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Doing Well by Doing Good

Dawson Bell

Ideal Group’s culture is very tight-knit. Chairman and CEO, Frank Venegas Jr., talks with Ideal Steel employee Franciso Orozco.

There is a common thread that runs through the stories Frank Venegas Jr. tells about his life as a serial entrepreneur and builder of companies and communities. 

Broadly characterized, it is that doing the right thing is a force multiplier, that fixing one problem leads to fixing more problems.  

Venegas’ personal story is well known in Michigan business circles. The grandchild of Mexican immigrants, he grew up in Detroit and launched a sprawling steel, construction, and materials firm — Ideal Group Inc. — after turning a winning raffle ticket (and the 1979 Cadillac Coupe DeVille that came with it) at a festival in Livingston County into startup money for his own steel company. At the urging of former Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Hank Aguirre, he moved Ideal to Southwest Detroit in the mid-1990s to the vacated site of the General Motors Co. plant where his lucky Cadillac had been built. Two decades into the 21st century, Ideal is one of Michigan’s industry leaders, employing more than 500 people and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually.  

At 67, Venegas has definitely done well. But it seems that at almost every step of the way, he has also been doing good. 

Creating Jobs and Invigorating Community

Back in Livingston County, the startup steel company was in the same neighborhood as a state prison camp whose inmates were employed as manual labor at Ideal. Venegas says that he found that he liked them.  

“They were used to lousy prison food. I bought pizza. We mentored them a bit, taught them to read blueprints.” 

Venegas says it was an education for him too. One of the ex-inmates is still at Ideal, working as a fabricator. 

At the same time, community challenges mounted in Detroit. The Southwest Detroit neighborhood off Michigan Avenue where Ideal, and a group of other Hispanic-American businesses, eventually relocated had been in steady decline for decades. It was gang-ridden, graffiti-scarred, and violent. Angela Reyes from Detroit Hispanic Development Corp. called and told him she “was sick of burying kids,” and asked for help. 

Venegas met with a group of gang leaders to ask them what they wanted out of life. It turned out, he says, “They wanted work, stable employment, and to build families and a decent life.” 

So he put some of them on the job. 

“All of a sudden, they’re building [things] together,” he says, “Two months earlier, some were shooting each other.”  

One former gang member is currently Ideal’s sales manager for the Southeast United States. 

In the late 1990s, Detroit’s recovery was still well over the horizon. The city’s streetlights were out and the streets around Ideal’s Clark Street headquarters were strewn with litter. In response, the company deployed dozens of dumpsters around the neighborhood to improve the physical environment.  

“They filled up over the weekend. People didn’t want to live with all that trash. They just had no choice,” Venegas says. 

From employment opportunities to beautification efforts, Ideal worked to holistically reinvigorate the community.  

Investing in the Next Generation 

Venegas and Lisabeth Morales, Cristo Rey Junior and current Ideal Group intern, admire peppers in the community garden next to Ideal Group’s campus.

Along with the sprawling business, other community projects followed. Ideal became a primary sponsor of programs at nearby Detroit Cristo Rey High School and Holy Redeemer grade school to increase academic achievement and provide work experience for older students. 

The company provided laptops and tablets, renovated bathrooms, sponsored robotics, STEM programs, and college scholarships.  

Eleven Detroit Cristo Rey students graduated college this year, Venegas says. One is enrolled at Dartmouth College. Dozens have worked Ideal internships. 

The dividends are a two-way street, Venegas says. Student interns at Ideal turn out to be “a huge morale booster” for the entire workforce. Showing kids in your community that you care about them and their surroundings is infectious, he says. 

Venegas and Ideal have had a hand in a host of other neighborhood projects like modernizing the exercise facilities at the Detroit Police Department’s 4th Precinct and transforming neighborhood spaces into parks, community gardens, and gathering places. 

It’s not complicated but it is more than writing checks, Venegas says. Neighborhood investment is good for business in more ways than he could have imagined. 

“It’s just taking care of things that need to be taken care of.”

Dawson Bell is a veteran Michigan journalist who spent 25 years covering government and politics for the Detroit Free Press.