Last November, when we announced that Detroit would be the host city of our 2009 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference, America’s largest annual gathering of black entrepreneurs, there were more than a few people who responded: Why Detroit?
It’s a fair question. We’ve all read the headlines of the woes facing the Motor City. It was among the cities hardest hit by the epidemic of home foreclosures triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis. And the automotive industry that the city is both named and known for, led by General Motors, a longtime host of the Entrepreneurs Conference, was in a literal life-or death struggle for survival. This led former President Bush to announce a desperately needed $17.4 billion emergency loan to GM and Chrysler on Dec. 20, to be fine-tuned and implemented by President Barack Obama. But in the months leading up to our decision to bring our conference to Detroit, it was far from certain that a bailout plan would be approved in time to save Detroit’s automakers, if agreement on a rescue plan could be reached at all. So, to repeat: Why Detroit?
Our answer is simple: We’re stepping up for Detroit because Detroit has always stepped up for us. It is fashionable now to point out the American auto industry’s long-overdue need to restructure and adapt to the realities of global competition. And the government loan package extended to GM and Chrysler rightly includes stipulations that require them to do just that. But the errors and failures of the industry are beside the point. The fact is Americans have come to rely on the jobs and economic activity that Detroit’s auto industry has provided over the years. According to the Center for Automotive Research, as many as 3 million jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars would be lost from the U.S. economy if General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were to close shop.
You need only take a brief look at the be 100s, our annual listing of the nation’s largest black-owned companies, to clearly see the potentially devastating impact on black economic progress. At least 15% of the companies on our 2008 listing of the 100 largest industrial/service companies are direct suppliers to the automotive industry. These companies generated nearly $3.7 billion in revenues and employed more than 5,000 people. Add to that the nearly $9 billion generated and more than 11,000 people employed by the 100 largest black-owned auto dealerships. The combined sales of these companies represent nearly half of
the total sales of the nation’s largest black-owned companies in 2007. Now follow the domino effect to black-owned companies in every industry–including the magazine business, which has always looked to Detroit as a reliable sales engine–and you can see what is at stake. It is not a stretch to say that any threat to the economic health of Detroit is also a threat to the growth and vitality of black business. And as a former board member of Chrysler, Daimler Chrysler, and Daimler A.G., I would be remiss if