Behind the scenes
Tell us about your company.
We have 150 employees total. They are all in places where they eat what they kill. In the development business, it takes a long time and there’s downtime. When you go to our office on Jolly Road where the accountants or the carpet people or the management people are, they all have a specific task and are getting hourly pay. I couldn’t stand to come in here when we’re waiting to have meetings or whatever and see a bunch of folks doing nothing. They’re working; in our business, it’s overhead. You make money in how you buy real estate more than in how you sell it, because if you buy it for too much you can’t set a price where you can move it. That’s my business model.
What sorts of experiences contributed to your success?
In high school I was captain of the basketball team and I was on the student council. There were only two blacks on the council, Greg Eaton and me. We never lost who we were. We both were blessed because we stayed being black but we totally learned how to relate to the white community, to be comfortable on both sides of the street.
I’ve always had three rules: The best way to get a job is to have a job. The best way to get some money is to have some. The best way to get a girlfriend is to have one, because women don’t want anyone that no one else wants.
Family has always been important to you. How has it shaped who you are and what you’ve done?
My mother raised my two brothers and me. She gave us values. I caddied at the country club, and I shined shoes downtown; I had a paper route. I was always self-sufficient. My mother ended up being the president of the NAACP here in Lansing and I’d listen to people who would call about complaints that they were discriminated against. She would always investigate them. She’d never accept what they said without getting all the facts.
You have five children: Barry; two daughters, Stacia and Dori; and twins David and Jennifer. David and son-in-law Chris work with your development company. What about your other children?
All the kids are different. Jennifer is at MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority). She was Franklin Raines’ assistant at the U.S. Office of Budget and Management and then she was at the White House for eight years. Dori is with the school district and Barry is in Seattle now. It was his idea on the Sir Pizza development. So he’s doing what he wants as a developer. Stacia is also doing development and lives in Newport.
How do you characterize the state’s efforts to attract/support business?
We couldn’t do the Fairgrounds and the Red Cedar without the state and the city’s help. Let’s take the Red Cedar. There is no tax revenue coming. They recognize that having the Brownfield credits and having a recapture on getting this site ready to build means that after a certain point they keep all of the revenue. They know that if they don’t give that assistance nothing will happen. It’s the same thing in any major development. It can’t happen without the state, without LEAP and the city. In a sense, they all get the money back. But they help us get started, it couldn’t happen without this stuff.
It’s been almost three years since the state enacted the right-to-work law. Have you seen any effect on unions?
For me it’s cheaper and better on any major job to go union rather than non-union, because you have someone to go to if people aren’t productive. The union will help and will protect you. The prevailing wage and all that stuff doesn’t bother me because I’m going to pay what the wage should be because it’s better than walking over dollars to save pennies. Spending money the right way is cheaper than cutting corners. Quality beats price.
There is enough poverty in Michigan to find broad income inequality. How serious is this problem? Are there answers?
I’m totally aware. My argument is that you are not in heaven if you are there by yourself.
That’s why I don’t screen my phone calls. Like yesterday, a lady came in and said she didn’t have a place to live and didn’t have enough money. She needed $170. Another guy came in and he needed a bus pass and didn’t have anything to eat. So I gave him a bus pass and some money.
I’ve been in that other place. Some people ask, ‘how can you stand all those people coming in here?’ I say I’d rather be at the end of the line than in the line. Every week I have an issue where someone has been rejected on paper. They have a record or their credit’s not good. I say to my people, ‘yeah, there are a lot of folks who have bad credit but we’re going to give them a chance.’
On our developments here and in Detroit we are going to hire local people. We’re going to give them a chance. I’m going to have arguments with unions on apprenticeships. I know that my position with the unions is that you don’t have any work if you don’t have me, so there are some things you’ve got to do.
To play off “It’s a Wonderful Life,” how would Lansing be different if Joel Ferguson hadn’t stayed in town?
Might not be some buildings or something like that. But the thing I’m still struggling with in Lansing is that we still can’t put our arms around the front side of life.
I grew up and I didn’t have a father, but we had the Lincoln Center, we had playground programs, we had all of these things. And we actually had a summer youth program where we were playing softball against other parks. Now we don’t have any of that. We keep sliding away from investing the money, talking about more police and more of this and more of that. It’s got to be about people, about kids.