William Davidson: A Portrait of Action

Monday, April 24, 2017

If Bill Davidson’s business philosophy could be boiled down to a single phrase, it likely would have been four simple words: It can be done.

This optimistic, tough-minded sentiment reflected Davidson’s belief that there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished. This can-do spirit is what helped him take a struggling, family-owned windshield manufacturer in the mid-1950s and turn it into one of the world’s largest glass making businesses in the world. It also was the thinking that guided him to several championships as an owner of multiple sports franchises and one of Michigan’s most generous philanthropists.

William Morse Davidson was born Dec. 5, 1922 in northwest Detroit. He attended Detroit public schools, graduating from Central High School in 1940. He enrolled in the University of Michigan, where he was a business major and a member of the track team. World War II interrupted his studies. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II and played on the Armed Forces football team.

At the war’s end, he finished his business degree at U-M, graduating in 1947. He enrolled at Wayne State University’s Law School and earned his juris doctorate in 1949. He practiced law for three years, specializing in helping companies restructure from bankruptcy. In 1957, he was asked to take over the family’s Guardian Glass Co., the forerunner of what would become Guardian Industries.

“It was a small, struggling family business,” said Ralph Gerson, Davidson’s nephew and senior executive at Guardian Industries. “He had vision. He was willing to take some risks to grow. He was careful but not conservative. He definitely wanted to see his business expand significantly.

“We went into some countries – Hungary before the (Berlin) wall came down, India very early – a number of places that were not low risk,” he said. “But if you could succeed you could do extremely well there, which we did.”

Gerson, who worked alongside Davidson for 21 years, marveled at Davidson’s discipline. Davidson had a daily agenda of what he needed to accomplish each day and didn’t stray from it.

“If it wasn’t on his agenda for the day, he would say you decide or you handle it,” Gerson said. “He knew what he wanted to focus on and stuck to it.”

Davidson wanted to be in touch with a wide variety of people at Guardian so he made sure the company did not have a lot of hierarchy, Gerson said. Every day he would walk around the office, stopping by a cubicle or popping his head into an office to see what that person was working on.

“If there was a tax question, he wouldn’t ask the senior tax person about it he’d go see the tax person working on it,” Gerson said. “He didn’t hide out in his office. He was very approachable. He wasn’t a micro-manager; he hired good people and let them do their job.”

Joe White, who was dean of what is now the Ross School of Business when WDI was established, got to know Davidson well during this time and would often ask about the glass business. He learned about a tough industry with massive capital costs, high fixed costs, and an uncontrollable pricing structure. He came away more impressed with Davidson and a greater appreciation of the man.

“I’ve met a lot of business people, a lot of entrepreneurs,” White said. “I never met an individual who took that kind of risk in building a business. I thought to myself, ‘This man has guts.’ And it turned out to be consistently true. Bill was a guy who was able to take that kind of risk but I think he slept like a rock every night.

“He never looked back, didn’t second guess, never talked about regrets; he was always forward looking. You make intelligent bets, make the best bets you can then you get going.”


A Pioneering Philanthropist

As Davidson grew Guardian Industries into a very successful and profitable company, his upbringing and Jewish faith compelled him to give back. Gerson said Davidson and his sister, Gerson’s mother, would collect pennies, nickels and dimes as young children for the Jewish National Fund.

“At a very early age he was encouraged to think about other people and give back,” Gerson said. “It was always part of his family ethos – if you succeed and become prosperous you have an opportunity and responsibility to contribute to the places where you prosper.”

Guardian plant managers were encouraged to donate and become active in civic causes in the communities where their facilities were located.

Davidson donated to numerous organizations and schools during his life. He was one of Michigan’s most notable philanthropists, responsible for more than $200 million in donations to local and international charities and universities.

The William Davidson Foundation continues his charitable giving, making grants and donations to Jewish life and continuity as well as entrepreneurial initiatives in southeast Michigan. The Foundation made a leadership gift to U-M athletics to establish the William Davidson Player Development Center for the men’s and women’s basketball teams. The Foundation also provided significant financial support to the university, both for the Ross School and the U-M health system.

In addition to the $30 million to establish WDI, Davidson gave millions to the University of Michigan and was one of its biggest donors. In honor of Davidson’s 70th birthday, friends and family endowed  a chaired professorship bearing his name at Ross. Davidson endowed a second chair at Ross to honor his longtime friend and WDI board member, former Congressman Tom Lantos, with the intention that the president of WDI holds that chair. WDI President Paul Clyde is currently the Tom Lantos Professor of Business Administration.

He also donated millions for construction of new facilities and building improvements at the business school and around campus. The main gathering place at the Ross School is called the Davidson Winter Garden.

In 1997, Davidson was honored for his philanthropy by the Council of Michigan Foundations, and also named one of America’s most generous donors by The New York Times.

In 2007, Davidson and his wife, Karen, gave $75 million to the Hadassah University Medical Center at Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. The gift was given in honor of Davidson’s mother, Sarah Wetsman Davidson, a founder of the Detroit chapter of the Hadassah.

The Davidsons also supported the Israel Antiquities Authority, sponsoring digs around the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which have been named the “Davidson Excavations” in tribute to the couple’s generosity.

Davidson was a sponsor of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, called “Israel’s most important antiquity site.” Davidson also established the Davidson Visitor’s Center at the entrance of the park.  

The Davidsons also were the founders of the Davidson Institute of Science and Education at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Davidson received an honorary doctorate from the Weizmann Institute in 2001.  Davidson also funded the graduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and was a partner to the Wexner Foundation to give grants to post-graduate students planning a career in Jewish education.

Other organizations and municipalities that have benefited from his generosity include the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the Karmanos Cancer Institute, the Children’s Research Center of Michigan, and the city of Detroit’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Another gift from Davidson went to establish the Guardian Touring Fund for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Gerson said Davidson thought culture was important for a region – for business reasons but also for quality of life reasons.

“Having leading cultural institutions, like a world-class symphony, helps businesses hire the quality of people they want. And when these cultural organizations achieve excellence, it’s great for the region,” Gerson said. “It provides a great image of our area, the same way having a winning sports team sets a great example for the area.”


Championship Ownership

Davidson knew a thing or two about winning sports teams. An athletic child who played many sports, ran track at U-M, football in armed services and tennis later in life, Davidson’s interest in owning professional sports teams grew from his love of the games and of competition.

Davidson was best known as the managing partner of the Detroit Pistons, a team he bought in 1974. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. He was the majority owner of Palace Sports and Entertainment, which included The Palace of Auburn Hills, the Detroit Shock (Women’s National Basketball Association) and DTE Music Theater, a world-class entertainment venue, as well as management of Meadow Brook Music Theatre.

During his tenure as owner, Davidson’s professional teams won seven world championships, three in the NBA, three in the WNBA and one in the National Hockey League. During a magical and historical run in 2004, Davidson’s Pistons won the NBA championship and his Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup a couple weeks later. His Detroit Shock had already won the WNBA championship in late summer 2003, giving him three championships in a year, a feat no sports team owner has ever matched.

“We logged a lot of air miles from Detroit to LA to Tampa,” said Davidson’s widow, Karen. “It was a hectic but fun time. We had to stop ourselves and say, ‘Wow, this is history going on.’”

Davidson would occasionally ask people from WDI to sit with him courtside at Pistons game, often bringing them along to watch opposing teams he thought they might like. For former Ross School Dean Robert Dolan and former Executive Director Robert Kennedy, it was the Boston Celtics since both taught at Harvard. WDI Board Member Kenneth Lieberthal, an expert on China, would be invited whenever the Pistons played the Houston Rockets because the team featured 7-foot-6 Yao Ming from that country.

Lieberthal remembered one game in which Davidson was fretting that Yao Ming, who had a big scoring game the last time the teams played, would have another good game. When it was over, Yao Ming had hardly scored.

“Bill couldn’t believe it and wondered what happened,” Lieberthal said. “I told him that whenever Yao Ming came down the floor I’d yell at him in Chinese to distract him. He got a big kick out of that.”

White said it was always fun going to Pistons games with Davidson, but he soon learned the owner was all business once the ball was tipped off.

“There was no hobnobbing, he didn’t care about the celebrities there,” White said. “He was there to watch basketball. And did he ever love his Pistons.”

Karen Davidson said her husband realized quickly that owning a sports team was just like running a business. She thinks he was successful at it because of his manufacturing background, which relies on a lot of teamwork.
“And he was definitely competitive,” she said. “I think that was his thing. Bill wanted to win. He wanted to be successful, to be the best, whether it was in business or owning a team. Both brought him a lot of joy.”

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