Assembling Citywide Change

Not many offices keep a shiny Ford Mustang on site for their employees to drive and show off to their families.

But that red convertible is one of the perks of working at Detroit Manufacturing Systems, where the iconic vehicle’s instrument panel is assembled. The company’s president and CEO, Andra Rush, brought it onto the factory floor both as inspiration and a catalyst to build community among this newly assembled workforce.

“When we had the opportunity to introduce the Mustang, I wanted everyone to take that vehicle home to show their kids or their spouse. They could say, ‘This is what I do at DMS.’ That way, when we roll it out, it’s not my car. It’s our car,” Rush said.

Empowering her employees -“ to drive, to make something, to have a job that will become a career -“ is among one of the reasons Rush considers Detroit Manufacturing Systems a game changer. It has the potential to change the block, the neighborhood and the city where it does business, she believes. The impact of that statement is not lost on Rush, who despite her endless hours and commitment to her job sits in awe of her workforce.

“Some of them had to get their license to be able to drive (the Mustang). They hadn’t had a license in years because they had been out of work for so long,” Rush said. “Some of our team members are taking three buses to get here and have to leave their house two hours before their shift begins to make it every day. It’s those little things that we take for granted that are very big and impactful here.”

Their commitment to Detroit Manufacturing Systems reflects the commitment Rush feels toward the company, her work in the city and toward her entrepreneurial and charitable efforts. Friends describe her as a powerhouse of energy and business savvy. Let’s put it this way: If you haven’t heard of Andra Rush yet, you surely will in the months and years to come.

Her name, reputation and efforts to turn around Detroit have put her moniker in the same rankings as Gilbert, Ilitch, Karmanos and Penske. She is friends with Mayor Dave Bing, proudly displaying their photo together in her DMS office, an executive suite with panoramic windows that overlook the factory floor. Her other favorite portrait, a snapshot capturing Rush’s November meeting with President Barack Obama, hangs just a few feet away.

In February, Rush was honored again, named among the top 100 world-class manufacturing companies and individual leaders in Frost & Sullivan’s prestigious Manufacturing Leadership 100 Awards. Rush, who was recognized as a Manufacturing Entrepreneur, was listed among other luminaries including Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally.

Besides her work at DMS, Rush is owner of the Rush Group, a family of companies and the largest Native American-owned business in the United States. That includes Rush Trucking Corp. as well as Dakkota Integrated Systems, which also manages the complete assembly and sequencing of integrated automotive interiors.

The mother of three also is generous with her time. Rush’s community board leadership includes the Minority Business Roundtable, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Detroit Economic Club, Child Help of Michigan, Current Motor, Michigan Women’s Foundation, Chrysler Supplier Advisory Council and the General Motors Global Supplier Council.

These days, her focus is on guiding Detroit Manufacturing Systems through one of the fastest and most ambitious launches in automotive history. Long story short: She alongside partner Faurecia signed the papers on the project in June 2012. DMS opened its doors one month later. In fact, the partnership got to work so fast retrofitting an old printing property off of I-96 into a working factory that the old owners were still moving their machines out as employee lockers and workstations were moving in.

All in all, Rush and her partners are investing nearly $30 million and ultimately adding more than 500 new jobs in Detroit. Last month, DMS moved closer to that job-creation goal, added a third shift, hiring 180 new workers at the facility, which assembles and manufactures injection molded interior trim components. Some of these workers had been out of work for years. Now, they are receiving on-the-job training, educational opportunities and the kind of encouragement that changes a trade into a profession.

This year, DMS estimates it will ship about 1.2 million parts to customers, primarily Ford. It will assemble a variety of components, including cockpits, instrument and door panels and center consoles to 12 Ford programs including the F-150 pickup, Expedition, Explorer, Focus, Mustang and Taurus and the Lincoln Navigator and MKS.

“What project am I the most excited about? I think you should ask what projects I’m not excited about,” Rush jokes. “The most exciting thing for me is to see our team members come in and within two weeks they’re either simulating or on our lines. They’re asking to understand the whys and feeling a part of this process and a part of Detroit.

It’s not just a job; it’s starting your career in the direction you want. We see the energy. We see the excitement.”

One of the biggest misconceptions Rush feels her experience at DMS is shattering for other companies is that you cannot find talent in or around the city. With more than 60 percent of her workforce residing in Detroit, Rush says her company is rich with potential.

“We have very talented people, highly educated people. Some have two- and four-year degrees. Others have 20 years of assembly experience,” Rush said. “With the downsizing of 2008 and 2009, there was no opportunity to find a job somewhere else. So this is a chance for all of us.”

Following a strong work ethic
Rush is the consummate American success story in a number of ways. How she got to this point -“ being in charge of one of the world’s largest minority auto suppliers -“ is a tale of good timing, extreme business smarts and a dedication to perfection that borders on obsession. But without that drive for detail, Rush argues, none of her enterprises would have been as successful.

Detroit Manufacturing Systems develops state-of-the-art automotive interior systems, utilizing the latest technology to assemble and manufacture injection molded interior trim components for global automotive brands. Photo by Rosh Sillars

Her story has to start with her grandparents, Mohawk Indians from Ontario that moved to Detroit in the 1920s. Her grandfather was an iron worker who helped build some of the city’s most recognizable landmarks such as the Penobscot Building and the Ambassador Bridge. Rush’s father was one of their eight children. Raised largely in Detroit, she grew up listening to her dad’s steady advice of having a strong work ethic.

“We always understood that you give everything your best. And those values continue in all of us today,” said Rush, who grew up playing sports and competing against any takers.

Rush became one of the first in her family to attend college, thanks to a Native American tuition program. She chose the University of Michigan and received a nursing degree in 1982. As she recalls, her parents suggested two options: Nursing or teaching. And although both careers focused on helping people, nursing seemed the most logical for her as it included more potential for travel.

Long hours and modest pay had Rush looking for other options. She began to study the hospital’s organizational chart, and she noticed two other positions that looked promising: Chief Financial Officer and Chief Executive Officer. When she found out the hours and the pay scale, her mind was set. She started down a path to earn a Master’s degree in Business.

Along the way toward that MBA, she received a summer internship at an air-freight company. That is where she saw the opportunities in pickup and delivery, Rush said. So she maxed out her own credit cards and got a loan from her parents to set her plan into motion. In 1984, she created Rush Trucking, which grew from three trucks to 700 tractors, 1,100 trailers, 450 employees or company drivers as well as 400 owner-operators.

Rush is quick to admit there were challenges along the way, both professionally and personally. For every success, there was time away from her three boys. Great years were followed by crushing blows, like the downsizing that her companies and others faced in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

“We made the mistakes most small businesses make. But we were able to carry one tenet, and that was great service,” Rush said. “We had to manage our growth. We had to bring in stronger information-technology and team members.”

Seeing other good firms lose their footing was an eye opener as well, Rush said.

Detroit Manufacturing Systems moved into the Gateway Industrial Center in Detroit in 2012, quickly reviving the facility to hold the largest Native American-owned supplier in the automotive industry. Photo by Rosh Sillars

“If you’re not making things or a core component, then you had to shrink your company. As a consequence, we lost many small diverse companies and woman-owned businesses. Generations of knowledge went out of business,” Rush said. “We survived. And it lit the fire.”

Finding mentors -“ including Dave Bing -“ and partners who would lead her toward joint ventures gave her the opportunity to start Dakkota Integrated Systems LLC with Intier Automotive, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Magna International.

Then came the opportunity to partner with French company Faurecia. It had led a portion of the former Visteon Corp. plant in Saline shortly after picking up more than $1 billion
in interior business from the plant. Rush picked up a majority stake in their venture.

The venture is funded by $5.5 million from the Rush Group and $4.5 million from Faurecia, which flew in its CEO to announce the partnership last August. The plan is to spend $22 million over the next two years and another $12 million in year three, Rush said.

“The timing has been right,” Rush said. “This opportunity couldn’t have happened without Ford Motor Co., and I’m just so fortunate to be a part of it. Ford has played a significant role in our city for a long time. What they are doing is going to make a difference in the next seven generations. -¦ You can’t take the Motor out of the Motor City.”

Committed to Detroit’s comeback
Giving Detroit another significant employer also has been gratifying for Rush, who saw the importance of employing under-served communities when she would visit her grandmother’s reservation.

In 1984, following an internship at an air-freight company, Rush creates a trucking company after borrowing $5,000 from her parents and $10,000 from her credit cards as seed money.

“That desire to help others was planted years ago,” Rush said. “Detroit’s coming back. We have the momentum. One of the brightest things I’ve seen is what a difference our marketing and enthusiasm makes. The ‘Imported from Detroit’ and ‘Pure Michigan’ advertisements gave us an image that Detroit’s coming back. It’s had such an impact. -¦ Our team members have a mantra as well, and it’s ‘Made in Detroit.’

“You have to be committed to quality. It’s like we say at Rush Trucking -“ you’re only as good as your last load. And that’s the expectation,” Rush said. “If you had a suit custom made and then the right arm was two inches shorter than your left, you cannot tell your customer, ‘We made 1,000 perfect suits; every now and then, one isn’t right.’ -¦ We have very dedicated people committed to high quality and service. You have to have that caring and that commitment.”

So how does it feel to be among those changing Detroit? Rush is humbled by her recent connection to the “Big Guys” in the city, and she plans on working just as hard as they do to make sure Detroit completes its current turnaround.

In January, Rush joined Quicken Loans founder and CEO Dan Gilbert as a new director for the Downtown Detroit Partnership. The DDP is a private/public partnership of corporate and civic leaders that supports, advocates and develops programs and initiatives that create a clean, safe, inviting and economically strong downtown Detroit community. Its public partners are the city of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Wayne County and the state of Michigan.

Rush, a mother of three boys, offers her employees educational opportunities and room to participate in their family lives. Photo by Rosh Sillars

“I’m humbled to get to know a lot of these people; I’ve admired them for years. What’s really interesting for me is how the exchange (of ideas) is energized when you bring in different points of view. Like diversity, those views are empowering and innovative. They’re after one core goal -“ to improve the city of Detroit, to have it sustainable, strong and the best city in the world. You bring that collective energy together, it fuels our passion to work harder,” Rush said.

Along the way, Rush has had the pleasure of meeting some of the state’s and nation’s leaders, many of whom were curious about this petite lady working with more than one male-dominated industry. Along with multiple meetings with U.S. presidents including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Rush recently spent time inside the DMS factory with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who privately asked to see the facility and meet the employees.

“By his curiosity and interest, he was really able to grasp the full scope of what we’re trying to do here. It’s a crime preventer, you give someone jobs, you give them a career path you’re actually preventing crime. He saw that,” Rush said. “He was gracious enough to give us the time to meet every team member who wanted to meet him, who wanted a hug, who wanted a picture. He brought our teams together. He re-echoed the values that are so important, which is teamwork, on time every time and no absenteeism. We are the picture and the role model for the future of Detroit and this is our chance to be a showcase and show we are the best in the world.”

It was Jackson who reminded Rush once again of the awesome responsibility she has as a job creator. She knew DMS was changing lives in Detroit, and that Michigan also benefitted. But he reiterated how the world is watching. And, he added, the rest of the world would love to have those jobs that her company brought to Detroit.

That insight, partnered with father’s advice -“ to work hard, no matter what the situation or circumstance -“ is fueling this latest enterprise. Rush wants Detroit Manufacturing Systems to serve a variety of customers and work with those clients to develop new, innovative products, particularly for the automotive marketplace.

Because if Rush and other business leaders have learned anything from the Great Recession, it is that you cannot rely on one customer or one product to keep you in business. Rush wants to have relationships with General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC. She wants to develop the next “wow” product, perhaps with ambient lighting, for her clients.

In 2009, Dakkota, which assembles automotive parts, reports revenues of $370 million.

“We’re getting familiar with interiors, and we have partners who have innovative technology in terms of manufacturing. We want to grow our skill sets, and we hope to have some clever ideas to introduce. It might take more than six months. It might be somewhere between 18 to 24 months. But it will happen,” Rush said.

She also wanted to keep her employees on the move. DMS is committed to continuing education, funding the educational goals of her workers in a variety of fields.

“I’ve seen some come in and very quickly move from assembler to team leader to supervisor. Maybe they’ll be line manager or supervisor. Maybe they’ll go into design. We support them throughout that process,” Rush said. “Many of (our workers) are single parents, and they might not have the money to go back to school. We have those taking classes at Rush Trucking and Dakkota who are now nurses and accountants. And that’s great to see.”

Rush hopes that her drive to improve her community, both in terms of her Indian heritage and her work in Michigan, influences her three sons to do the same. Zack, Cheyne and Chance are her inspiration; she describes them as “fantastic young men. I’ve achieved nothing compared to what they’re going to do.”

There is some sadness when she talks of the time she spent on the road, away from her family. But she lauds her parents, sisters and friends for being her village, helping her raise her boys. It helped that her schedule allowed her flexibility to visit their classrooms and act as the “cool mom” when she would set up assembly-plant tours.

In 2012, Rush signs on to fund and lead Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a joint venture with French auto supplier Faurecia SA.

So what’s next for Rush? Maybe, in between meetings or changing the world, she’ll go back and finish that MBA. Because with the energy and passion she puts into her work, an early retirement probably is not an option.

“I’ve always been curious and I ask questions. As long as you’re comfortable saying I don’t know and I can learn, you can find an expert in that field or that technology,” Rush said. “I’m always fascinated and I like to learn a better way. Can we approach building a community or a company in an untraditional model and be successful as well? I’m fortunate that I have choices like that.”

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Karen Dybis
Karen is an editor and writer for Corp! Magazine. She graduated from the University of Michigan and has worked at The Mackinac Island Town Crier, The Kalamazoo Gazette, The (Adrian) Daily Telegram and The Oakland Press. Karen was a Detroit News business writer with stints in retail, workplace issues and personal finance. Dybis also was a blogger on Time magazine's "Assignment: Detroit" project. She is author of four Michigan history books, including "Secret Detroit" and "The Witch of Delray."