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Southwest Detroit Businessman Makes It Big in Auto Industry

For decades, Latinos from Southwest Detroit have been directly involved in Michigan’s auto industry. Latinos worked on the lines in assembly plants and later generations of Mexican-American’s became engineers. But a small and significant group of Latinos went on to be auto suppliers. One of Michigan’s top suppliers is Frank Venegas of the Ideal Group. As part of her look at Latinos in the auto industry, WDET’s Martina Guzman spoke to Venegas about growing up in Corktown, and the future of the auto industry.

Frank Venegas loves Southwest Detroit. He lights up as he gives me a tour of his neighborhood and talks about his family and their long history in the community.

“My grandparents come here in 1917 from Mexico and when they got off the train they put them in Corktown… no one liked the Irish so they put the Mexicans there,“ he tells me.

Venegas grew up poor and remembers hustling as a kid to earn money, and loving it.

“I started out as a kid as an entrepreneur," Frank reminisces. "We were kind of the generals of the neighborhoods as little guys -- we helped make things happen. I had a lock company when I was real young, and we used to fix peoples' tires. I’ve always done something.”

Venegas still loves wheeling and dealing, but now it’s a little different. The scruffy kid who once owned a paper route in Southwest Detroit now owns a manufacturing company called The Ideal Group, a manufacturing company supplying the automotive industry. Ideal has revenues of around $250 million dollars and employs 450 people. He says part of his success is due to his business being a family affair.

"I’m 62 years old and I get to work with my kids everyday," he says.

It’s been an exceptional year for Venegas. He was honored by the Automotive Hall of Fame and General Motors awarded Ideal with Global Supplier of the Year, his tenth honor from GM. While Venegas is enjoying the accolades from his peers and the energy of the Auto show, he says he’s still cautious about the future of automotive.

“Are we gonna forget the past mistakes that we made?," he asks. "Are we gonna build 16 million units, 17 million units, start making real money and forget about that depression/ recession/ bankruptcy that we went through? Are we going to be ready for the next cycle?"

Ideal doesn’t design cars. He’s part of the industry.

“Thats the new Tahoe, what an incredible looking truck, right? I don’t build a single part for it. What I do is make all of the equipment that manufacturers of these trucks need and make sure that equipment is at full speed.”

Being at the auto show with Frank is like being at his own party: He knows everyone here. But when I ask him how many deals he makes at the North American International Auto Show, he says "none."

“I come down here to take a look at the cars, to see which on I’m going to buy.”

The 2015 North American International Auto Show runs through January 25.