Business sure to miss Prechter's vision, connection
By Mark Rutkowski & Andrea Blum, Heritage Newspapers
SOUTHGATE — News of Heinz Prechter’s death Friday spurred a lot of questions about the man and the disease he battled for nearly 30 years.
It raised just as many questions, however, about what will become of the business empire he built, one that includes not only ASC Inc., but Heritage Newspapers and various other interests ranging from hotels to livestock.
Prechter, who died Friday at 59, first came Downriver in 1967. Two years earlier, he started American Sunroof Co. in Los Angeles with less than $1,000 in equipment and himself as the lone employee.
Heinz Prechter eventually moved his company to the Detroit area.
This photograph was taken in 1967.
Today, ASC Inc. and its subsidiaries employ more than 2,200 people and operate facilities in the United States, Canada, Germany and South Korea.
His holdings, though, weren’t limited to ASC. In the mid-1980s, Prechter bought the Wyandotte-based News-Herald Newspapers and the Lincoln Park-based Mellus Newspapers and merged them to form Heritage Newspapers, a chain that today employs 300 at nearly 20 properties from Downriver to Dearborn and from Washtenaw County to suburban Flint.
David Treadwell, president and chief executive officer of Prechter Holdings and vice chairman of ASC Inc., said yesterday that Prechter’s vision and leadership will certainly be missed, but that Prechter, for many years, had not been involved in the day-to-day operations of any of the companies.
"Over the last couple of years he’s really been pushing us, saying, ‘I’m not always going to be here to do this forever for you. You need to start to develop these relationships on your own,’" Treadwell said, adding that as far back as 1993, Prechter stepped away from the daily operations of ASC and the other businesses.
"Certainly, the associates at ASC know what his role has been and who’s running the company."
The impact, according to Treadwell and Fredrick Manuel, president of Heritage Media Network, will come in terms of the leadership and mentoring Prechter brought to the table.
"Heinz is going to be missed for his tremendous network of people in the auto industry," Treadwell said. "He could open doors like no one you’ve ever seen."
Manuel agreed, saying that Prechter’s connections were a large reason for the newspapers’ success. On a more personal level, Manuel said he will miss the mentoring Prechter gave him as Heritage Newspapers continued to expand.
"A big component that Heinz offered was having a vision and imagination," Manuel said. "As far as the newspapers go, we have strong management. We built a great staff and that’s because Heinz Prechter saw the ability and the talent of the people we have."
Ernest Nagy was publisher of The Mellus Newspapers at the time of the merger and said his future boss initially was hesitant to get into the newspaper business.
"We approached him with the idea, and he said, ‘What do I know about newspapers? I’m an automotive guy,’" Nagy recalled.
After examining the proposal and talking it over with business associates, Prechter decided to take the leap. Even though he always was a hands-on owner with ASC, Prechter took a different approach with the newspapers.
"He never interfered with our ideas or programs," Nagy said. "His operation was to hire qualified people he trusted and let them run with the ball."
At the time of the merger of the area’s two major newspapers, the area was struggling with an image problem. Prechter stepped in to change the focus of the area as strictly a blue-collar region.
"He was an innovator," Nagy said. "Nobody did more for Downriver than Heinz did."
Another wing of Prechter Holdings is Heritage Development, a real estate development company that has been responsible for some of the largest projects in and out of the area.
Southgate Mayor Suzanne Hall, who spent many years on the City Council before being elected mayor, worked closely with Heritage Development in the past and said Monday she is confident the company will continue to thrive in the future.
"We know that the leadership is there and that the company is in very good hands now," she said.
In all, Prechter owned more than 60 facilities worldwide, and more than 5,300 employees called him boss. His empire continued to grow, but Southgate and Downriver remained the base of his operations.
The impact on Southgate has been immeasurable, according to former Mayor Robert Reaume.
"Heinz Prechter was the spark plug that got the engine going," he said. "He brought the first major industry that had an impact into the city."
The city watched Prechter’s Downriver empire expand and pave the way for other industrial companies to come in.
"His business started off rather slowly but sure took off," Reaume said. "I’m amazed that ASC grew to the giant it is today. His success inspired others to come into the city and think that they could be successful."
That drive to bring other businesses to town continued in recent months as well. Hall credits Prechter with helping attract more businesses to the city than just his own.
"It was his leadership that brought businesses like Sam’s Club … into the city," she said.
One of the first meetings Hall had as mayor was with a company that Prechter helped bring into Southgate.
"I met with the then-head of Kroger," Hall said. "… She’d met with Prechter and he said that they needed to bring a Kroger Downriver. And that’s what they did. He helped us secure that business."
Perhaps the only thing that can match the holdings Prechter acquired is the accolades he earned. A recipient of the Harvard Business Club’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1979, he also was named Michigan’s Industrialist of the Year in 1986, the World Trader of the Year in 1987 and both the Outstanding Business Leader by Northwood University and Crain’s Detroit Business Newsmaker of the Year in 1988.
Edward Clemente, president of the Southern Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, said it is Prechter’s leadership that may be missed the most.
"Without a doubt, he was the best entrepreneur I’ve ever met," he said. "There are certain talents that you have to have. … You have to be hands on and know exactly what’s going on. He had those talents."
Ironically, Prechter’s death came within weeks of the news of a state reapportionment plan that would see much of Downriver lose U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-16th District) as its congressman. Clemente said the impact of the two developments — in which Downriver would lose both its biggest private-sector force and its longtime public-sector force, should not be overlooked.
"We’re really going to need people stepping up to the plate," Clemente said. "Without key leaders, it becomes a bit of a vacuum.
"It’s like in the old Civil War movies. When the banner drops, someone has to pick it up because it can’t lie on the ground for long. You have to pick it up and continue the charge."
Making sure that charge continues is the challenge that lies ahead, Hall added.
"The real void is the big picture and vision for the region," she said. "Not many people exist who have his contacts and genuine commitment to the area.
"His whole presence and the way he assured people of this area’s value is what really will be lost."