even today, where people struggle to afford energy, and many families — especially in Detroit, where you have lower property values relative to other cities — are trying to make everything work. Natural gas, electric, water, and transportation combined are often higher than a (monthly) car payment or a home note, and I had long been training people to use less energy. Energy savings is an economic development tool. If you reduce energy waste, you’re spending less and you have more resources for your family or business. I hired a certified energy manager in 2009 and started to perform energy audits. It took a while to get my footing, (but) by 2012 the company was profitable again and we started our growth trajectory.
How is the company performing today?
We have offices in Detroit and Grand Rapids, and a smaller office in Ohio. We work with collaborative partners at utility sites; we work with residential, commercial, utilities, and institutions to reduce energy costs; and we provide the needed (energy-saving) equipment or have access to it. Going forward, we have an incredible opportunity for growth. Energy efficiency is the foundation of renewable energy, but before you do solar panels or wind turbines, you want your building to be energy-efficient so you don’t need as much load (power). Solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world right now. If you look at people that sold paint 10 years ago, they’re now selling more environmentally friendly products because the country is going green and that’s what people want. It’s the same in the energy field. We have to use less of it for the good of our families and our communities.
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in Nashville in a family with 11 sisters and brothers. My parents, who were rock steady, were two of the most organized people I’ve ever seen. Our parents were big planners, but I didn’t realize it then. I attended Tennessee State University and earned an electrical engineering degree. The reason was twofold: One, we needed the money really badly, and two, I got a scholarship. I remember asking my guidance counselor what four-year degrees outside of being a doctor or a lawyer paid the most, and she said engineering. But she discouraged me. Then I found out there were full ride scholarships, so that’s what I did. I met my husband when I was living in Atlanta, and we moved (to Detroit in 1990) when the kids were 3 years old.
How do you balance the demands of the marketplace?
Our core competency, or our sweet spot, is energy waste reduction in urban environments. Everyone needs to know about energy efficiency, whether you’re an entrepreneur or you’re working in a building, even if you don’t actually pay the (energy) bills. You actually do pay an energy bill indirectly if you work in a building, and I like to say everyone is a building manger. For our commercial work we not only decrease energy expenditures, but we improve the comfort and health of buildings. As long as we provide extraordinary customer service, we’re going to be growing. We have a great team and a culture that provides for flexibility, but we value stewardship and we boldly go where we need to go. As weather patterns change and as buildings age, we continually review where our customers are at in terms of energy usage and efficiency. There are always new products and services coming out, so we stay at the forefront of emerging technologies and we work with our clients not for just one or two visits, but over many years.
What’s next for the company?
We’re developing a net zero building, meaning it generates as much energy as it uses and isn’t dependent on the grid. We’re acquiring a former horse stable used by the Detroit Police Department in New Center and renovating it into our headquarters. We’re going to call it Emerald Stables, and we’re aiming to open it in April 2018. It will be part of my legacy of showing young urban women that energy and technology are great fields of study and careers. At the end of the day, a skilled trade doesn’t always require a four-year college degree.
Steven B. Ambrose
Vice President and CIO, DTE Energy, Detroit • Employees: 10,000 • Revenue: $10B
Why he’s a Champion of the New Economy
On March 8, DTE Energy experienced the worst storm in its history, with more than 800,000 customers losing power. Between 80 percent and 85 percent of the outages were caused by downed trees and falling branches. The problem was compounded by wet soil, which affected the root systems of the trees. “We knew the storm was coming and we were expecting outages, but never at the level we experienced,” says Steven B. Ambrose, vice president and CIO of DTE Energy. “There was an unbelievable amount of damage, and we were able to mobilize very quickly and get most everyone back on line by that Sunday night (the storm happened the previous Wednesday).” Ambrose says the utility’s program of installing smart meters for both business and residential customers in recent years helped pinpoint where the biggest outages were occuring. “We were able to get our crews to the areas of greatest need right away, or otherwise getting the power restored would have taken longer,” he says. In addition to smart meters, DTE Energy has been working with private companies to introduce new technology product offerings like Powerly, where customers can manage the energy use inside their homes or businesses via a smartphone or a tablet. The utility also introduced remote payment kiosks that give customers the ability to pay their bills from inside a Rite Aid drug store. Other new products will be introduced in the coming months for landlords, along with commercial and industrial customers.
What was it like for you and your team during and following the wind storm?
That day was a different day for all of us. I remember being in a meeting with our vice president of distribution outages, and we were just in shock with what was going on. On one side, we have to support our customers, and it was quite an experience to see those numbers (outages) climb so quickly. Since so many customers now interact with us online or through an app, we saw volumes that were 20 times higher than we have ever seen before. We were monitoring our internal technology gauges, and normally (during bad weather) we would get 200 to 300 outage notices per second — but during the wind storm, it was spiking as high as 4,000 outages per second. I know 18 months ago we set out some high-water marks for the worst-case scenario, and we set those at two to three times what we normally experience during the worst storm. On the other side, my team supports our operations internally, so the crews can do what they need to do in the quickest and most efficient way possible.
What were the lessons learned from the wind storm?
We felt really good that we were able bring a lot of hardware in to get all of our systems online in 24 to 36 hours. The overall outages didn’t go away that quickly, but once we had our systems up and running, things went a lot smoother. Our mobile app did better and we got that up very quickly, and the website came up right after that. We know (in recent years) our customers have been shifting from traditional channels (phone calls) to online channels, and with the move to online platforms, we found our customers really want to interact with us. In the past, in a bad weather situation we would get a lot of calls — and while we did get a lot of calls, because our app and website were just overloaded. There were crazy volumes, but we did get a big boost (in turnaround times) with the automated meters. It was a good lift because we could use (our sensors) to better manage the outages, in terms of where to send crews where there was the greatest need.
Are there ways the grid can be better secured from storms, such as burying more electric lines?
Hardening the grid is more traditional, and it requires simple things like trimming or removing trees from the (electric) right-of-ways. After the first 24 hours of the storm, we knew this was going to be a marathon and not a case of taking two days to fix everything. We have a crisis plan for super storms, so we cracked that open and we followed it. It was long days and I was communicating between the different teams, so everything worked in terms of making sure the front lines were equipped and making sure, internally, everyone’s needs were being met in terms of what they needed to do. Overall, it took nine days to get everyone back with power, and 90 percent by that Sunday night. There were a few more difficult spots to bring back (such as in Allen Park, where several 1,200-pound electric poles had to be replaced).
How is Powerly doing, the smart home technology company DTE launched in 2015 in partnership with Vectorform in Royal Oak?
We brought Vectorform in and we said: “Let’s innovate.” From there, we got the idea to create a new platform to complement our automated meter system, and that’s how we came up with Powerly, which is based in Royal Oak. We’ve had 250,000 downloads, and now people are able to better manage their power consumption via their smartphones and tablets. We also saw the opportunity to sell the system to other utilities, and right now there are two large utilities that have already gone through the test stage and are moving forward on it. We have huge demand because people like that everything is at their fingertips. It helps people who are looking to save money, are green-conscious, or are techies. There’s also a budget-tracking feature where people can set an amount they want to spend each month on their utility bill, and they can see their energy usage in real time.
What other new IT offerings are coming to DTE, whether to the grid or for business or residential customers?
We’ve been working on a new landlord utility management capability, and on the business side we’re working on a new commercial industrial web portal. We’ve been working with our business customers in recent months to shape what the capabilities will be on the website, and what people would like to see in the way of features. We also introduced payment kiosks with DivDat in Ferndale. It allows our customers to pay their bills in a convenient manner, rather than waiting in line at one of our facilities. It’s been a tremendous success. Detroit Labs developed our core app. We believe it’s better to partner with outside experts on these projects, so we get the latest offerings to our customers.