Frank Venegas couldn't really afford a ticket to the Livingston County Building Association's annual dinner dance in 1979. His management job at a Detroit steel company was in jeopardy. Besides, he had just bought a new house and his wife was expecting their first child. But, knowing that all of his friends would be there, Venegas managed to scrape together $150 for a ticket. His life--and one Detroit community--would never be the same.
Venegas sang, danced, and drank as raffle tickets were pulled out of a big barrel one by one. By midnight, only two tickets remained and, since his number hadn't been drawn yet, he knew one of them was his. Venegas drove home from the party in a brand-new gold Cadillac Coupe DeVille. One week later he sold it to an attorney for $12,000: the start-up money for his very own steel company.
Last year, Ideal Group--the business Venegas started with his modest raffle winnings--generated about $106 million in revenue, thanks in part to major construction projects like Ford Field, the new home of the Detroit Lions football team. The company runs seven different construction and manufacturing concerns throughout Michigan. For a while, Venegas admits, he thought success meant escaping Detroit, so he set up factories, and a home, in the suburbs. But in the mid-1990s, a friend encouraged him to move part of his company back into the city. "He called us chicken shits," Venegas recalls.
Responding to the challenge, Venegas and two other Hispanic manufacturers relocated established divisions of their companies to an abandoned Cadillac factory in gang-ridden southwest Detroit. Venegas started hiring ex-cons and gang members from the neighborhood, providing them with medical benefits and retirement plans. Antonio Rivera had just served a five-year jail sentence for selling crack cocaine when he began working at the plant in 1997, assembling and packing up guardrails. Today, thanks in part to the encouragement Venegas has given him, Rivera manages the distribution of Ideal Shield's products throughout the southeastern U.S. "I don't have to worry about the FBI kicking in my door anymore," he says. "I have freedom."
The Hispanic Manufacturing Center, which now employs a total of 500 workers, is helping revitalize southwest Detroit. It's been used as a template for similar programs in Milwaukee and parts of Texas and has been visited by the likes of Al Gore and former Ford CEO Jacques Nasser. Venegas is pleased with the plant's low turnover rate, and says it is one of his more profitable factories. He visits it daily. "We're more of a family there," he says.
Venegas has become one of Detroit's leading business owners. But he insists that his success has more to do with good fortune than with business smarts or courage. "Luck is involved with everything you do," he says. "I'm just a raffle winner."--Nadine Heintz
Nadine Heintz is a staff writer.