The Man Behind the Bridge – Matty Moroun Talks about Detroit, Business and Being Sentimental

When telling the story of Manuel “Matty” Moroun, it’s nearly impossible not to tell a story about Detroit and some of its history. And like Detroit, Moroun might be a little old-fashioned, but certainly never dull.

Corp! was invited to interview Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge, in early May to hear his personal story, take some photos and learn about a man who rarely speaks to the press. While he’s viewed as an adversary by some and an example of the American dream come true by others, in reality Moroun’s early years were not unlike those of many growing up in Detroit in the 1920s and ’30s.

“My grandfather came from Lebanon and my dad was born in Buenos Aires,” says Moroun, sitting in a wood-paneled conference room at his spacious company headquarters in Warren, Mich. “My mom was also from Lebanon, but we think she was born in Cuba. The U.S. was always the magnet and that’s why they wanted to get here.”

His parents, Tufick (who went by Thomas) and Jamal, were married in Detroit where Matty was born, on June 5, 1927.

Growing up on Detroit’s east side with his three sisters and parents, Moroun attended Our Lady of Help elementary school, graduating from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and continuing his education at University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry in 1949.

“I wanted to be a doctor, so I was a pre-med student,” says Mouron, who today lives in Grosse Pointe Shores. “I had an uncle-”my dad’s brother-”who was a doctor and the family looked up to him and rightly so.”

Still intent on a medical career after graduating from Notre Dame, Moroun attended University of Michigan. He tried to gain admittance to the medical school, but was unsuccessful. That’s not to say, however, that Moroun wasn’t getting a leg up on a career.

His father ran two gas stations in Detroit and like many owners of a family business, didn’t hesitate to tap his son-”who by then hadn’t even started high school-”to pitch in.

“I always worked for my dad. I pumped gas for him at his gas station on Congress and I pumped gas at the station on Trumbull,” says Moroun, who Forbes magazine says has a net worth of $1.5 billion, ranking him 321 on its 400 Richest Americans list for 2009. “I did whatever a gas station pumper did. I checked the oil, checked the tires, checked out the back seat, the front seat.”

The experience also gave him a first glimpse at entrepreneurship-”and all the hours it required.

“When we were in the gasoline business, the buses were not like today’s buses. They would go anytime and from anywhere,” says Moroun, smiling. “The buses would come in, park, drop off the passengers [at Cadillac Square’s bus depot] and come to my dad’s gas station. I would sweep out the buses. They had more crud in them than you can imagine because they had just ridden in from Chicago. We would clean the windshields and fill the buses full of oil and gasoline, and check the tires. I worked all the time.”

And the work would continue, even as Moroun studied at the University of Notre Dame. Riding the train on the weekends between Detroit and Notre Dame in Sound Bend, Ind., Moroun would come home to put in hours at the family business-”one that would soon take a new turn.

In 1946, during Matty’s sophomore year, his dad bought the Central Cartage Company from its two owners, probably due to the fact that they owed him money. The company went through several evolutions to become what is known today as Central Transport, headquartered in Warren, Mich. According to the company Web site, Central Transport is a full-service, transportation services provider offering supply chain solutions across North America and is part of a group of transportation-related companies owned by privately-held CenTra, Inc., in turn owned by Moroun and his son, Matthew and ranked by Forbes as among the largest 500 private companies in America.

“My dad needed my presence there. I didn’t know anything, but I could understand the jargon, so I ran the Central Cartage Company,” recalls Moroun.

As a U-M graduate student, Moroun would work at Central Cartage for nine hours, driving back and forth between Ann Arbor and Detroit on a predecessor to I-94, the “Bomber Expressway,” which linked Ford’s Willow Run plant to its Rouge operations.

Although Moroun will readily admit he worked a lot growing up, he doesn’t harbor any resentment.

“My dad was a really good, kind guy. He helped me get my education and pushed me to do things that were a lot of times beyond my ability. We were very close,” he says. Although money was often scarce, Thomas Moroun was quick to give his son whatever he had in his pocket to cover gas and other expenses. “My dad and my uncle were really good Christian people who wanted to do the very best for their families and anybody around them and they did.”

His father’s continuous drive to build the business also affected Moroun’s personal life.

He dated regularly, but all the hours he put in the family business often left him bone-tired. “I can remember falling asleep eating dinner at night,” says Moroun, adding that he was 42 when he married his wife, Nora.

With no chance of being admitted to its medical school, Moroun left U-M in 1951 to join his father at Central Cartage.

“I always did what my dad said. He’d aim for something and make it ‘our’ objective. That was his way of promoting [me],” says Moroun.

A highly competitive industry gave Central Cartage a run for its money and it wasn’t until Matty came on board that the company finally turned a profit.

“When we were very small in the 1950s my dad had a desk and I had a desk and they were pushed together so I was on one side and he was on the other. The mail would go to my dad and he would shove the mail across the desk to me. Sometimes he’d open it, sometimes he wouldn’t.” Moroun continues, gesturing across the room to his executive offices: “Later on, my dad had one corner office and I had the other corner office. My father could see everything or anyone that came to my office. He had to be the judge of anybody I was going to get close to.”

Maybe it’s in the genes, but one might observe that the same office configuration is in effect today, since his son Matthew’s office is next door to Matty’s, connected by a short hallway.

“There was a lot of competition in the early days and it was a tough deal. Somehow we grew Central Cartage a little bit. My dad was absolutely our best salesperson and the person customers wanted to talk to. They didn’t want to talk to me,” says Moroun.

So where does the Ambassador Bridge fit into this story?

Moroun’s paternal grandfather moved the family from Argentina to Quebec, and then to Windsor, where their home was later torn down to make way for the bridge.

“My grandfather was able to come to the U.S. because the bridge company bought his home in Windsor. He came to Detroit,” says Moroun, adding that when he bought the bridge he obtained the deed to his grandfather’s house and gave it to his father.

Completed in 1929, the Ambassador Bridge came about through the efforts of native Detroiter and New York City financier Joseph A. Bower. Timing, however, is everything and the opening of what was at the time the world’s longest suspension bridge had been preceded by just a few weeks by the stock market crash, quickly followed by the Great Depression and a year later, the opening of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

The Detroit International Bridge Company fell on hard times and Bower reorganized the company in 1939, exchanging debt for issues of common stock. Bower’s family would retain control of the bridge until 1979, when they withdrew from management and opened up interest in its sale.

That’s where Matty picks up the story.

“The bridge was on the New York Stock Exchange and shares were traded. So, we bought a few shares. [In the 1970s] Warren Buffett was going to buy the bridge and he put out tender offer for more than the current stock price,” says Moroun. “We made a calculated decision to bid against the tender and said we’d buy any shares that were available right now. A lot of people who had tendered their shares withdrew them so they could get their money right away. That technique was successful. So I bought 24 percent of the shares, Warren got 25 percent and then there were holdouts.”

Buffett’s right hand man, Charlie Munger, contacted Moroun, offering an opportunity to buy Buffett’s shares. This move, along with the Moroun’s purchase of the remaining shares, led to the July 31, 1979 purchase by Central Cartage Company of the Ambassador Bridge, which is owned and operated by the Detroit International Bridge Company. Today, the bridge handles 26 percent of trade between the U.S. and Canada, according to company sources.

As Moroun provides a tour of the office, he points out a painting of Joseph A. Bower in the office of Dan Stamper, current president of the Detroit International Bridge Company. Moroun speaks admiringly of Bower-”as one entrepreneur recognizing the success of another. On his plans to build another bridge, he speaks pragmatically, perhaps echoing the sentiments of Bower-”who, like Moroun, had to contend with politicians and public opinion on both sides of the Detroit River.

“I want to put the other one up because it’s the practical thing to do. We could continue repairing our bridge and we wouldn’t have to build another, ever. Our bridge is getting old and each month that goes by it costs more to repair,” explains Moroun. “And when you try to repair anything while it’s running, it costs you more and more.”

The conversation then turns to another Detroit landmark-”the Michigan Central Depot, built in 1913 and located in Detroit’s Corktown. Once a hub of activity, the last train pulled out of the station in 1988, which then languished for several years. In 1996, Moroun’s company, Controlled Terminals, Inc., gained ownership of the building. The question is, why?

“I am very sentimental. I used to take the train from there every Sunday afternoon to Niles, Mich., about six miles from Notre Dame,” says Moroun. “The train depot was the busiest place you ever did see. That building was better than Grand Central Station in New York.”

According to a recent press release from the Detroit International Bridge Company, a plan is in the works to redevelop the Michigan Central Depot, encouraging the U.S. General Services Administration to acquire and develop the site.

“We hope to work with the GSA to develop a project, whether their needs include an adaptive reuse of the Depot or the construction of a new facility,” said Dan Stamper, bridge company president.

This wouldn’t be the first time Moroun has tried to find a use for the Depot. Other plans have proposed its use as an International Trade Processing Center, Detroit Police headquarters and a regional justice center. But since 2003, no viable tenant or partner has been found. Sentimentality, it seems, has had its price for Moroun.

“I’d like to get it tenanted. It should be a federal or state agency,” says Moroun. “I don’t care if I make a buck, I just want to save the building.”

While much has been written and said about Moroun’s extensive business interests here and globally, there are quiet, small stories that are rarely told. Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer shared one with Corp!

“A lot can be said, and written, about Matty Moroun. However, while I was mayor, I received a telephone call from the mayor of Little Rock, Ark. He said that there was a Detroit businessman who owned a piece of property that the city of Little Rock needed in order to complete the land acquisition for the Library of President William Jefferson Clinton. I asked who was the person, and he told me it was Matty Moroun,” says Archer, now chairman of the law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC. Archer instructed the Little Rock mayor to send him a letter describing the property and the proposed swap for another parcel of land. “I sent it to Matty Moroun. He said ‘Of course I’ll cooperate.’ They got the land acquisition and the library was built where they wanted to have it.”

Moroun seems equally as cooperative when it comes to philanthropy, albeit in his trademarked quiet way.

“We usually try to direct any [charitable] thoughts we have to the universities. I think it’s the better shot for the long term -“ to support the universities. I can’t tell you all the nonprofits around the bridge we support. Wayne State and University of Windsor, St. Clair College, Notre Dame, University of Michigan, we always give them some funds, but we’re not just here,” says Moroun, dressed in a dark suit. “We have at least 200 locations around the country so we can’t do it all in one place.”

After the Corp! photo session, Moroun gives a brief tour of his private office. Many of the walls are covered with photos, including Moroun with the Stanley Cup in 2008, while other black and white images date back to his father Thomas’ childhood. He proudly shows off a portrait of his son Matthew as a child sitting with Matty and Thomas, who died in 1991.

“Some don’t care that much about families, but I do. I’m very nostalgic.” Perhaps his strong affinity to two historic structures in his native Detroit keeps Moroun’s connection with his past and family vibrant. Whatever the case, it appears the Moroun family will continue to play a key role in Detroit and Michigan for many years to come.