Billy Durant

The Man Who Invented the Future

by Gary L. Fisher

Billy Durant.pngWhen I was a freshman in college, I was given the assignment to write about the most famous person from my hometown. I etched out a profile of a man, who, ultimately, really didn’t fit the bill. In fact, he wasn’t famous—at least not any longer—and certainly not in 1983, when I was writing my essay. In truth he hadn’t been famous for a very long time. Indeed, he has been largely forgotten, even in his own hometown of Flint, Michigan.

However, to me he was famous. Or, at least he should have been famous, by all normal laws of fame and glory. This particular individual had had a massive impact on my life, and on the lives of millions of people around the world. Yet, few knew his name. He was a super salesman—maybe the best that ever lived. He was a marketer extraordinaire, perhaps the most prolific in industrial history. He was a genius with organizational development, a master talent scout, and most of all, he was a brilliant alchemist, turning wood and steel into dollars and cents, and neighborhoods, and roads, and largely creating the 21st century in a myriad of ways.

He was responsible in full, or in part, for inventing, developing, or creating from whole cloth: Buick, Chevrolet, Frigidaire, GMAC, GMC , Pontiac, Cadillac , DELCO, AC Spark Plug, and other companies too numerous to name. He mentored Charles Stewart Mott, Walter Chrysler, Charles Nash, Charles Kettering, Albert Champion, David Buick, Louis Chevrolet, among many others.

This man, known in fact as “THE MAN” in his day, envisioned a world that was largely science fiction back then. Iconic industrialist J.P. Morgan called him an ‘unstable visionary’, others called him ‘crazy’, but all who knew him well, eventually called him a genius.

The Man” was William C. “Billy” Durant. The most famous man no one has ever heard of. In fairness, many more today have heard of him than in 1983. My Freshman Comp teacher responded to my essay with a ‘Billy Who?’ notation, when I told him of my planned work.

How he wound up so anonymous is an enduring mystery, as his achievements are prolific. Durant was the first to use vertical integration in manufacturing, invented North America’s first franchise dealer network for automobile sales, and built the world’s largest sales team in recorded history. Moreover, (and contrary to popular belief), he was the first to use the assembly line for mass production in his carriage business (Henry Ford’s hired consultants put the assembly line into motion first in Ford plants).

According to the legendary management guru, Peter Drucker, the company Billy Durant crafted out of thin air, General Motors, imposed a productivity might that was the primary reason that the allies were able to crush both Hitler, and Hirohito. The union movement, white collar management, automobile sales, and the plethora of automobile-related engineering and design careers—their histories and growth are linked to his entrepreneurial machine (Durant referred to GM always as ‘his baby’). General Motors was created with a deft blend of labor, management, bureaucracy and entrepreneurialism, and in many ways, helped to sculpt the vaunted American middle class.

His creations fueled the American Century, transforming our lives in ways we scarcely appreciate today. He was strong enough to stare down J.P. Morgan (the actual man, not just the company), and Henry Ford, provide guidance to Pierre DuPont, counsel President Hoover about how to avoid a Great Depression (Hoover didn’t listen), rub shoulders with kings and queens, princes and presidents, while still being humble enough to play checkers with elevator operators.

He saw things that didn’t exist and brought them into reality. He once told an interviewer during a time when horses and buggies were still being used:

“Most of us will live to see this whole country covered with a network of motor highways built from point to point as the bird flies, the hills cut down, the dales bridged over, the obstacles removed. Highway intersections will be built over or under the through lanes and the present dangers of motor travel, one after another will be eliminated.”

He was loved by his workers (labor strife was rare in his plants), his colleagues, and his friends (thousands of which he made wealthy beyond their wildest dreams). Despite his mercurial and sometimes self –focused behavior, no one doubted that he ultimately had their best interests at heart in the end. And so he did, having been ousted not once, but twice, from the helm at GM by a cabal of bankers and backstabbers. He went bankrupt during the Great Depression trying to guarantee investments made in his companies, and while legions of his friends were rich, he died broke.

In the end, despite his massive economic set backs, he had new goals and new dreams, and in his 80’s was planning a chain of bowling alleys, thinking that families would flock to them (he was right), and years before Ray Kroc got the smart idea to team with a couple of brothers named McDonald, Billy envisioned a chain of fast food restaurants with ‘good food served fast through a window” to accommodate the legions of automobile shoppers he had helped to create. When asked by his wife Catherine why he couldn’t ‘just rest’, he replied “We are not given enough time, Mama.”

His spirit can be embodied in his own words, words of advice given to others in the face of difficult circumstances. It’s sage counsel for anyone chasing a dream, building a business, or trying to save a city.

“My advice to you and all others is to keep working…Forget mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you’re trying to do now-and do it.”  –Billy Durant

A Conversation with Paul Krause: Pro Football Hall-of-Famer

A Conversation with Paul Krause: Pro Football Hall-of-Famer

by Gary Fisher

I have watched every single Super Bowl. Well at least that’s what my dad tells me. I honestly don’t recall the first one since I was only a little over a year old. But dad says he and I sat in front  of our old Zenith black and white and watched it with him, so I’ll have to take his word for it. I remember snippets of games after that, but it wasn’t really until I was about 8 years old that I really remember every single thing about a Super Bowl, that being the ’73 contest between my beloved Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins. I had liked the St. Louis Cardinals up to that point, mostly because they had cool helmets, but the Fins became my team for life during the ’72 season, and that was it.

Given this rumination, and the fact that at the time, we were in the year of the 50th Super Bowl, it was particularly notable that I had the unique opportunity to  accompany my dad to his 55th high school reunion. Not only did I meet a bunch of people my dad had been talking about for literally my entire life, I also got to put real people together with the faces that I had only seen in my dad’s dusty high school albums. It was great fun from start to finish, and I was particularly impressed by the turn out. Something like 75% of all living graduates attended this event, a fact made more impressive given the age (75) of the average graduate, and the reality that Bendle High School, in the 60’s, was a small school.  Dad had always been in the minority by not attending these events. For one reason or another he always had a reason why he couldn’t make it. He certainly had no shortage of good reasons as I recall – one year I was hit by a car, another year I had serious surgery, another time our house blew up (well only the top half), and one time he was in the hospital with surgery. In any event he was one of the MIA’s from Reunionville for decades. All of this made his surprise appearance an even bigger deal in this tight knit group. Having lost my mom a year and half prior, no one thought it likely he’d be there for this one either. But there he was.

All of this brings me back to the Super Bowl theme. One of the first people to approach my dad was one of his best friend’s growing up, a fella named Paul Krause. My dad had been telling me stories about Paul since I was old enough to remember tossing a football around. Paul was my dad’s running mate in junior high and high school in sports, and fun. When I was watching the 1970 Super Bowl which featured the Kansas City Chiefs against the Minnestota Vikings, dad pointed out that his buddy was wearing #22 for the Vikings. I remember thinking that he must have been talking about the Flint Northern Vikings, the local high school team we followed at the time. He had a hard time explaining to me that the Minnesota Vikings were a different set of Vikings. In any event, I thought it was pretty cool that my dad was pals with someone on that little black and white Zenith in our living room. It was clear this was an important game too, so that added to the coolness effect.

As I got older we had a lot of opportunities to watch Paul play on the tube, as he’d appear in three more Super Bowls- ‘74 against the Dolphins, ‘75 against the Steelers, and  ‘77 against the Raiders. Sadly, for Paul, all were losses, but as Krause told me during the reunion dinner ‘If you’re going to lose four games you can do a lot worse than have them be Super Bowls’!  I had to tell him that my favorite team growing up was the Miami Dolphins. “That Larry Csonka was a handful”, Paul said. “Really hard to tackle–he was like a freight train.” I asked him who were the toughest guys he competed against in the Super Bowl, and he laid out a litany of the greatest players of my youthful past: Terry Bradshaw, Ken “The Snake” Stabler, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Len Dawson, Mercury Morris, Paul Warfield, Freddie Biletnikoff, and John Stallworth.

In fact Krause was in town not just for the reunion, but also to present a “Golden Football” to his alma mater, a perk of having appeared in all of those Super Bowls with the Vikings, and something being done around the country by his fellow Super Bowlers. However, Krause is more than just a former NFL football player. He is quite likely the greatest athlete to ever come out of the Flint area. That’s saying an awful lot when you consider the almost unreal quality of talent to emanate from Flint.

His feats in high school are legendary. My dad and Paul were excitedly telling me the story of the night Krause set the county high school basketball scoring mark of 57 points in a single game. A record that still stands to this day, made even more remarkable in a pre-three point play era. They spoke of football games, and baseball games and how Krause once left a baseball game to jump the fence and win track events in the 440 and pole vault, then returned to the baseball game to pitch a no-hitter.

Krause went on to national prominence at the University of Iowa, and then played in all of those Super Bowls in the NFL. Along the way he was named All Pro 9 times, and elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1998. He also holds one of the NFL’s most hallowed records with 81 interceptions, making him the NFL’s all time pass theft king.  

While all of that is without question interesting,  I didn’t spend a lot of time asking NFL questions. At the time, the main topic at our table was the 85 yard pass play Krause tossed to my dad that helped them win a close game against Corunna in ’58. And that was just fine with me.•

Hometown Lessons that Last a Lifetime

Hometown Lessons that Last a Lifetime

by Gary Fisher

The Christmas bells were jingling, and a rotund Santa manned a big, black pot. My Grandma held my hand, as I skipped across the bricks of the street. I always loved those cool, old bricks that lined the main drag of Saginaw Street. Ma and Grandma had taken me back downtown for one of our regular shopping trips. It was 1968, I was four years old, and things were hopping during the Christmas season in the town of my birth, Flint, Michigan. We headed off to Smith-Bridgman’s department store to look for a gift for my Grandpa. I hid in the racks and pretended they were tents.

Then, I wandered away…as usual. I found a clerk and told her that my Mom and Grandma “got lost”. The clerk paged them, and they scurried over to the wrap counter to pick me up. I told them to stay close so they didn’t get lost again. Next, it was over to the Kresge’s five and dime for some popcorn, and maybe something from that wonderful, old lunch counter. I loved downtown Flint growing up. As a little kid, whenever I heard the Petula Clark hit song Downtown, I was 100% positive that it was about MY downtown!

Over the years, I would spend many hours there, in the heart of Flint. I would watch it be supplanted by the fancy new suburban mall out on Miller Road, geographically the precise middle of nowhere to an Eastside kid used to everything being a bike ride away. I would watch as the downtown stores closed, one by one, and then were smashed by wrecking balls, wiping out their physical existence. Parking lots replaced Kresge’s and the venerable, old department store, Smith Bridgman’s. The Sill Building, where the 80-year-old Polish immigrant seamstress embroidered my varsity jacket (as she had done for my mom and dad when they were in high school), gave way to ‘urban renewal’. Finally, no one I knew shopped downtown for much of anything.

For a time, it was visually a sad and lonely place. But even then as a 14-year-old, I would cruise my Tomos ‘79 moped down to get a burger and fries at Maxbeef, or zip around the overgrown lots and the abandoned old Industrial Mutual Association building, where I had so many great memories of going to the Shrine Circus with my grandparents. It was like a mini-Mad Max scene. On a blazing burgundy moped, at 40 mph, in nothing more than 70’s short-shorts, an Adidas t-shirt, tall white socks pulled up to my knees, and Adidas sneaks, it was actually pretty exhilarating. The brick street all to myself! The danger! The Mystery!

By the 80’s the old girl was being revitalized with a major expansion of the University of Michigan’s downtown Flint campus, new fancy restaurants like Figlio’s, the Water Street Pavilion, and hopping night clubs, like Hot Rocks and The Copa. I had a blast downtown in the 80s! But, it got a little sad again, as those businesses succumbed to the never-ending boom and bust cycle of a purely American rust belt industrial economy.

In the 90’s, I moved away for a few years, to Kalamazoo, but I stayed in close touch with “the bricks”, always visiting for family and friend events. When I returned to live, again, things were back in motion, and the area’s future looked as bright as it had in many years. It was only to be knocked down a few rungs again by the dot com bust, 9/11, followed by a mini-recession, and then a maxi-recession. GM went bankrupt. Things looked worse than bleak, but then, once again, Flint began it’s turn, to work it’s way back.

The University of Michigan was expanding again. Another round of new restaurants and businesses were going in. Michigan State was moving downtown, and a new Farmers Market was in place. In the midst of this growth cycle another massive new challenge arose: A growing chorus of people shouting about bad water. The alarm morphed in to a cacophony of turmoil, that echoed, quite literally, around the world. Today, I am reading about my hometown’s latest woes in Time, seeing discussions about Flint during a Presidential debate–held just minutes away from the bricks at the Whiting auditorium, on the BBC, and in media as diverse as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic. Actor Michael Keaton mentioned Flint while receiving his Screen Actors Guild Award for his Oscar winning film Spotlight, and celebrities Cher, Matt Damon, and Snoop Dog, and countless others, have joined in with support.

This isn’t our first rodeo, and it won’t be our last. People couldn’t see how Flint could survive the lumber boom being played out at the turn of the twentieth century. Then Flint innovated and became the world’s leading provider of carriages and surrey’s – hence the ‘Vehicle City’ moniker.

When it became clear that horseless carriages would soon supplant that industry, the city reinvented itself again. Nameplates like Buick, Chevrolet, AC Spark Plug, and General Motors were born and raised in Flint. But the needle moved again, and in 1986, Money Magazine pronounced Flint the “worst place to live in the country”, and a satirical movie called Roger and Me, was soon taken as a documentary. Maybe that shouldn’t have been a shock. Amidst the loss of 30,000 jobs, it all seemed plausible. Still, the city went on.

Today, Flint is home to the multi-billion dollar Diplomat Pharmacy, a sprawling and growing University of Michigan campus, and a world class engineering school in Kettering University. We have Michigan State University, a superb Farmers Market, and General Motors, home to the multi-billion dollar Mott Foundation, the Crim Race and Back to the Bricks festival, and the best coney islands on the planet. This doesn’t include the thousands of entrepreneurs, small business owners, artists, entertainers, athletes, and professionals who either hail from Flint or work here currently.

None of these distinctive shining stars diminishes the very real, and urgently pervasive challenges Flint faces on countless other fronts. There are enough societal challenges to fill a doctorate level curriculum in sociology, and public administration alike. But to suggest it’s a city of helpless victims would ignore reality, be an affront and disservice to the tough, smart, and innovative success stories that are here now, and will continue to be created here in the future, in both Flint and the communities that surround it.

Over the last half-century the old bricks and I have seen a lot of action. We’ve seen good times and bad times. The happiest days you can imagine, and some of the saddest. The bricks have borne silent witness to the best of times, and certainly some of the worst as well. They watched Billy Durant dart across them with an idea for new companies called General Motors, Buick, Chevrolet and Frigidaire. World-class athletes, business geniuses, and men and women who would literally rewrite the history of America trod across their length. They watched a relentless cycle of boom and bust over the years.

Along the way I have been privileged to watch, as well. My life has taken me from those happy days of holding my Mom and Grandma’s hands on Saginaw Street, to nearly a quarter of a century working with another street, Wall Street. My career, like those bricks has been diverse. Along the way I’ve helped blue-collar GM and union workers, business owners, millionaires, and aspiring millionaires. I’ve worked with young families, and retirees, couch potatoes and world-class athletes, alike.

Today, I’ve clients all over the country, but my office is back on the bricks. I can look out over those aged and small blocks of clay, laid in their orderly pattern, and envision the entirety of the American Century. The home of the American automobile industry, still so crucial to our national identity and economy, the American Arsenal of Democracy that was so critical to winning two World Wars, the birthplace of the American middle class, and the purveyor of a seemingly unending supply of athletic and artistic talent over the years.

From my phone and computer I can converse with clients in the sunny climes of South Florida and Southern California. I can talk to stock market analysts ensconced in their high rises on Wall Street in Manhattan. I can talk to international money managers in Berlin or London. But looking out my office window, I can see those bricks, and I can remember those sunny days with Mom and Grandma. I can close my eyes and recall the dark days and the bright days alike. Like the Wall Street cycle of ups and downs, I have a tangible reminder that life itself is an unending ebb and flow.

Events change, people change, and the markets vacillate. However, the bricks remind me that some things do remain. Love, kindness, optimism, courage, resilience, and the strength and power of the human will. Wall Street and Saginaw Street are for me, inextricably linked. It’s always darkest before the dawn, but the dawn always comes. For me that is a life lesson that I hope everyone can remember. Because whether it’s investing or life, in good times and bad, it’s useful to remember that ‘this too shall pass’. More importantly, perhaps, is the message that while we can’t control the wind we can always adjust our sails. Because in the end, it’s not what happens to us, but how we respond that makes all the difference. From my vantage point on the bricks it’s an easy philosophy to understand.•