By Richard Blanchard
It’s all business when you go into Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s office in the City-County Building in Detroit. Staff and communications directors are ready and waiting to shuttle you into his office. Inside, a comfortable room greets you with comfy, stuffed seating at one end, a sleeves-up working table in another area and the mayor’s desk at the other end.
We picked the working table. Why? Because it’s time to get down to business in Detroit. And business, especially small business, may find it easier to get the leases, permits and approvals to set up and grow in the new Detroit.
“For years you have heard of one-stop shopping. I think that for sure in this administration, that will become a reality,” Bing emphasizes. “We want people to know that we are a great place to grow and expand.”
This is not idle banter or feel-good promises from the mayor. Entrepreneurial zeal and business experience are characteristics Bing, 66, brings to the table. They are part of the tool kit that helps him change attitudes, line up support and rebuild the organizational culture of a city that has fallen.
This is what is on the table: A general fund deficit of $325 million, 70,000 vacant and uninhabitable buildings, a city population less than two-thirds of what it used to be and falling more, nearly 30 percent unemployment, and schools that rank dead last in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a key meter of Detroit’s public school students.
Roots of a Career
So why would Bing take this on? He’s a successful businessman and former NBA star. He’s comfortable at this point in his life. Why? Because it’s part of his makeup; dating back to his career with the Detroit Pistons and the NBA, a 12-year run from 1966-1978 that included star status as a three-time All-NBA player, and seven-time NBA All-Star Team member. Despite the court glories, Bing was looking ahead then - and still is now.
“I knew that as an athlete my career was not going to be long. I knew that when I retired I would still be a relatively young person and would have to work. I had a good level of understanding about how important education was. Rather than be the typical athlete who went out, played golf and did speaking engagements for additional income, I worked.”
When Bing played ball, the multi-million contracts were not part of the reality. His first NBA contract was $15,000. Bing worked during his first nine years in Detroit. He spent seven years at National Bank of Detroit and two years at Chrysler in dealer training. So when it came time to leave the NBA, he had business contacts in hand and the foundation for a second career.
“I decided to be an entrepreneur. That was a burning desire that I had as a kid growing up. Because my dad, without a high school education, was an entrepreneur. He had his own business; he was a contractor. I got exposed to that as a youngster and knew that one day I wanted to run my own company.”
To kick off his second career, Bing took a training job at Paragon Steel, at 8 Mile and Hoover. To the surprise of many, he chose the shop floor instead of sales.
“They wanted me in sales, because I guess they wanted to use my celebrity status to get them into places where they couldn’t get into on an independent basis. But I didn’t want to be used like that. I said ‘you have to teach me the business,’ and that starts with shipping and receiving.”
Bing went from shipping and receiving, to maintenance, to accounting and then sales. After two years, he decided to start his own business.
“Back in 1980 I started with four people, and over a 29-year period, we grew the business from a startup to a company that had in excess of 900 employees. The largest sales volume we had was in excess of $334 million. We were an automotive supplier, primarily to the Big Three and the Tier 1 companies.”
Staying in Business
Looking back on the past five years as an auto supplier, Bing said it was obvious the industry had dramatically changed and the Big Three would never be the same because of global competition. It was also obvious, Bing said, that his company, The Bing Group, would not be a key supplier going forward because it was just not big enough.
His rivals and foreign manufacturers - Honda, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz - were going global and setting up shop in the South, lured by highly desirable location incentives and coveted lower labor rates. Pricing pressures from the Big Three were slicing profit margins for suppliers. It was time to grow and move, but Bing said he did not have the capital or financing to do so.
“We were local, regional at best, and we thought about expanding in the South, but didn’t have the funding to do that,” he says. “They wanted me to start a plant without a purchase order, and that didn’t make sense to me. I could not afford to take that kind of financial risk. As I saw my customer base losing market share, I knew the same thing was going to happen to me.
“There were all kinds of pricing pressures. The car companies broke a lot of their suppliers.”
As he watched his and other suppliers’ revenues eroding, and followed the scandal-mired nosedive of a city where he had built his careers, he made the move to sell. “After 29 years, it was time for me to make the hard decision. And the hard decision was to get out of the business.”
Bing sold his metals division to Belleville-based L&W Engineering in December. It will keep 80 percent of the employees. Another division was likely to be shut down this month, he said. “I wanted to ensure that, as best I can, to protect as many workers as possible, in terms of jobs and their health care coverage.”
And, with urging and backing of supporters regionwide, he made the decision to set his sights on looking ahead for Detroit as its CEO. The decision process took several months, he says.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for me to leave my business, to retire. I felt that as long as I was in good health, with the skill sets I had, the relationships, and the love that I had for the city, I felt I could make a difference in trying to get the city back on track.
“It is incumbent upon us to not sit on the sidelines and complain about the past, complain about who is not coming to the table. We have rolled our sleeves up and I think we are making a difference here.”
What He Brings to the Table
When asked about what makes him different from other Detroit mayors, Bing points to strengths from his two careers: athletic and business competitiveness, and entrepreneurial spirit and experience.
“It gives me the background, it gives me the leverage I need to bring business practices into city government. I think from a cities perspective, we are way behind other municipalities and surely behind the business community in terms of benchmarking best business practices.”
The mayor’s message to the business community statewide: Detroit is business-friendly. The roadblocks, time constraints and inefficiencies of trying to do business with the city will change, he says.
“We are fixing those procedures, those policies. We want people to know that we are a good place for businesses-¦to expand and to encourage new entrepreneurs to come into the city.”
That approach is focused on small business now more than ever.
“We absolutely know that small business is the key to bringing the city back. I don’t see the large businesses expanding, they are consolidating. We have to change the mindset and the philosophy of young people so they understand that they are the ones who will fuel the growth in this city.
“We will be consolidating a lot of our departments into one area so business people, citizens don’t have to go to a lot of different places to get the job done, to get the information they need.”
Susan Mosey, president of the University Cultural Center Association in Midtown Detroit, says that whatever the city can do to help small business will be appreciated.
“Coordination is the key,” says Mosey. “Someone or a department to explain and coordinate the whole process. If they could just establish a real clean process and assist businesses on a one-to-one basis.”
The UCCA has about 70 members - small businesses, agencies, developers and other community groups - and helps coordinate business development, infrastructure and other community projects.
“We are doing more than ever right now,” she explains. “There are a lot of new businesses, infrastructure improvements, developments-¦still lots of investment right now.”
New Tasks Ahead
For Detroit, changes for the better are part of a reorganization that is expected to arise from the consolidation of the city’s approximate 42 departments. The city’s annual budget is $3.1 billion.
The downsizing “has to be done,” Bing stresses. After the 2010 census, the city will know how many people are in Detroit. Still, that number is estimated to be around 800,000 - about half of what the city population once was, but with the same 140 square miles.
This also means that another plan on the table is consolidating populated areas of the city so services are not being provided to tracts with only one or two inhabited homes. But fixing the blighted areas should not come without making sure stable areas stay that way, Bing says.
“We must concentrate on neighborhoods where there is health. You can’t allow them to let a cancer grow, for example. They are the easier ones to fix. But there are areas in the city that you totally will have to depopulate. There may be a house or two on a block or in a given community, where you can no longer give them city services. You can’t afford it.”
The result is a white sheet of paper in terms of options for those areas, he says. The plan is not yet developed, but it’s going to happen. The blight will be cleaned up, the vacant homes removed.
“We’ll need help from the federal government. We’ll need funding. We have over 70,000 buildings in the city that are uninhabitable,” he says. “It is incumbent upon us to fix up. We can’t tear down everything.”
He added that the movement to go green is huge nationwide, but that he does not have enough information to say that Detroit will be a “completely green city.” The focus may more be on improving homes with weatherization and other refurbishments. “Those are job creators right away,” he notes.
Changing the Organizational Culture
Facing such challenges, how do you move ahead? In a business scenario, the shift would start from the top, with a redrafting of corporate culture to make sure everyone, from department heads to meter workers, understands the mission and feels empowered to be part of fulfilling that mission.
Accomplishing organizational change for Detroit is about attitude, Bing explains.
“It’s attitude, and expectations,” the mayor says. “The attitude I bring, number one, I come to work everyday, I come to work on time, and I come here to work. It’s not about having a good time. I think there’s been an attitude for some city workers who in a lot of cases felt somebody owed them something.
“We need to understand that our citizens and businesses here are the customers, and we have to be customer friendly. That will drive everything else.”
Bing says the city can’t survive with only downsizing and cutting. “You have to give people a reason to stay here. The city services that we are responsible for providing to our customers have to be best in class. We can’t be satisfied with doing what we have always done. We have to be superior in terms of satisfying our customers here, and trying to bring people back.”
Continuing the business scenario for Detroit, its training department - the Detroit Public Schools - continues to get headlines for poor educational and budget performance. Where to go from here is a mixed bag. Options talked about are mayoral accountability, consolidation with Wayne County, and more academic powers for Detroit Public Schools CEO Robert Bobb. But you can’t just focus on DPS for turnaround, Bing says.
“Any city that is vibrant has a good delivery system for education and it’s across the board and it doesn’t just have to be the public system. Charter schools play a role, private schools play a role, parochial schools play a role. I am a product of the public schools in Washington D.C., and I know there is a place for public schools. But we’re not holding people accountable for the jobs they are supposed to do.”
That being said, Bing surmises that one of his biggest challenges is changing the city’s reputation, but he adds that also is one of the strengths of his administration. Bing says people wanted transparency, honesty and openness during his campaign and that is what his administration is about.
“We have to be consistent. We have to make sure that the things we say are the things that we do. We are setting the right goals. We are leading by example. And, when you do those things it is much easier to get the rest of your team to follow. Change the image by doing things, you can’t just talk about it.”