Diversity as Business Strategy Company Faced Racial Tensions Head-On

April 7, 2009
Leon Tupper and his business partner knew they would face challenges bringing a diverse workforce to Gilreath Manufacturing Inc. in Howell, Michigan, after purchasing the plastic-injection molder out of bankruptcy in 1990.

For minorities, Howell "was not an inviting place to be for any reason" at that time, Tupper said.

The city is less than 15 miles from Cohoctah Township, the home of Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan until his death in 1992.

Tupper, who is black, and his minority partner, Ronald Brown, who is white, needed to recruit a workforce to Howell after they bought Gilreath, stabilized it and began to increase its contract work.

While many of Livingston County, Michigan’s, residents left the county to work elsewhere during that time, General Motors Corp.’s decreased production and eventual closure of its Buick City plant in Flint, Michigan, left many qualified people looking for work, Tupper said.

As Gilreath and other Howell companies began recruiting employees from Genesee County, they quickly realized transportation was an issue for many of the minority employment candidates packing into old, shaky cars to apply for jobs, Tupper said.

He worked with other members of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce to persuade Genesee County’s Mass Transportation Authority to extend its routes into Howell and Brighton around the clock. Soon, the availability of public transportation brought a very diverse workforce to Gilreath, Tupper said.

"That created workforce issues in the sense that we had to ensure that the biases that came into the workplace were defused so that the employees worked efficiently and effectively together," he said.

Gilreath’s owners "knew we had to deal with [issues] early on, head-on, so there would be no misunderstanding of our beliefs as it related to inclusion and acceptance of all of our employees, regardless of their ethnic, racial or religious background," Tupper said.

The company’s owners began holding all-employee meetings as well as separate meetings of different ethnic groups to make it clear that business decisions weren’t made on issues of race or religious background, and that everyone would be treated the same. They also deliberately placed employees in integrated team settings to force dialogue, Tupper said.

When racially tinged occasions arose at Gilreath, management dealt with them immediately, consistent with its policies, he said. In some cases, employees—both black and white—were terminated.

"It became very well-known within the company that we had a zero tolerance for behavior that was seated in bigotry or biases," Tupper said. "Because we adhered to that, the behavior quickly dissipated."

Gilreath’s employees began focusing instead on common goals within the company and the rewards that came from meeting them.

"We were all part of a business team whose success was predicated on our ability to work together ... for the benefit of our customer," Tupper said.

"That suggested to everyone that [their] livelihood was directly correlated to our ability to work together effectively to help grow the business."

When Tupper and his partner bought Gilreath in 1990 out of bankruptcy, it had 103 employees and $9 million in booked business.

By the time they sold it in 2004 to Clinton, Massachusetts-based Injectronics Inc., it had annual sales of $38.6 million and 425 employees, about a third of them minorities. Injectronics two years later sold the business to Blue Water Automotive Systems Inc., which liquidated last fall.

The real proof of Gilreath’s diversity success came outside of work at the company’s annual picnic, Tupper said.

Very few of the minority employees at Gilreath attended the picnic the first year or two after they were hired by Gilreath. By the second and third years, there were a great number of black employees in attendance, but most of them sat together, apart from their white co-workers, he said.

By the fourth and fifth years, employees of all races were interspersed enjoying themselves with their families and co-workers.

"I think our abilities to interface with people different than ourselves ... begins the process of us confirming that we have more similarities than we have differences," Tupper said.

The Howell Area Chamber of Commerce and the city of Howell continue efforts to invite a diverse population into the city, advertising the annual Michigan Challenge Balloonfest and the Fantasy of Lights Parade in ethnic newspapers as well as the general media in Detroit, Flint and Ann Arbor, said chamber president Pat Convery.

Attracting diverse crowds to the area better prepares Howell youth for the world they’ll live in and, hopefully, will make everyone feel welcome in Howell, she said.

"We see diversity as not only the right thing to do, but an economically sound future for our businesses and community," Convery said.

Tupper now is launching fledgling businesses in Boyne City, where there are few minorities. But he maintains a Southfield business development office for his Northern Michigan startups, Arete Industries, which does light assembly and paint rack cleaning, and Kirtland Products, a biofuel company that converts wood chips left from forestry into clean wood-pellet fuel for stoves and other heating appliances.

He’s active on several local nonprofit boards and served as chairman of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion until last fall.

Tupper believes the lessons he learned in Howell are relevant today, more than ever, as Southeast Michigan and the state as a whole seek new economic engines.

"Our community can ill-afford to be fractured if we are to survive and sustain ourselves into the new millennium," Tupper said.

Business should seek to create work environments that welcome people from different backgrounds and foster occasions for this diverse workforce to learn from and about each other outside of work, such as company-sponsored picnics, bowling teams and baseball teams, he said.

"Once you create these environments, the rest works itself through," Tupper said.

"People begin to learn about their common goals, issues and dreams and begin looking at each other with different eyes."