The Century Club 2020

From construction to charity, and recycling to plumbing — along with an amazing concert hall — the challenge of lasting 100 years or more is a lesson any business can learn from.

The Century Club 2020

Auch Construction // Methodist Children’s Home Society // General Mill Supply Co. // Orchestra Hall // Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply

Auch Construction

Located in: Pontiac // Founded: 1908 // Employees: 105 // Revenue: $198M

Auch Construction Detroit building
At the beginning, Auch Construction was located above a storefront along Mount Elliott Street, near Gratiot Avenue, in Detroit. In 2018, Auch completed its new headquarters in downtown Pontiac. // Courtesy of Auch Construction

Detroiter George W. Auch had to face the reality that his teacher’s salary at a Lutheran school wasn’t enough to support the nine children he and his wife, Sofia, were raising in the early 1900s. To make ends meet, Auch and a business partner, Herman Winkler, started a construction business in 1908. Auch later invested in Belle Isle Creamery Co. and a Ford dealership.

“He was obviously very entrepreneurial,” says Vince DeLeonardis, president and CEO of Auch Construction, now a full-service construction firm in downtown Pontiac.

Winkler stayed with the business for the first 10 years, before leaving to pursue other opportunities. After his partner’s departure, Auch set the company up for steady growth by building private residences in Detroit, including mansions in the Boston-Edison and Indian Village neighborhoods, along with schools, churches, movie theaters, and banks. The company also helped build Historic Trinity Lutheran Church, the State Theater in downtown Ann Arbor, and a Fruehauf Trailer Corp. manufacturing plant.

Auch’s strong ties to Detroit’s German-American and Lutheran communities, and commissions from those groups, may have accounted for some of his early success. In fact, an early print advertisement for Winkler and Auch mentions his church membership. He also was president of the Detroit School Board and an officer of the National Education Association, and he was elected a city alderman (a forerunner to today’s city council).

The company weathered the Great Depression with residential contracts that already were in the works before the stock market crashed, subcontractor carpentry work from fellow contractor Otto Misch, and other commissions.

Auch Construction's current Pontiac location
Courtesy of Auch Construction

“It was really the world wars that presented some of the greatest challenges,” DeLeonardis says, citing a lack of manpower and materials that were reserved for military efforts.

The business was family-run and owned through the third generation of Auchs, but in 1994 employee Dave Hamilton acquired a majority share and restructured the ownership. He led the company until 2006, when DeLeonardis took over.

Today, K-12 and higher education renovation and construction make up the majority of Auch’s volume, at 60 percent. That’s followed by health care, 25 percent; municipal projects, 10 percent; and commercial, at about 5 percent. Most of the company’s projects are located within a 90-mile radius of its Pontiac headquarters, and Auch prides itself on decades-long relationships with clients that lead to repeat business.

The company moved from Detroit to Pontiac in 1985, where it occupied the offices of the J.A. Fredman Co., a general contractor it had acquired earlier the same year. More than three decades later, in 2017, it acquired a former dealership site from the RACER Trust. The 3.7-acre site at 65 University Drive now houses Auch’s 20,000-square-foot, one-story headquarters, which was completed in 2018.

The building was designed for maximum energy-efficiency that provides extensive daylight, and a lighting system that supplements rather than replaces available natural light; it’s projected to be U.S. Green Building Council LEED Silver-certified. In addition, natural swales in the parking lot manage stormwater runoff .

Auch projects in the last decade include renovations at Orchestra Hall, the addition of the Max M. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Detroit, the construction of three inpatient floors and a mechanical penthouse at Ascension Macomb–Oakland Hospital in Warren, and the 34th District Court building in Romulus.

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Methodist Children’s Home Society

Located in: Redford Township // Founded: 1917 // Employees: 160 // Budget: $10M

Methodist Children's Home Society
Courtesy of Redford Historical Society

Along with a legacy that includes the former S.S. Kresge dime stores and Kmart Corp., famed retailer Sebastian S. Kresge and his wife, Anna, still exert an influence on the lives of Detroiters through the Methodist Children’s Home Society.

Motivated by the plight of youngsters left without parents or guardians after the influenza epidemic of 1918, Anna Kresge helped buy a small house in Highland Park for 10 children. It was followed by the construction of a larger home in 1922 in what is now downtown Farmington.

In 1926, the agency adopted the name Methodist Children’s Home Society.

The next year, Sebastian Kresge arranged for a substantial grant from the new Kresge Foundation for the purchase of 28 acres of land and the construction of the first buildings that would comprise Children’s Village in Redford Township. The Hudson and Webber families, who were part of J.L. Hudson Co., and the Edsel Ford family, also pitched in.

Although the word “Methodist” is in its name, the society’s clients need not be of that religious denomination.

Originally serving both boys and girls, the residential facility became an exclusively male domain in the 1990s. At the time, the society’s residential population had shifted to include more teenagers, and emerging adults in close proximity to one another can be problematic. Girls who need assistance are referred to a residential program for females at Vista Maria in Dearborn Heights.

Methodist Children's Home Society today
Last year, the Methodist Children’s Home Society’s center at the Durfee Innovation Society in Detroit served 434 families by providing social services and infant supplies. // Photo courtesy of Methodist Children’s Home Society today

In addition to its residential program, which can accommodate up to 60 boys from ages 5 through 18, the society offers foster care and adoption services for males and females from birth. The nonprofit organization also operates the Independent Living Plus program for teenage boys, 16 through 19, who are aging out of the foster care system. Independent Living is also residential.

The transitional living program helps the boys prepare for an independent adulthood by teaching them how to perform tasks such as cooking and how to balance a bank account, along with life skills such as finding a job. They’re encouraged to be in school or working, or both.

“Unfortunately, young adults aging out of the foster care system are, more often than not, predestined for less-than-desired life outcomes due to the hardships of their past,” says Kevin Roach, CEO of the society. “Our Independent Living Plus program changes this trajectory by equipping each of our young adults with the tools, skills, and education necessary to lead independent, successful lives.”

In 2019, for the first time, teenagers in the Independent Living program bought and sold 200 Christmas trees as part of their workforce development training. The skill sets they learned included customer service, problem-solving, and how to interact with adults. The sales lot was open for two weekends after Thanksgiving, but it had to close earlier than expected because the trees sold out.

Also new in 2019 was the society’s presence at the Durfee Innovation Society in Detroit, which is housed in a former school that’s been renovated into a multifaceted community center by a separate nonprofit, Life Remodeled. The society’s Detroit program offers social services and workforce development.

The satellite office brings services to the clients, instead of the other way around. “Like Doctors Without Borders, this is social work without borders,” Roach says.

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General Mill Supply Co.

Located in: Wixom // Founded: 1917 // Employees: 30 // Revenue: $15M

General Mill Supply Co. truck
General Mill Supply Co. got its start in 1917, in Hamtramck, before moving to southwest Detroit. In 2005, the company built a recycling and processing facility in Wixom. // Photo courtesy of General Mill Supply Co.

During World War II, when prices inflated on the recyclable cardboard and rags Julius Rotenberg hauled to a paper mill in Monroe, he refused to cash in like some of his competitors did. With his son Manuel “Manny” Rotenberg flying Allied bombing missions into Germany, along with the general spirit of camaraderie that pervaded the country at the time, how could Julius live with himself if he profited from the war?

His ethics paid off in the end. “Because you did what you did, everybody in the region will have to sell through Julius Rotenberg,” the mill owner told him.

“It launched his business to a whole new level,” says Stu Rotenberg, his grandson.

After the war, Rotenberg continued the business with Manny and another son, Milton (Stu’s father). The company got its start in 1917 in Hamtramck before the family moved General Mill to southwest Detroit in 1950. The industrial parcel they acquired had been a lumberyard and then a scrap yard, and was in sight of the Ambassador Bridge.

Julius Rotenberg must have passed his recycling gene to Stu, now president of General Mill. The latter’s ascendency wasn’t a given, though. He knocked around college before holding a string of jobs and exploring the western United States. At some point on his journey he discovered his own entrepreneurial inspiration, thanks to the advent of computers.

In modern computing’s early days, instructions and data were input via stacks of paper cards with holes punched in them. After the cards were fed into a reader connected to a computer, which converted the sequence of holes to digital information, the stiff data cards were discarded. Those cards turned out to be a financial bonanza for Stu, who may have been among the first to realize they could be recycled.

General Mill Supply Co. Wixom facility
Courtesy of General Mill Supply Co.

Sitting behind the wheel of a pickup truck with a trailer attached, he made the rounds to companies in the 1970s, ultimately growing his business throughout Michigan and into parts of Indiana and Ohio. Stu ultimately used the money he earned from computer punch card recycling to put himself through Michigan State University, where he earned a degree in economics. Following graduation, he traveled throughout Europe and Israel for seven months. “When I came back in 1978, my dad took one look at me and said, ‘Now?’ ” recalls Stu, who brought his computer card recycling business with him.

In 1998, General Mill branched into recycling plastics, which proved to be a move that was fortuitous for growth. It also enticed the fourth generation of the family to enter the business.

Stu Rotenberg’s son, Josh, joined his father and his uncle, Robert Rotenberg, secretary and treasurer at General Mill, about 12 years ago after earning a degree from Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. “He was very opinionated about how my brother and I were running the business,” Stu says. “Turns out he was right.”

At MSU, Josh studied the science of plastics and polymers, which helped lead to improved operations and new revenue streams for General Mill.

Last year, the processor and broker managed 9,000 tons of paper and 14 million pounds of plastic. General Motors, Ford Motor Co., FCA US, and their Tier 1 and 2 suppliers, along with Meijer and Waste Management, are among its larger clients.

“(Josh is) hugely important now in helping us make changes that are vital to our future,” says Stu, who noted his son has a knack for managing employees and identifying when new equipment purchases are needed. “Now, at long last, (we have) our fourth generation. He’s all in, and he’s the future.”

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Orchestra Hall

Located in: Detroit // Founded: 1919 // Employees: 80 FTEs; 85 musicians // Revenue: $29M

Orchestra Hall
Courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

When the Detroit Symphony Orchestra wanted famed pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch as its maestro in the late 1910s, he insisted a first-class ensemble needed a top-shelf hall to call home.

The city’s cultural leaders must have wanted Gabrilowitsch — who was Mark Twain’s son-in-law — very badly. They hired C. Howard Crane, the architect who had consulted on the Detroit Institute of Arts and who drew up plans for the Detroit Opera House, Olympia Stadium, and the Fox and Majestic theaters, to head the project.

In what may be a record, the 2,000-seat Beaux-Arts-style Orchestra Hall was built in less than five months. Construction commenced on June 6, 1919, and the first concert took place on Oct. 23 that same year.

Just as Orchestra Hall owes its construction to an assertive musician, its continued existence is due to another musician who was unwilling to accept the status quo. The venue was scheduled for demolition in the late 1960s when Paul Ganson, a bassoonist for the DSO, mounted a successful campaign to save the institution, located at Woodward Avenue and Parsons Street.

“I think about it all the time,” says Anne Parsons, president and CEO of the DSO. “It could have been torn down so easily. Thank goodness for Paul Ganson, the orchestra itself, the board at the time, and the community for basically stepping up and revolting and saying, ‘No, we must keep this amazing space.’ ”

For its 2019-2020 centennial season at Orchestra Hall, in June 2019 the DSO partnered with the Detroit Historical Museum for an exhibit that runs through April 26; collaborated with Detroit Public Television to produce six webisodes in the “Orchestra Hall: A Centennial Celebration” series; and hired a new music director, Jader Bignamini.

Orchestra Hall interior
Orchestra Hall in Detroit is shaped like a shoebox, to promote sound over sight lines. The result is a space that offers nearly flawless acoustics. // Photo courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

At 43, Bignamini is the DSO’s youngest music director in 50 years. Parsons, who notes that wooing the younger generation to classical music is a challenge facing orchestras worldwide, says Bignamini’s age and engaging personality should send a message to the next generation of music lovers that the fourth-oldest symphony in America is for everybody.

The message that Orchestra Hall is a venue for everyone to enjoy was made clear after its transformation in 2003 into the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, which includes new space for musicians and administrative staff, increased public spaces for concert goers, and the 450-seat Peter D. and Julie S. Cummings Cube. The Cube hosts music of different genres, with a focus on jazz.

“To this day, we’re one of the few orchestras that has a major jazz series,” Parsons says.

Current jazz programming in the Cube recalls the decade of 1941-1951, when Orchestra Hall, under different ownership, was renamed the Paradise Theatre and became a venue for such musical royalty as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.

At the time, the DSO was playing at the Masonic Temple Theatre. It was a move that lasted 50 years, until Detroiters saved Orchestra Hall from demolition. The DSO moved back to its refurbished home, with its famed acoustics, in 1989.

If the jazz series makes this symphony a rarity, the DSO is completely unique in the world in that it offers every classical program free online via “Live from Orchestra Hall,” Parsons says. The free webcast, which is also available on demand for members, began in 2011 and recently surpassed 2 million views.

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Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply

Located in: Detroit // Founded: 1920 // Employees: 50 // Revenue: $21M

Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply
Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply in Detroit’s Midtown district offers scores of items for plumbing and bathroom fixtures, boilers, and more. // Photo courtesy of Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply

Before Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply, which got its start in Detroit a century ago, opened a showroom in Midtown in 2018, it was steadily losing customers to big-box home improvement stores and specialty hardware outlets in the suburbs.

Customers could buy rough plumbing items at Advance’s former nondescript store at Grand River Avenue and the Lodge Freeway in Detroit, which has since been closed, but to shop for decorative fittings and fixtures, they had to drive to the company’s showroom in Walled Lake. “Why would they drive 35 miles if they didn’t have to?” asks Joshua Moss, vice president of Advance.

With the a new 5,000-square-foot showroom along Cass Avenue in Midtown, where customers can see and operate decorative plumbing fixtures, sales overall were up an “unheard-of” 25 percent in 2019 compared with 2018, Moss says. During the same time frame, sales increased 5 percent at the Walled Lake location, where Advance still does more business than in the city. “We’re on fire in Detroit,” Moss says.

Wendy Moss, Joshua’s mother, who handles human resources, hires most of the new employees. Rounding out the family-owned business are Joshua’s brother, Justin, a vice president, and their father, Jeff, who serves as president.

Jeff Moss opened the Walled Lake location in 1990 under the leadership of his father, Ronald Moss. The patriarch took over the business after the sudden death of his father-in-law, Advance’s founder, Harry Chernick. Joshua Moss’ age was still in the single digits when he started visiting the store with his father on Saturdays. The younger Moss’ job back then was to make sure that cans lining the shelves were clean and their logos faced front and center. “We’re always about presentation,” Joshua says.

Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply
Courtesy of Advance Plumbing and Heating Supply

Chernick had established Advance’s original location in 1920. The 5,000-square-foot building had been halved, and then halved again, when the Lodge expressway and then a service drive were built in installments in the 1950s. At the end, the business operated a large counter space for contractors, while parts were warehoused at other locations.

In 2017, when the Ilitch family offered to buy the property, which was across Grand River from the MotorCity Casino Hotel, Jeff Moss asked for $2.8 million. Advance, he reasoned, needed that much to relocate the following year, add Detroit’s “first and only” decorative plumbing display space, install up-to-date computer and phone systems, and outfit a warehouse with new equipment. “My dad negotiated a wonderful deal,” Joshua Moss says.

With the contractor side of the business running smoothly, the Moss family took two years to refurbish the location at Cass and Parsons Street, which had historically housed an automotive body shop and a string of grocery stores. The 20,000-square-foot space includes a warehouse, offices, and counter space for contractors, along with the showroom. The award-winning front façade of the building was designed by D MET, an architecture and design studio in Midtown, and features a 1950s-era, Motor City vibe with lots of chrome, much like the bathroom fixtures inside.

Even as Advance warehouses 13,000 items in Detroit and sells the latest in plumbing fixtures and supplies with brands ranging from contractor-grade to luxury, it still carries the boilers, cast iron fittings, and radiator vents that have been stocked since Chernick’s day. People who are refurbishing Detroit dwellings can also find wall-hung lavatories, three-handle tub showers, and the smaller-sized sinks, toilets, and tubs common in some Detroit homes, along with fixtures suitable for grander settings.

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