Centurial Returns

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The trick to lasting a century or more in business, as 100 Michigan companies and institutions can attest, is offering a coveted product or service that spans time, generations, and conflicts — while benefiting from something as unpredictable as luck.

“It’s really quite simple,” says George G. Jerome Sr., chairman of the oldest company in Michigan — Roseville-based George Jerome & Co., a surveying and civil engineering firm founded in 1828 that’s persevered and prospered through six generations.

“A business is only as good as the people running it. It won’t last if you don’t listen to your customers and anticipate market shifts, like the one we’re in now.”

The companies that took early root in Detroit and Michigan had a few things going their way, including an abundance of natural resources — most notably water, which spurred a manufacturing industry that crafted ships, engines, stoves, railroads, and, of course, automobiles.

The latter industry made it possible for the first generation of autoworkers to send their children to college more so than workers in other regions. And in the two subsequent generations, the opportunity for young people to attend college has grown exponentially. The result: Michigan is home to one of the world’s great research, development, and educational hubs.

Need further proof? There’s a reason the Detroit Regional Chamber is the largest organization of its kind in the country, at more than 20,000 members. “Many people look at Detroit as the Motor City, and while that’s accurate, the auto industry has contributed to the formation of thousands of small businesses here,” says Richard E. Blouse Jr., the chamber’s president and CEO. “That makes it difficult for outsiders to navigate, but once you figure out who’s who and what’s what, Detroit is a very rewarding place to do business.”

With the recent slowdown of the Big Three automakers, some would say the Detroit region is finally becoming a true Midwestern town like Cleveland or Indianapolis. But for more than 80 years, Detroit’s economy was seemingly powered by rocket fuel as the automakers created untold wealth for thousands of small-business owners. That wealth has stood the test of time despite high taxes, often uneven or cumbersome regulations, and a diminished standing on the national and world stage.

And despite the region’s more recent struggles, Detroit and Michigan possess great potential — there are still plenty of natural resources, including 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, along with formidable sources of iron ore, limestone, gypsum, oil, lumber, cement, and agricultural products.

Institutional knowledge plays a part in the area’s success, as well. As the military looks to reorganize and downsize its capacity to fight major land, air, and sea battles in favor of rapid deployment to counteract small but formidable insurgencies, the Detroit region has garnered more than its fair share of contracts for specialized parts and systems.

“There’s no other place in the United States where the military can find such a collection of specialized businesses that can produce highly tolerant parts and systems for tanks, planes, military armaments, and security systems,” says Ken Rogers, deputy Oakland County executive and executive director of Troy-based Automation Alley, a highly touted technology business association.

That’s why metro Detroit has scores of companies that fulfill direct or indirect work for the military. What’s more, Warren is home to the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC), which employs more than 1,200 workers concentrated in mobility, robotics, materials, and numerous intelligence systems.

Perhaps surprisingly, Detroit, founded in 1701, is older than New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or New Orleans. But it was manufacturing that put Detroit on the map. In the early 20th century, the auto industry helped create a melting pot of cultures and associations. “What you have in Detroit is some of the largest and [most] diverse cultural groups, associations, foundations, and chambers of commerce in the country,” says Michael Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University in terms of national comparisons.”

The University of Michigan, which will celebrate its bicentennial in 2017, is the oldest nonprofit organization in the state. Not too far behind are the Detroit Business Institute (1850), Michigan State University (1855), Wayne State University (1868), and the University of Detroit Mercy (1877). Altogether, U-M, Michigan State, and Wayne State enroll more than 120,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. And they hold their own when it comes to drawing federal and state research projects; more than $1 billion is awarded to U-M on an annual basis.

“Detroit had a head start on a lot different things, but 180 years ago when we got started, it was still rudimentary,” says Jerome, whose great-great-great grandfather’s wife, Betsy, was related to George Washington. “Soldiers from the various wars (1770 to 1870) were often paid in land in lieu of dollars, and it was then that surveying became a very highly regarded profession. We also branched out into civil engineering, but it’s not easy. There’s a great deal of education involved in our industry, and the certification process is rigorous, as it should be.”

During the Great Depression, when civil engineering and surveying work was at a near-standstill, the company survived by taking on landscaping projects. “You do anything you can during a downturn,” says George G. Jerome Jr., the company’s president. “Throughout our history, we’ve done residential, commercial, industrial, and municipal work for individuals, companies, and government agencies. You’re always looking for the next growth market.”

Offering a steady dose of customer service is a common theme among the state’s centennial firms. For restaurant owners like Janet Sossi Belcoure, of Roma Café in Detroit’s Eastern Market, customer service can involve doing something as simple as picking up the phone at home, despite being exhausted after a long shift during the holiday season.

“It was December 1982, and I got a call that Frank Sinatra, who was appearing at the Fox Theatre, wanted to come in and take over the restaurant,” Belcoure recalls. “We were closed, but the staff was still there. So I got dressed, and we reopened the restaurant for Frank, Sammy Davis Jr., and Liza Minnelli. They stayed until 3 in the morning. It was a magical night.”

Apart from serving U.S. presidents, various members of Congress, the clergy, and business titans such as Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II, Belcoure says taking care of daily customers is the secret to the restaurant’s longevity (it opened in 1890).

“Part of our success is having the owner on the premises, my dad and great-uncle were here every day, and that’s what I do.

“Our staff is very loyal, and we’re loyal to them, which is why some people have been with us for 30 years or more. We definitely want to be in business for another 100 years.”

Belcoure also makes periodic trips to Italy to keep abreast of the latest food and wine pairings. “I may go to some cooking classes in Italy, or visit with the vineyard owners and sample the wines. One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that our patrons are more open to trying new things. That’s what makes the business fun.”

Naturally, offering a coveted product or service is paramount to lasting 100 years or more, whether goods are sold from a horse-drawn wagon or a well-appointed store. “I remember my grandfather (Harold M. Dittrich) used to say: ‘You’ve got to have inventory. You can’t sell from an empty wagon,’” recalls Shawn Dittrich, co-owner and vice president of Dittrich Furs, which was founded in 1893 in Detroit.

One of the nation’s largest and oldest furriers, five generations of Dittrichs have propelled the business through recessions, a forced move due to freeway construction, animal rights protests, and ever-changing tastes and demographics.

“A lot of planning goes into our business, whether you’re looking for a long-haired, full-length mink coat, cleaning, or storage,” says Harold (Hal) G. Dittrich, co-owner and CEO. “We have 20,000 coats in our vault. We maintain the vault temperature at a constant 34 degrees, which is expensive to operate. But it’s the only way to store minks and other furs. You also can’t have too much moisture, which is bad for the pelts.”

Shawn admits that luck has played a part in the company’s success, too. “When we moved from Grand River to New Center in 1965 (to make way for the freeway), the store wasn’t doing so well,” he says. “But with the money we got for the move, we made a go of it and survived.”

When business picked up in the 1970s, the Dittrichs opened a second store at Woodward and Long Lake in Bloomfield Hills. One challenge with the new store was deciding whether to build another vault, which at the time would have cost $1 million. The project was eventually dropped. “That [was even] a lot of money back then,” Shawn says. “We have a lot of trucks going back and forth to make ends meet.”

Staying ahead of the trends is another important facet of the business. Like many of their competitors, the Dittrichs rely on brokers to find the best furs. The finest sable in the world comes from Russia, Hal says, while the best minks come from the United States. “The classics never go out of style, but recent trends include laser engraving, knitting, and fur combinations,” he says. “The other thing, for us, is that every generation has stayed in the business. No one retires.”

In similar fashion, Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery has transcended time — but it’s no longer family-owned. Founded in 1903 by Mary Chase Stratton and Horace Caulkins, the business flourished right out of the gate by offering unique tiles, vessels, and wares. In 1907, the company moved from a stable in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood to a newly built Tudor Revival studio on Jefferson Avenue, across from Water Works Park.

After Stratton’s death in 1961, the ceramic-arts studio “made the slow transition from a family-owned business to a public institution,” says executive director Terese A. Ireland. “There were some early rocky years after Stratton passed on, but we’ve survived [thanks to] the good grace of our customers, trustees, staff, and members.”

Whether it’s an individual tile or a private or public installation, Pewabic Pottery can be found in more than 100 venues around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Closer to home, more than 50 outlets in Michigan carry Pewabic Pottery, including the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“We undertake around 130 architectural commissions each year, and we still use historic equipment, produce our own glazes, and make tons and tons of clay,” Ireland says. Internet sales have been on the rise, she adds, as have holiday sales — up 25 percent in 2009 from the previous year.

“The paradox of all the technology we see around us, is that people still yearn, perhaps more so, for hand-crafted items. The authentic ‘made in Michigan’ — or ‘made in Detroit’ — [claim] has resonance.”

“Plus, we keep introducing ourselves in classrooms, as well as holding classes ourselves, so that we get out in front of the next generation,” Ireland adds.

Back when Detroit was still a frontier town, Sidney Davy Miller, newly graduated from Harvard Law School and the University of Michigan, opened what is today the state’s largest law firm. Upon Miller’s arrival in 1852, the creation of the automotive industry in Detroit — the greatest enterprise of the 20th century — was still a half-century away.

“I like to think he rode in on a horse and went to work serving what was a very agrarian economy,” says Thomas W. Linn, principal and chairman emeritus of Miller Canfield. “Agriculture and lumber were the dominant industries, and the steam engines, the boats, and the stoves were still a ways off. It’s amazing to me that he served the firm for more than 50 years.”

Early on, Miller became the first attorney for the Detroit Savings Fund Institute, which offered people a safe depository for their savings. Because of a rash of fiscal mismanagement in the 1830s and 1840s, no commercial banking was available at the time. The institute eventually became Comerica Bank.

“One thing that helped our firm survive was strong leadership,” Linn says. “We’re a business firm, primarily, and while we had great leaders, we didn’t become what people know today as a law firm until Cleveland Thurber took it upon himself to reorganize the practice in the 1970s.”

Thurber, who was born in the White House, was the son of a prominent Detroit attorney who served as President Grover Cleveland’s private secretary. Under Thurber’s direction, along with his senior staff, the firm expanded into the fledgling bond markets in the 1940s.

Eventually, the firm’s bond practice helped establish hospital authorities, the nation’s freeway system, roads, schools, and the Mackinac Bridge. Today, with 350 attorneys specializing in more than 55 practice areas in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Poland, and China, the firm “is proud to call Detroit home,” Linn says.

A common denominator among many companies that have lasted 100 years or more was the ability of the founder — as well as family members or employees down the line — to juggle multiple aspects of the business. Such was the nature of Detroiter William P. Young, a packaging engineer and ambitious salesman who took the reins of what was known as the Absopure Ice Co., founded in Detroit in 1908.

“You could typically find my grandfather on the bottling line with his tools, either fixing something that was broken or conjuring up a way to speed up the line.”

Says Young’s grandson, William Patrick Young, vice president of sales and operation of what is now Absopure Water Co, “It was a family operation, and still is. My grandfather bought the company in 1956 after he stopped in to sell the previous owner a bottle washer. He continued to rep equipment and would work at Absopure at night. My grandmother ran the books.”

Eventually, William (Bill) C. Young, William Patrick’s father, took the reins. The company, now based in Plymouth Township, has expanded into multiple states, developed or purchased related companies such as Plastipak Packaging Inc., and created a technology center. Plastipak alone produces $2 billion in annual revenue and has an impressive list of clients spanning three continents — North America, Europe, and Brazil.

Perhaps Absopure’s fondest product is the five-gallon water dispenser, which was available in glass before modern technology provided for plastic in the 1970s. The introduction of plastic bottles in the 1980s, meanwhile, became a major asset to the bottom line.

While computer technology is often taken for granted, the need to store and disseminate information has been around for centuries. In 1870, a publisher of gazettes and business directories set up operation in Detroit to service the needs of 600 business- and tradespeople, as well as 17,500 residents.

“The foundation of the business is information, and it never goes out of style,” says Stephen R. Polk, chairman, president, and CEO of Southfield-based R.L. Polk & Co. Representing the fourth generation, Polk says fate played a part in the company’s success, albeit some 50 years after the business was founded.

In 1921, Ralph Lane Polk II, as directed by Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the future president of General Motors Corp., began producing a national vehicle directory that offered impartial statistical data on cars and trucks. “The directory launched us in the auto business, which today is the heart of our business,” Polk says.

But other dramatic changes were in store. In the 1950s and 1960s, Polk was one of the first companies to embrace computer technology. “I remember back then that we had people who would fly to Chicago with decks that could only be processed by the IBM data center in Chicago,” he recalls.

Today, Southfield-based R.L. Polk & Co. produces a treasure trove of industry data for those in the auto industry, including OEMs and suppliers, dealers and aftermarket companies, and insurance and financial firms. Numerous other industries are served, as well. The company has also generated growth by expanding overseas, including offices throughout Europe, China, Japan, and South Korea.

“I can only imagine what Detroit was like in 1870 when my great-grandfather started the business,” Polk says. “The automobile hadn’t been invented yet. But I use those early days as inspiration. How could you not?”

Find DBusiness magazine’s detailed list of Metro Detroit’s top 100 companies over 100-years-old here.

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