Exceptional, July - December 2014
Manufacturing Detroit’s revival
Andra Rush has put her heart and soul into revitalizing the fortunes of the Motor City and its people through manufacturing — and she’s caught President Obama’s attention in the process.
On a visit to Detroit a few months ago, US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez learned about a little miracle in a desolate neighborhood on the west side of this equally desolate city: the first new automotive manufacturing plant in decades had been built within the city limits.
He learned that the plant, known as Detroit Manufacturing Systems (DMS), was a joint venture between automotive supplier Faurecia and the Rush Group, led by President and CEO Andra Rush, a fierce proponent of Detroit’s auto industry. Through DMS, she had created hundreds of manufacturing jobs in this struggling city — and the plant was still growing.
Perez asked for a tour of the plant. On that tour, he, along with other officials, sat down with a few DMS employees. Rush wanted Perez to understand what these workers’ struggles had been before DMS hired them.
“One had been homeless,” says Rush, who grew up about half an hour away from the Detroit city limits. “One hadn’t had a job in four years. Another was 59 years old and thought he would never get a job again.”
She beams whenever she tells this story, for it is a perfect illustration of her ambition to help turn around Detroit’s fortunes.
Rush, a Mohawk Native American, founded her first company, Rush Trucking, in 1984 as a 23-year-old while working full time as a nurse and studying for her MBA at night. Her vision, which began with a van and two secondhand trucks, has mushroomed into a company that brought in US$138m in revenues in 2013.
In 2001, she created another venture, Dakkota Integrated Systems, which, among other things, builds overhead systems for vehicles. Her combined ventures, known as the Rush Group, make her one of the United States’ most powerful Native American business owners.
Rush is using her clout to help revitalize Detroit’s manufacturing sector, with a particular focus on job creation, which she believes is a potent tool for fighting crime and revitalizing communities.
And so, when Ford approached Rush Group with the opportunity to assemble interior components for several of its vehicles, Andra Rush knew exactly where she wanted the new plant located.
“I said what would motivate me is that it had to be in an underserved community and we had to hire people who were unemployed or underemployed,” Rush recalls. “My dream was to create opportunities in underserved communities.”
She had her work cut out for her. In the late 1940s, Detroit started losing manufacturing jobs as automakers fled for the suburbs and other locations around the US and abroad.
Since 1950, this metropolis, once America’s fifth largest city, has lost approximately two-thirds of its population. As a result, it is beset by stratospherically high levels of crime, illiteracy, corruption and unemployment.
Tens of thousands of vacant or abandoned buildings dot its landscape, and it is often cited as America’s poster child for urban decay. In 2013, in a striking sign of how far the city had fallen, Detroit filed for bankruptcy.
Rush believes that Detroit’s rebirth depends on its ability to attract more manufacturing jobs. A thriving auto industry, she says, means a thriving economy — not only in Detroit but also throughout the rest of the country.
“We have more engineers per capita in southeast Michigan than anywhere else in the country. Detroit’s rebirth will be tied to manufacturing.” Andra Rush, Rush Group
“The country, community and city thrive,” she says. “The automotive industry is innovative. It is a great way to have a middle class and an upper middle class.”
Indeed, the auto industry has been credited with helping build the American middle class in the first half of the 20th century. In particular, it is credited with helping create the African-American middle class.
“Between Ford and GM, they have hired more African-Americans than any other industry,” she says.
This is partly why, when the recession hit, Rush played an active role in working with other auto suppliers to persuade the federal government to throw a lifeline to the struggling auto industry. She and her fellow suppliers took several trips to Washington to make their case. She also encouraged her employees to write to their elected federal representatives.
Rush describes the auto industry as a pillar of the economy. For every job created by an automaker, she says, an additional seven jobs spring up within the industry.
She believes that if the government hadn’t bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, the United States’ economy would have been plunged into a depression.
Smoothing a rocky path
In 2008, she caught a glimpse of how the future might look for suppliers like her and the rest of the auto industry. With so much uncertainty looming and the auto industry ailing, she was forced to lay off 800 Rush Group employees a few weeks before Christmas.
But through the government bailout of GM and Chrysler, along with concessions made by suppliers like her, Rush was able to hire almost every one of those workers back the following year.
DMS, which assembles dashboards for several Ford vehicles including the F-150 and the Focus, has approximately 700 employees, with about 500 of them living in Detroit.
Employees say Rush works hard to create a nurturing environment where there’s room for advancement. Bullish on education, she encourages employees to better themselves and pre-pays tuition for employees looking to further their studies — in any subject.
“If you are learning and pursuing something you’re passionate about, it makes you a better person and a better parent,” she says.
Rush’s success both locally and further afield — the Rush Group has 2,700 employees in several states and Canada — has gained her the admiration of city and state officials.
She’s also had plenty of media coverage: in 2004, Inc. Magazine named her one of its “25 entrepreneurs we love” and hailed her again in 2013, when it ranked her No. 20 in its list of top job creators.
But all these accolades pale in comparison to an invitation she got from the White House to attend the 2014 State of the Union Address as a guest of Michelle Obama. As Rush sat in the First Lady’s box, President Obama told the story of DMS’ remarkable growth. Companies like DMS, he said, demonstrate the importance of retraining programs.
The DC experience is something Rush won’t ever forget — and nor will those around her. “My father has not stopped smiling,” she says.