'Opportunity to Grow' recapped

Behind the brilliantly curated sales floor of the Detroit Mercantile Company, a large crowd gathered to hear a panel of business people involved in rapidly growing companies in Detroit, known as gazelles in business parlance.
Jon Zemke, startup, innovation and jobs news editor for Model D and Metromode, moderated a panel stacked with prime representatives of some of Detroit's fastest running gazelles: Liz Blondy of Canine to Five, Lorron James of James Group International, Sam Fotias of Paxahau, Tim Smith of Skidmore Studio, and Bruce Schwartz of Bedrock Real Estate Services.
Jon Zemke asked the panelists questions ranging from staffing choices to general decision making. The theme of their responses was that Detroit is full of opportunities to grow a business, despite the many challenges facing the city.
Tim Smith bought Skidmore Studio, a business with over 50 years of advertising tradition in Detroit, in 2009 at the height of the recession and moved the company downtown from the suburbs while some of its largest clients were entering bankruptcies of unprecedented scales.
"We're dealing with people in New York, Chicago, and LA from a creative standpoint who don't believe in the creative energy that is in Detroit, and, quite frankly, I said, 'fuck you, that's not true.'"

Since taking over, Smith has hired 10 employees. He views the established brand of the company, as well as that of Detroit as an innovative hub, as huge assets in growing his company.

Liz Blondy launched her dog daycare business on Cass Avenue south of MLK Blvd in 2005. At the time, people didn't think Detroit could support this type of business. Staffing was a challenge. Blondy remarked on her struggle to staff qualified dog groomers. "People didn't want their wives/daughters/girlfriends to work in Detroit. Now we have six groomers and it's by far the best staff we've had." Canine to Five now has 26 employees at its Detroit location and recently opened a satellite location in Ferndale.

Lorron James left Detroit for school and to cut his teeth in the business world, but returned home in 2007 to join his family's logistics company located in Southwest Detroit. He was motivated by the opportunity he saw in the city, a feeling not always shared by his peers. "I can mold this city," thought James. James Group has been around for over 40 years, but has experienced growth in recent years as it has diversified its client base away from a former dependence on the automotive industry.

Sam Fotias of Paxahau, the production and promotions company behind the Movement electronic music festival (née DEMF), decided with his partners to relocate Paxahau's offices downtown when they realized that they were spending more time in meetings there than they were at their Ferndale location.

"Detroit has always been our nucleus," said Fotias. Now they've added the Detroit International Jazz Festival to their portfolio of productions and have 15 employees working in their office in the Cornice and Slate Building in Greektown.
Bruce Schwarz of Bedrock Real Estate Services, the real estate arm of Dan Gilbert's "Quicken Family of Companies," has been a part of a similar story of movement from the suburbs to downtown, albeit at a grander scale, taking advantage of the opportunity he described as "the skyscraper sale here in Detroit."

In recent years, Quicken has moved 3,000 employees from the suburbs to downtown and created another 4,500 jobs in addition to buying several iconic Detroit office buildings to house those workers and those of other growing companies.
Liz Blondy, the sole proprietor of Canine to Five, expressed the blessings and curses of being the one who calls the shots. "I have to live with my decisions." 
Sam Fotias said that Paxahau is at a strange place in its development where one poor decision could prove ruinous to the company; yet he is not overly concerned because of their team-like approach to decision making, which vets the bad ideas from the good. 
Lorron James and his brother have had to overcome a generation gap with their father, who successfully ran James Group for decades by himself, establishing the company as a debt-free entity. Before their dad would relinquish some of the decision making to his sons, Lorron and his brother had to establish a track record of solid initiatives, some of which have been diversifying their client base from strictly automotive companies.
Bruce Schwartz has the challenge of working for one of Michigan's wealthiest citizens, Dan Gilbert, but he says everyone in management at the Quicken Family of Companies has a chance to make their voice heard in the decisions made. "We are the they" is an expression they like to throw around their offices.
Towards night's end, the panel addressed audience questions, ranging from how businesses help one another succeed, to how businesses uplift the communities around them, to how they view the boom in the private sector in light of the stagnation of public sector.
Liz Blondy talked about her work co-founding Open City, a forum for aspiring businesses in Detroit where they can get advice from established businesses. Lorron James pointed to his company's commitment to employing residents of Southwest Detroit at its Detroit facility and partnering with Focus:HOPE to train a local workforce. Paxahau's Sam Fotias, a Cass Tech alum, talked about his company's dedication to music education in the city. Bruce Schwartz pointed to Quicken's Opportunity Detroit campaign, which is a way of marketing the city to other companies.
Tim Smith summed it up with regards to how business can help the city, saying, "We can do what we can do. There continue to be challenges in our neighborhoods and outside the core...we acknowledge that. We need to be cognizant of these issues, but focus on what we can do and keeping the momentum."
The "Opportunity to Grow" speaker series event was made possible through sponsorships by the Detroit Regional ChamberMSHDA, and Huntington Bank. As always, the conversation will continue in Model D and MetroMode.

Video by Oren Goldenberg

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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