DEA continues heritage of bringing leaders together

By Mary Rodrique | DAC News

Every Thursday afternoon, business leaders from across the metro area converge at the DAC for lunch, camaraderie and networking as part of a longstanding tradition of the Detroit Executives Association (DEA). The DAC has had a prominent role in the organization’s success – not just as the weekly meeting spot for an elegant luncheon and speaker’s forum, a role it has played for the past 30 years. Club members founded the DEA and at least one early meeting was held in the Madison Avenue Clubhouse. In addition, nine of the organization’s first dozen presidents were also DAC members. Many more served in that capacity through the years and DAC members still play an active role today. The DEA is a microcosm of society, with representatives from all walks of life. Careers are as fluid as the members themselves and currently include representatives from auto leasing, carpet cleaning, funeral services and home remodeling to name a few. The idea is for members to grow their customer base by utilizing each other’s professional services. It’s a formula that has worked so well that the DEA, founded in 1926, is still going strong nearly nine decades after the first organizational meeting was held at the old Statler Hotel on Washington Boulevard. “It’s another opportunity to meet business people with the sole purpose of exchanging information,” said Tom Rost, a 31-year DAC member who is president of the R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes and Cremation Society of Michigan.

“There are a lot of members whose services I can use: interior design, heating, office supplies, auto repairs,” said Rost, who joined the DEA in 1980 and served as president in 1990. “When I came in we had really big companies. We’ve drifted to smaller organizations but that’s fine. I try to make it every Thursday. The social aspect is nice but we stay focused on business.” DEA membership provides exclusivity within the group. Members promote each other’s businesses, seek advice from other professionals and have a built-in test market for new products and services. “I’ve made some incredible contacts for business advice, partnerships between companies and gotten over a dozen business clients out of being a member of the group,” said Mark Stackpoole, a 12-year DAC member who served as DEA president in 2011. “We’ve used it to find our contacts for office supplies and employee savings program, and set up our financial documents for the company,” added Stackpoole, of Global Telecom Solutions. “I value being able to utilize people we already know and trust, people we feel comfortable with.”

A newsletter published by the non-profit DEA in 1958 shows that the focus hasn’t strayed. “An executives club is not a social club, a service club or a fraternal organization,” it noted. “It is simply a business getting organization. Members are associated to exchange business information.” The organization dates to 1926, when DAC members George Klein, a founding partner in the downtown Detroit law firm now known as Clark Hill, joined W.H.C. Burnett, an insurance agent with Canada Life with offices in the Buhl Building, to establish a Detroit chapter of the International Executives Association (IEA). The men served as the DEA’s co-presidents in 1926 and 1927. Klein joined the DAC in 1917 and was a member for over 40 years. Burnett joined in 1913 and resigned in 1932.

The first organizational meeting of the DEA was held at the Statler Hotel on Feb. 26, 1926. It included election of officers and adoption of articles of association. “It has the earmarks of being the best of its kind ever organized in Detroit,” Burnett noted at the time. Early on, there was a split between the co-founders of the Detroit chapter regarding belonging to the international association. The IEA wanted $50 per member for each of the first 50 members in Detroit. Just $10 per member would stay with the local chapter with $40 going to the IEA to subsidize newsletters, an annual convention and an inter-city lead program. The Detroit chapter had reached its quota of 50 members by the end of 1926 and Burnett wanted to honor the IEA commitment while Klein thought it too expensive. According to a history posted on the IEA website, the movement began in San Francisco in 1915 and by 1928 spread to 26 cities in the U.S. and Canada. In a letter Burnett wrote to Klein in 1926 he referenced an earlier meeting held at the DAC where IEA Executive Secretary Worth Caldwell of Portland fully explained to DEA members present – “that we belong to the international association on their regular terms.”

In a letter to Caldwell, Klein noted “the charge to members is out of proportion to the amount of business or benefit to be derived.” The Detroit membership sided with Klein and never did join the international group. In fact on Jan. 26, 1927 the name of the association was officially changed from the Detroit International Executives Association to simply the Detroit Executives Association. According to the IEA history, after the 1927 convention, resignations were received from a number of local groups. To boost its stature locally, Burnett decreed that the first annual DEA banquet be held at the DAC “all expenses paid by him with the understanding that he invites the press.” Other DAC members who were affiliated with the DEA in the beginning include 1928 president James Vernor, Jr. of the iconic Vernor’s Ginger Ale and R.B. Gotfredson of Gotfredson Trucking. DAC members Charles Bennett, William Davis, Joseph Hickey, T. Mel Rinehart, Ralph Thomas, and James Hopkins were early DEA presidents.

In 1931, an executive association was launched in New York City as the result of a DEA member. New Yorker Jesse Perlman, while visiting his brother-inlaw Ralph Wilson in Detroit, attended a DEA meeting and was impressed by the idea and its methods. Both men were life insurance agents. According to IEA history, Perlman launched the New York association after he secured a copy of the Detroit association’s bylaws. During the 1930s the DEA staged an annual fashion show at the Statler Hotel for members and guests before Christmas. Retail merchants in the association displayed their wares – including Himelhoch Brothers and Company women’s wear, Hickey’s Men’s Wear, Fyfe’s Shoes, Wright Kay Jewelers and Dietrich’s Furs. After the fashion show, Mrs. George Klein hosted a tea. “George Klein believed that there should be an association of prominent Detroit businesses that could meet to discuss doing business with one another and business topics in general,” explained Doug Rasmussen, who represented the Clark Hill law firm for several years as a member of the DEA. Rasmussen, the DAC’s president in 1997, recalls being taken to his first DEA meeting in 1965 in the old Statler Hotel, which became part of the Hilton chain in 1954. The hotel closed in 1975 and was demolished in 2005.

“The DEA met there for several years until the hotel closed and then met for awhile at the Masonic Temple. It was in the 1980s that the DEA moved its meetings to the DAC,” noted Rasmussen, who served as DEA president in 1988. “The premise was you won’t get business from your friends and colleagues unless you are willing to give business to them,” said Rasmussen. “Thus the exchange of business contacts, orders, engagement and sales made the group flourish even to this day.” Clark Hill is the longest surviving member business of the association, dating all the way back to founder Klein. Today its representative on the DEA is DAC Board Director Tom MacFarlane. MacFarlane, who was DEA president in 2007, notes that unlike similar groups, the association doesn’t penalize members if they fail to meet a certain quota of referrals. “A referral organization is still a big part of what DEA is all about, but it’s evolved into more than that,” said MacFarlane. “It’s a group of friends who meet for lunch, socialize outside of the DEA several times a year, and recognize an outstanding executive of the year annually.”

Last year, Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland was feted as DEA Executive of the Year. Past recipients of the award, bestowed annually since 1979, have included DAC members Richard Manoogian, chairman of Masco Industries; Keith Crain, chairman of Crain Communications; and Ivan Ludington, Jr., who served as DAC president in 1988 and was president of the Ludington News Company. DAC members whose companies are currently affiliated with the DEA include Corporate Fleet Services, Clark Hill, Conner Park Florist, Burton Brothers General Contractors, Standhardt Design, Global Telecom Solutions, Frisbie Moving and Storage and The Reaume Company. Today under current president Chris Ingoglia, the DEA is part of the global IEA network, with chapters across the nation, Canada and Great Britain. The international group is run by a volunteer board with equal representation for each chapter. “For years the chapters met for an annual conference but it wasn’t until 1996 that a number in attendance voted to make the IEA more than a loose grouping,” said Betty Adams, managing director of the IEA in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Detroit finally joined the international association in 2001. Closing in on 90 years, the DEA is still helping business leaders connect.