In Flint, we all learned to play team sports, and to be loyal and honest to one another. The techniques of small business — sales, marketing, and goal setting — were a vital part of our daily culture.
This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
GM was founded by a great entrepreneur, William C. (Billy) Durant. Durant had been born in 1861 in Massachusetts. His family moved to Flint in 1871. Billy dropped out of high school to work in his grandfather’s lumber business, and then became a salesman. His lifelong motto was: “Get a self seller, and if you do not have one, get one.” One day in 1884, Durant was walking down the street in Flint and a friend came by in a buggy and offered him a ride. Noticing that the ride was virtually jolt-free, due to a unique spring (suspension) system, he asked where his friend had purchased the buggy. The very next day he took a train down to the town of Coldwater, and bought controlling interest in the Coldwater Road Cart Company from the inventor of the spring system.
Moving operations to Flint, changing the company’s name to the Flint Road Cart Company, and taking on Josiah Dort as a partner, Durant was now in business. Within days he drove one of the buggies to a trade show in Wisconsin. Offering rides in his “self-seller,” Durant took orders for 600 carts. He used these to contract with a buggy manufacturer in Flint to make the carts. That transaction was the beginning of Billy’s domination of the buggy industry in the late 19th century, and it put Flint on the map as an industrial center. In 1904, he expanded into the new motor car field and purchased a failing company from David Buick. He acquired many automobile companies, consolidating them into the five lines that became ubiquitous on American roads and highways: Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, and Pontiac (originally Oakland). Durant incorporated General Motors in 1908. GM was for decades the most successful corporation in the world.
Durant lost control of General Motors the first time — through overexpansion — in 1910. He made a comeback in 1917, and then was pushed out for good in 1920. He started Durant Motors the following year, was dealt a crippling blow (like so many others) by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and had to close the business in 1933 — having lost his personal fortune as well, by single-handedly trying to shore up the company’s stock price (he was especially sensitive to the fact that his fellow citizens in Flint were losing the money they had invested in his company). He died broke in Flint in 1947, after an unsuccessful try with operating a bowling alley, which he rightly saw as a great opportunity in family entertainment.
After 1937, Flint became a city that cared about its workers getting a fair shake. I think that the city’s support of the working class was a major reason why the revolutionary group, the Weathermen, held a “war council” in Flint. It was December 1969 and, as president of my junior class and the de facto leader of the anti-war effort in my high school, I knew some of the SDS leaders from Ann Arbor and would often send them letters asking for advise. They arranged for me to meet with several of the Weathermen when they came to Flint, as I wanted to see how I could get involved with their efforts to end the war in Vietnam. I had no idea that their ranks were composed of disturbed and violent people, who saw no difference between Thomas Jefferson and Josef Stalin. During the meeting at a local Howard Johnson’s, I quickly realized I was dealing with psychotics and got out of there as fast as I could.
Another memory I have of Flint is the love of cars that we all had. Also, sports were a common interest. All sports were played and appreciated. The local golf courses were outstanding. Even though golf can’t be played in the area until May, it was popular, and two of my friends played on the University of Michigan’s varsity team. I remember Rick Leach, the legendary football player, who grew up half a mile away from where I lived; he was named the Big Ten’s MVP in the mid-70s. I was his elementary school soccer coach.
The Mott Foundation sponsored a summer sports program, and at least a dozen sports were offered through the annual Flint Olympian Games; the best athletes in each category competed against Hamilton, Ontario, in the CANUSA Games. Three of the great memories of my life are winning the AAU state wrestling championship at the IMA (now the Perani Arena) — the largest building in Flint — against Arnold Deleon, in 1967, when I was 14; being part of a track team in 1967 that ran a relay carrying a torch 245 miles to Hamilton, to begin the Games; and being on the first Flint team to beat the Canadians in soccer! Growing up in Flint I developed skills in no less than 17 sports and games, including badminton, archery, and bowling.
As in all communities, there was a dark side to Flint. The wage rate that the unions and General Motors had agreed to made it almost impossible for the young or minorities to get jobs. Unemployment rose to over 50% for minority youth. Compounded over decades, this led to tragedies — my high school friend Angie turned to prostitution and was murdered, and my favorite English teacher was killed with an arrow! Flint now has one of the highest murder rates in America (45.7 per 100,000 in 2006, as compared with 7.3 in New York City). The population is down to about 102,000, the 1950s level, and the wages in the plants, which were as high at $45 per hour — plus $30-worth of benefits — are in some cases down to $14 dollars, with benefits. Only 8000 people work for GM now, compared with the 80,000 of the late 70s. But things are starting to turn around, as the small-business community is fighting back and the major plants are starting to hire again. As Flint continues its renaissance, the violence should drop significantly.
To earn money in the summers, I always worked, and even started my own businesses — seven between the ages of 11 and 21: golf ball recovery in the Flint River, home cleaning services, newspaper delivery, bike repair, selling fire alarms, etc. In the golf-ball-recovery venture, I hired “Golfball Charlie” — a specialist in finding things in dirty river water — to fish for missing balls in the Flint River. I would buy them from him at a quarter apiece and resell them at the clubhouse for fifty cents. No doubt I would sometimes be selling the found ball back to the golfer that had lost it!
Being Flint’s first male Avon sales representative was exciting! The lessons I learned included how to sell and the importance of keeping good records. I learned to ask questions and listen to other people’s problems and needs. One summer I designed and had made a key holder that could go on the inside of people’s doors as a place to hang their keys, and offered them to my door-to-door Avon customers. I sold thirty.
I wanted to sell fire alarms because I thought every home needed one. I would call people in neighborhoods that had had fires and make appointments to go see them. Invariably, at some point I was always shown politely to the door. However, this endeavor gave me a mental toughness and taught me to keep going no matter what. These early experiences with entrepreneurship and small business became part of the foundation for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) that I founded in 1987. Many of the organization’s concepts and lessons were first developed in these entrepreneurial businesses that I created in Flint, and then applied to teaching at-risk children many years later.
In Flint, we all learned to play team sports, and to be loyal and honest to one another. The techniques of small business — sales, marketing, and goal setting — were a vital part of our daily culture. Perhaps most important, we learned to make things — like rafts and boats and small electric carts. We understood the value of will, persistence, determination, and pride. “Sometimes life is pure joy,” was our motto.
The lessons I learned in Flint have stayed with me all my life.