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From Basketball to Billions: Dave Bing

Dave Bing, former NBA All-StarDave Bing uses the same old-fashioned dedication to hard work that made him an NBA All-Star to become one of America's most successful Blacks in business. His steel company is likely to bring in a $1 billion a year by 2005.

Toronto Raptor Vince Carter just signed a six-year contract for $94.5 million dollars. That's just chump change. Yep, barely a jingle in the old piggy bank. Multiply that by a hundred and you'll get closer to the projected annual gross for former NBA All-Star Dave Bing's business. Bing is slowly and steadily moving closer to his goal of being the head of a billion dollar a year business. His automotive supplier companies, Bing Metals Group and Bing-Lear Manufacturing, working together as The Bing Group, already have annual sales of $375 million.

Bing played for twelve years in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons and was voted one of the top fifty basketball players of all time. But Carter and Bing have more than excellence in basketball in common. While Carter sneaked away before an NBA playoff game to attend his college graduation, drawing harsh criticism for putting education first, over twenty years ago, Bing had already been quietly showing the world that he also had priorities he places above pro sports. While playing pro basketball, Bing spent his off seasons in training, but not on a court. Bing worked seven off-seasons in the training department at National Bank of Detroit and another three with Chrysler Corp, learning everything he needed to know to fund and run his own steel business.

Bing advises others starting in business to build a relationship with a financial institution. "You have to put the time in," he says. "You don't get to the top right away. You have to build credibility at lower levels first. The people you work with will move up in the organization, and over time, you'll get the chairman at the top."

During those off seasons Bing's friends and teammates scoffed and played golf while Bing worked. But Bing preferred to keep busy---doing what he advises others to do---building credibility at lower levels first.

Bing is a very serious man. With that seriousness comes a willingness to proceed slowly and to think big, building dreams carefully brick by brick, from the bottom up. His relationship with the National Bank of Detroit afforded him half the funding he used to buy his first 32,000-square-foot factory in Detroit. Using an obsolete slitter donated by GM, Bing began cutting cold-rolled steel to size and shipping it to automakers in 1980.

Foundations and Education

Bing once helped his father build apartment houses and churches in northeast Washington, D.C., learning valuable lessons. One day while the young Bing labored to build a brick wall, his father merely watched until the wall stood complete, gave it a purposeful shove, and watched it collapse. "You have to start with a good foundation," he told his son.

The principle of a strong foundation became a guiding one for Bing, who always felt that pro sports was a "fairy tale" that keeps small groups of players separated from the "real world." Bing wanted more options in life. "All of our role models cannot be athletes, cannot be entertainers, can't be drug dealers," he told Forbes magazine.

"Vince Carter made the right decision," Bing says. "We have a system that talks out of both sides of their mouths. We promote the importance of education, but when Carter thought it was important to graduate and get his degree he was criticized by a lot of folks. We can't have it both ways. If the NBA were smart, they'd use that as a positive public relations piece. In a playoff nothing is more important than that, but he will have other opportunities to be in playoffs and take his team to a championship - he only has one opportunity to attend his graduation from college."

From Basketball to Business

The late 70's and early 80's were Dark Ages for athletes, when NBA annual salaries could be as low as id="mce_marker"5,000 per year. And basketball players, especially Black basketball players, didn't command the same respect or star quality they do today, or step easily into business enterprises and film roles like a Shaq or a Magic.

Initially, Bing found it difficult to break into the role of businessman. "Most people just wanted to talk basketball," he told Forbes. "It wasn't a big deal for business contacts to cancel on me without letting me know. It was pretty demeaning. I didn't feel I belonged to the business world."

Starting with four employees, and losing money during his first year, Bing survived amidst pressures like meeting deadlines to keep Ford's production lines running while his own suppliers overcharged him, obstacles that could have easily wrecked another start up business. The company became profitable within three years. Today the Bing Group of Companies in Detroit Michigan is the fifth largest Black-owned company in America. Bing employs 1,500 people, 80% of whom are African American. The Bing Group was named as the Black Enterprise Company of the Year in 1998.

Bing Metals Group provides steel slitting, stamping and blanking for car frames to the automotive industry, and Bing Lear manufacturing provides seat assembly and mirror products. Customers include General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler.

When Bing's daughter, Cassaundra graduated from college, Bing told her that she should try her hand at the steel business for a while. "That little while became forever," Cassaundra laughs. She now works as Vice President of Materials, Purchasing and Logistics and has been with the company for fifteen years. "Steel is a unique industry," she says. "Once it gets into your blood you can't shake it. I jokingly refer to it as having an "iron deficiency." It's competitive and the customers are very demanding. I love the challenge."

Those challenges are intense. In supplying steel and parts to the big automakers, stiff competition makes it difficult to write in any extra pennies of profit on an invoice. "Ford, GM and Chrysler are our big customers," Cassaundra says. "When they do well---we do well. When automotive is building 17 million units, everything's great, but the "R" (recession) word could create a totally different situation." Cassaundra seems confident about The Bing Group's ability to ride through the economic ups and downs. "Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance," she says. "We call these the 'five P's.' D.B., as I refer to my dad professionally, instilled these principles in my sisters and I early in life. He practices them both personally and professionally."

Commitment to Employees and to Black America

Just as Bing was quietly planning to own a steel company while playing basketball, he continues to plan far into the future. Bing has an intense commitment to his employees, and he sees his business as not just a profit-making machine for one person, he intends for it to become a legacy for Black America. However, not even Bing's own family members waltz into high positions or easy wealth without proving themselves first.

"If the family wants to be part of the business, he has no problem creating an opportunity," Cassaundra Bing says. "But the expectation is a lot different. I work darn hard. You have to produce just like anyone else or better. You have to earn it, it definitely is not a birth right!"

"I am definitely against a company that is "African American owned" and becomes a shell where one person makes the money," Bing says. "People have got to participate in the success of our companies - it can't be just the individual entrepreneur."

"He is definitely trying to build a solid foundation for Black America and for his family. This is something that is not common in the Black community," Cassaundra says. "I think what's important is that the legacy he is creating will be carried to the next generation, and to the generation after that."

"We are more than just a Black-owned business," Bing says. "Its important that your key employees understand that they are an integral part of the business. They are stockholders. They've made commitments to me and I've made commitments to them."

"He demands a lot," Cassaundra says. "I know that when he drives me it's to make me better. Sometimes its hard to separate the personal from the professional, but when I take a step back, I know its only going to make me better."

Like other top executives, one of the keys to Bing's success is that he'll hand a pink slip to a poor performer with no hesitation. "He is responsible for 1,500 employees and their families and he cannot afford to hold on to excess baggage," Cassaundra explains. "He instills that principle in his leadership. He's very fair."

Managers can start earning equity after three years with The Bing Group, and although the company is now privately held, he has distributed 19% of the ownership to employees, maintaining control of the rest.

Social Programs

Bing has remained committed to Detroit, and works within a network of businesspeople who have renovated some of the city's most blighted areas. He requires each of his managers to become actively involved in a community-based organization, and about a dozen Bing group employees serve regularly as volunteer teachers in public schools.

Located in the Detroit Empowerment Zone, a depressed neighborhood where the big automakers provide contracts to business owners willing to operate there and employ locals, Bing's business has been a blessing for Detroit's unemployed. However, doing business in a rough neighborhood presents unique challenges, the biggest of which is finding, keeping and developing top talent.

In 1999, the Bing Group joined with Ford Motor Company to build the Detroit Manufacturing Training Center, a program that trains workers for positions with minority-owned auto suppliers. "We get people with all kinds of problems," Bing says, discussing the fact that some workers are ex-prison inmates or individuals transitioning from welfare to work. "We have a chance to train them before they come on the actual job." The center teaches students basic business etiquette like the importance of punctuality and attendance, as well as specific skills like injection moulding. The Center's id="mce_marker".5 million annual budget is shared by several non-profits.

Bing serves as a board member for nine different organizations, including the Michigan Minority Business Development Council and the National Association of Black Automotive Suppliers. He is also on the board of advisors to ten different charitable organizations, and his favorites are those that work with youth and education.

"Junior Achievement in the public schools in Detroit gives the young inner city kids a chance to understand business principles," Bing says. "That's something that was unheard of when I was growing up. We teach our young folks now to think about running their own companies, and that's extremely important."

Bing has become such a well-known and respected leader in Detroit that he has been asked to consider running for mayor."That push hasn't gone away," he says. "I won't close the door one hundred percent but it could be a possibility down the road. I won't say never."

Goals for the Future

"My goal is to reach one billion in sales," Bing says. "In this industry we don't have a specialty niche, so therefore I think size and scale is important. Most of the people we compete against are huge international operations."

Bing says that becoming a publicly traded company is imminent. Bing intends to use the additional capital to expand into Mexico or possibly South America. "It's exciting," he says. "The reporting and management style will change quite a bit. We're not a mom and pop operation, but we still have our independence. But if in fact we're going to grow to that magnitude we're going to have to go on the public marketplace."

When asked if her father will reach his billion dollar a year goal, Cassaundra answers firmly, "Yes, it will happen. He's a great visionary and with the right leadership each company will be tremendously successful. His vision is the true footprint for the next generation."

"I would like to be a player in the 21st century and it can't just be here," Bing says, describing his ideas about expanding beyond Detroit. "I can do a lot in Detroit because I understand my labor pool and my politics. My key relationships are here and my community involvement is here. If I go somewhere else I have to depend on others for those relationships. Those relationships take some time to develop."

"I've got to make sure I create the right kind of environment for people to continue to grow and learn," Bing says. "But to continue to drive this company forward, we can't just depend on what we've always done in the past. The biggest challenge will be getting the right people with the right skill set to manage an enterprise of that magnitude. I will have to do a lot of recruiting and reach out further. I want the best talent available. Identifying talent and refining that talent is the biggest issue I've had," he explains.

Obstacles and Achievements

In August 1999, an arson fire leveled Bing Manufacturing, a 60,000-square-foot parts plant, near Oakland and Caniff in Detroit. The plant had produced headrests and plastic bumper parts. In December, a second fire burned 35,000 square feet of Detroit Automotive Interiors L.L.C.'s 135,000-square-foot building, located on East Nevada in Detroit. The fires caused $3 million in damage and destroyed more than $2 million in inventory.

Bing told Crain's Detroit Business that he feels one of his biggest achievements was making his organization run again after the fires, which may have been set by disgruntled employees. Bing borrowed space from neighboring Coca Cola and began producing products again within days.

On Being African American

When asked how being an African American has helped or hindered him in business, Bing says, "It's a sword that cuts at both edges. From a diversity standpoint, some of the automotive diversity programs have given us opportunity. But, from a historical standpoint, society in general puts a ceiling in front of you that says you can only do so much. It's a mixed bag---you have to weigh it and see exactly where you fit."

Education is the enlightening element and eases racial glass ceilings, Bing believes. "Some barriers definitely still exist," he says. "Especially in the lower levels of my customer base, but not at the executive level. The farther you go down the more animosity you find, but executives are more secure, mostly because they are more educated."

Cassaundra's experience working in the steel industry, as a Black, and additionally as a woman, has shocked her at times, but has also encouraged her to contribute to the advancement of women at the Bing Group.

"I like that I've been able to make a difference in the company and for the people," she says. "In 1980 when we started, there was only one other female in a managerial position. The challenges that come from being a minority and a female are unbelievable. You would think some of these biases would be gone, but they came right up front and hit hard."

What is her advice to other Black women in business? "Know that prejudice still exists," she says. "But be woman enough to be able to handle whatever the issue may be head on without losing your professionalism. There have been times when I had to bite my tongue and walk away to a bathroom because I was so angry. But eventually, I can get a person to accept me not for who I am, but for what I do."

As the mother of a five-year-old daughter, Cassaundra is also especially sensitive to the special needs of women to balance their personal and professional lives. "Women talk to me about daycare issues; they can't talk to a man about those things," she says. As a result of those discussions, Cassaundra has assisted in creating flextime policies so women aren't forced to choose between family tasks and career priorities.

Basketball's Highest Honors

An All American basketball player in high school, in 1962 Bing won a basketball scholarship and went to Syracuse University, where he studied economics and marketing. The Pistons drafted him in 1966, as their number one draft choice, and the NBA's overall number two draft choice. He played twelve seasons with the NBA, and was one of the highest-paid players with a $250,000 salary.

Bing had a reputation as a low key but extremely hard working player with extraordinary jumping ability and accurate shooting. A Time correspondent characterized Bing as having "whippet-like speed and agility."

Bing was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame in 1984, and into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1990. An eight time All Star, The Pistons acknowledged Bing with their highest honor when they retired his number. At age 58, Bing is still an honored player, but in the global economy, an arena that's just a little bit bigger.

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