Spreading the Wealth

South Central survivor Louis Green launches a $100 million annual fund to give minority-owned businesses a shot at grabbing a piece of Detroit’s redevelopment pie

Louis Green is taking a big, bold shot on behalf of southeast Michigan’s minority business community. It’s only the randomness of another shot that allowed the opportunity.

“Three of us were sitting on a porch, kind of a typical scene out of Boyz n the Hood,” Green, outgoing president and CEO of the Detroit-based Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council (MMSDC), relates of one moment growing up in — and ultimately escaping — the notoriously tough neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles.

“Suddenly there’s a drive-by, right? The car speeds up to shoot one of us, but most gangbangers don’t practice shooting from a moving car and they don’t know physics.

“So although the bullet was intended for the guy on one side of me, the guy on the other side gets killed, and I’m sitting right in the middle of them! I mean, we were bunched up! Life is just so random,” Green says. “I can only assume it was God, dumb luck, or some combination thereof.”

After Green enrolled in LA’s Dorsey High School, “two people were shot the first day,” he recalls. His mother, Althea Green, had enough. She finagled to get him into a special program for inner-city students at Beverly Hills (Calif.) High School, eventually leading to a full-ride scholarship at Ohio’s Oberlin College — in physics.

Green graduated with a degree in government and communications with an economic concentration, earned a master’s at the University of Michigan, and assembled a resumé that includes working as an economic adviser to Govs. Jim Blanchard and John Engler, chief deputy director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and national director of supplier diversity for NBC in New York.

With the MMSDC for most of a decade, Green, 53, has made it his business to assist more than 2,000 member businesses to secure a greater share of work with corporations, particularly the Big Three.

Has he succeeded? Follow the money. Since Green took leadership of the nonprofit organization in 2005, annual contracts for MMSDC members have soared from $16 billion to $28 billion.

“That’s a hard number to get my head around,” Green says. “And it’s risen steadily save for one year, the automotive implosion in 2008 — when GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy.

“The numbers just sound insane.”

The numbers also include a $5 million “rainy-day fund” Green amassed for MMSDC’s coffers.

So last August, when Green made the announcement that he was leaving the council to pursue those ever-popular “other interests,” the membership was, well, dismayed.

“A true leader, in my opinion, serves … and he served everybody,” says Andra Rush, MMSDC board member and trailblazing CEO of Rush Trucking Inc. “He was able to grow the organization. He’s just a solid person. A-plus. Those are going to be hard shoes to fill.”

Poppycock, Green differs. “You know that famous quote from Charles de Gaulle?” he asks between bites of salmon at Joe Muer’s. “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Besides, he reasons, his new endeavor allows him to maintain his ties with the metro Detroit executives he has grown to admire.

On Nov. 12, flanked by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and prominent business leaders, Green unveiled the Minority Business Access Fund, a $100 million-per-year fund aimed at helping small- and medium-size businesses survive and grow.

“I accomplished everything I wanted to [at the MMSDC],” Green explains, “and it has been great to work with minority businesses and help them get access to contracts.

But more importantly, one of the things I realized was that these folks were doing very well and some still can’t get financing.

“I was on a panel at the Federal Reserve and they talked about a study that minority businesses are less likely to get loans, and when they do, they’re at a higher rate. They’re so put off by the process, they won’t even bother to apply. I realized I could change that dynamic.”

Green reached out to private equity sources to create the fund, building coalitions along the way.

This comes as no surprise to those who have watched him work. “He took the council to the next level in making connections between diverse suppliers and corporate America,” notes MMSDC member Roderick Rickman, chairman and CEO of the Detroit environmental and industrial services company that bears his name. “One of his commitments is to identify and develop relationships, and commitment is within his DNA.”

Green expects the fund to grow in years to come, as outside investors view Detroit as a land ripe with opportunity.

“At the end of the day money makes everything happen, right?” he says. “You see all these things going on in Detroit, the M-1 rail, Midtown. All this stuff, without money, is not going to happen for us, for businesses of color. If the banks were doing their job, we wouldn’t have this fund.”

His other reason for making this transition now is deeply personal: His mother, in LA, is in the middle stages of dementia; his father Louis “was healthy as a horse” in San Diego until suffering a stroke at 78.

Being so far away, combined with the astronomical costs of care, inspired him to investigate buying an assisted living facility in California, providing a measure of reassurance for Green, his wife, Sulan, and their three children.

“I knew the only way I was going to get the kind of care I wanted was to buy and own the home,” he says. “I’m just starting on that venture, but you know what? When you’re forced with something, you find the capacity. This is the proverbial gun upside my head. I have to do something I never thought about.”