One can learn quite a bit in business school. I learned quite a bit from business school. As a BBA student at the University of Michigan Business School (now Ross), I went to school each day in Davidson Hall, and each day when I passed under those words, I smiled. “Davidson” – and I always wondered how many of my classmates realized it – stood for Bill Davidson, owner of Guardian Glass, and, more importantly to me, the Detroit Pistons. Mr. D, as he was affectionately called by everyone who worked for him, died last week at age 86, saying goodbye nearly three years after the building that bore his name was torn down. His legacy, however, is one that won’t, and shouldn’t, be forgotten.
Mr. D’s building was demolished to make way for a state-of-the-art facility for the newly-named Ross School of Business just a few years ago, and to his credit, Davidson embraced the change. It was classic Davidson, to be honest – for a man who, and I say this with reverence, came across as old-fashioned, and stubborn, he was seemingly always on the forefront of change. I first came to know his work as a young fan of the Detroit Pistons; as owner, he was the first to purchase a private plane for an NBA team (which is now standard) and in 1988 built an arena still considered to be among the class of the league…and did it completely with private financing. Unlike many owners who saw their teams as hobbies, Davidson ran his as a business, and considered these luxuries to be investments in his team success.
I witnessed that success firsthand as a sales representative for his company, Palace Sports & Entertainment, in the early years of this decade. By then, some 15 years after building the Palace of Auburn Hills and truly beginning his entertainment empire, Davidson owned multiple concert venues, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, and the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. He ran a tight ship – employees wore jacket and tie at all times, were prohibited from wearing facial hair, and kept rigid hours. But, more importantly, he ran a family, and saw his staff as that. Like a grandfather to most of us – salespeople in sports tend to be young and energetic – his words carried quite a bit of weight. “Mr. D would like it if we…” was all anyone needd to say, and the initiative commanded respect. We worked hard for him, but loved doing it.
He cared just the same for his employees at Guardian – perhaps even more so, as that was the business that earned him his fortune – and carried this incredible aura of love and respect throughout his businesses and the state of Michigan. He was fiercely loyal to his employees and his companies, demanding respect but giving it right back. My two favorite memories:
1) At the parade celebrating the Pistons’ 2004 NBA Championship, he took personal exception to those in the media who nearly unanimously predicted that the Lakers would make quick work of the Pistons, grinning from ear to hear as he shouted some choice words at those who disrespected his team.
2) In 2003 we distributed our season tickets in packages designed to look (and perform) like lunchpails in the style of a blue collar, hardworking team. Mr. D, a multimillionaire who could afford anything he wanted, brought his lunch to work each day in that free, souvenir lunchpail.
I learned a lot in business school, but I think I learned quite a bit from the man whose name appeared on my business school, as well. Command respect by giving respect, and lead by example when it comes to keeping expenses lean and work ethic high. Invest wisely and don’t let pride get in the way of doing the right thing. Hire good people and trust them to do the same. Thanks, Mr. D, from all of us who were fortunate to spend time in your school and your Palace.