Volume 44, Issue 4 - April 2009

News Now

Industry Remembers William (Bill) Davidson of Guardian Industries

William Davidson, 86, owner and chief executive officer (CEO) of Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Guardian Industries, passed away at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., on March 13, 2009. 

“The global Guardian Industries family mourns the loss of its visionary leader and guiding light, owner and CEO William Davidson —‘Mr. D’ to the more than 19,000 Guardian people around the world. We are deeply saddened by his passing,” said a release issued by the company. “During his 52 years at the helm of Guardian he provided vision, leadership and a straightforward approach to building business with an entrepreneurial style second to none. He established a no-nonsense, anti-bureaucratic culture within Guardian Industries and the other organizations he led. He will be remembered for his steady hand that propelled Guardian to the forefront of its many business segments in countries throughout the world. His leadership principles and legacy of innovation and excellence are embedded in the company’s leadership team, which will continue to provide management of the company according to a transition plan established by the team more than a decade ago.”

A native of Detroit, Davidson received his undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Michigan in 1947 and his Juris Doctor degree from Wayne State University in 1949. He was admitted to practice before the Michigan Supreme Court in 1949. In 2005, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Wayne State University.

He joined Guardian Industries in 1955, became CEO in 1957 and led the company from its beginnings as a small glass company to its position as one of the largest international companies in commercial and residential glass and automotive and building products. 

In addition, Davidson has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the Phoenix Award, given in recognition of significant contributions to the world glass industry; the Order of Merit in Labor of the Highest Class from the Republic of Venezuela; Honorary Counsel of the Grand Duche of Luxembourg in Michigan; Grand Officer of the Order of Merit, Commander of the Grand Ducal Order of the Oak Wreath and Officer Legion of Merit for the Grande Duche of Luxembourg; Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; and an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from the University of Michigan. 

In 2003 Davidson was decorated as an honorary Grand Officier de l’Ordre de la Couronne de Chene by the Luxembourg Minister of the Economy Henri Grethen for contributions to manufacturing diversification in the country and enhancement of the industrial fabric of the Luxembourg economy.

In addition, Davidson was the owner of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Detroit Pistons and the Women’s NBA’s Detroit Shock; he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year and served two terms on the NBA board of governors. He also owned Palace Sports & Entertainment, which includes The Palace of Auburn Hills and DTE Energy Music Theatre. 

Davidson also was an honored philanthropist, giving away more than $80 million in the 1990s alone. He made substantial endowments to education, cultural and community programs including:
• The William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan Business School; 
• The Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel; 
• The Detroit Symphony Orchestra; 
• The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (New York City); 
• The Karmanos Cancer Institute and Children’s Research Center of Michigan; and 
• The Davidson Second Temple Period Archaeological Park and a visitor’s center to the park surrounding the Temple Wall in Jerusalem. 

More than 3,000 people attended his funeral on March 17 at the Congregation Shaarey Zedek synagogue, of which Davidson was a lifetime member and former president.

Among those individuals paying their respects were David Stern, commissioner of the NBA; former Pistons Isiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer and Dave Bing; Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel; and former Michigan Governor John Engler. Employees from Guardian Industries filled the building and also videotaped the funeral to provide closure for employees at Guardian facilities around the world. 

Davidson’s son Ethan Davidson, son-in-law Jonathan Aaron and Russell Ebeid, president of Guardian Glass, stepped before the crowd to deliver their reflections, both humorous and poignant, on their time with Davidson. The eulogy was delivered by Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff, who talked about Davidson as “a man of modesty and humility … a man of integrity and vision.” Krakoff added, “He was fearless, secure, and he never worried. There were no obstacles for William Davidson.” Davidson’s efforts and practices in business will certainly leave a lasting impact on many people in the glass industry who have known and worked with him.

Ebeid has known and worked with Davidson for 39 years and says he was as humble, simplistic and optimistic of a person as you could find.

“If he were a weather broadcaster he’d never predict rain,” Ebeid says. “He had a total open door policy and you could go in and talk to him about anything. He was an open guy, but you always knew whom you were talking to.”

Ebeid says that, in business, Davidson was always direct and he did not take shortcuts. 

“He believed that business was an equal relationship between buyer and seller and that customers would do business with you for the right reasons … quality and service … and not just because of a low price.”

Another of Davidson’s characteristics that Ebeid recalls is that he tried to teach his employees how to think and not what to think. 

“He didn’t tell you what to do, but he’d ask questions, such as ‘Have you thought about doing this?’ or ‘Did you consider that?’ And that would get you thinking [about the situation] and you’d start coming up with the ideas,” says Ebeid.

Scott Thomsen, Guardian’s vice president and chief technology officer, says that very early on he learned that Davidson was a humble person who treated everyone with the same level of respect.

“The loyalty at Guardian is extremely high and that’s because he respected everyone the same way and that created a family environment; it helped keep that small-company feel.”

Thomsen also says Davidson created “the ultimate work environment.”

“He did not believe in micromanagement and he gave deserving people significant freedom to run their business segment, much like running their own company,” says Thomsen, who adds that when he joined Guardian in 1999 he had no written job description “and the only direction I had from Mr. Davidson was to make Guardian an innovator and improve financial performance.”

He continues, “There is no bureaucracy; Mr. Davidson developed the vision and let the people here execute and deliver. He built this organization around people and their abilities, not processes and procedures.”

In addition, Thomsen says Davidson truly was an innovator. “It was like he had a crystal ball. From the time he took over here in 1957 he was always five to ten years ahead of the market and competition … he always knew the appropriate and opportune times to make strategic business shifts.” Thomsen adds, “He was an eternal optimist that Guardian would find the solution and prevail—that’s the culture here.”

Russell Huffer, president and chief executive officer of Apogee Enterprises, had spent seven years early on as a Guardian employee, 18 months of which was in the corporate headquarters.

“I got to know Mr. D quite well during my time there. He was very personable and he loved basketball metaphors,” says Huffer. “He often talked about ‘giving the ball to the person with the hot hand.’” Huffer adds that Davidson was the type of leader who made his decisions based on results and people being accountable for what they said they’d do.

“I remember when I was managing one of the plants, every day my boss would get a call from Mr. D to find out how was business, how were the shipments—those good, quick business questions,” says Huffer, who adds that he learned a lot from working with Davidson, which he applies to his own work today. He says the biggest lesson focused on the importance of safety.

“Safety is of immense importance to Guardian and I think the company really led the way toward safe workplace standards. It’s something I have clearly carried throughout my career.”

Davidson’s influence extended well beyond Guardian employees. Leon Silverstein, president and chief executive officer of Arch Aluminum and Glass, also got to know Davidson.

“I met him about 20 years ago and my dad had met him about 50 years ago,” says Silverstein. “He was always nice to me and nice to my children.” [Editor’s note: Silverstein has two children at the University of Michigan].” Silverstein says that on a couple of occasions he had the opportunity to attend Detroit Pistons games and sit with Davidson.

“We talked about glass, but we also talked about the Pistons,” says Silverstein. “And for a big sports fan like me it was a great opportunity to go to a game and be able to sit with an owner and to talk to him about who [in the game] he liked and disliked.”

Silverstein adds that Davidson is likely one of the most admired people in the industry.

“His philosophy of business is one that we [Arch] have tried to pattern ours after. He was tough, but fair … a sharp guy, and he was the boss,” says Silverstein.

For many people in the industry, Davidson is a man who will not soon be forgotten. “Even though he’s gone, I feel like he’s still here,” adds Ebeid. “He was Guardian’s Walt Disney and his ethics and integrity will linger in this organization.” 

USG
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