Extreme Makeover

— Detroit Edition
Livelihoods upended by circumstance force a need for reinvention; three locals demonstrate it can happen — in Detroit.
By Bryan Gottlieb

T

here is something special about the human spirit that keeps us believing tomorrow will be better than today. This has been especially true with our national character; when befallen by tragedy or disaster, our audacity to seek solace in the future endures — even thrives. Yet, entering the fourth year of an economic upheaval so substantial it has cost the state of Michigan nearly 800,000 jobs and more than 500,000 of its citizens, few would fault a Michigander who threw in the towel, called it quits and moved to greener — or at least warmer — pastures. In the waning days of this current century’s first 10 years, it seems near impossible that two halves of the same decade could be so radically different. In December 2000, as the afterward was being written on an unprecedented economic expansion during the 1990s, the outgoing administration announced a projected 10year budget surplus just shy of $5 trillion — and the nation was enraptured. By mid-decade, with his successor’s $1.4 trillion tax cut temporarily secured, the nation’s debt clock — once dormant — was again tabulating calculations of how much each American owed to the national debt. Yet, times were still relatively prosperous as housing prices soared and easily available credit allowed even the little guy to live large. Today: a third president since then occupies the White House; those $1.4 trillion in tax abatements are set to expire, raising nine out of 10 Americans’ tax obligation — and the projected budget deficit for the current fiscal year has achieved near parity in cost with the entire decade’s tax cuts. Bringing it back home, in September of 2000, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics stated the unemployment rate for the Detroit metropolitan region was 4.3 percent; at the same period mid-decade, the rate had climbed to 8.3 percent. In September 2010, the last month for which official statistics are available, the Detroit

region claimed an unemployment rate of 14.4 percent. Of the 49 largest metropolitan areas in the country, with a population exceeding 1 million, Detroit is only behind Riverside, Calif., and Las Vegas in having the highest unemployment rate in the nation, the lowest being the Washington, D.C., area at just under 6 percent. And, behind the statistics lie the real people who are affected by this downturn. The staggering amount of capital lost during the last several years, both financial and intellectual, may never be fully replenished. Nevertheless, in the face of circumstance, those whose backs are against the wall — and whose families rely upon them for sustenance — have little choice but to carry on. There is no personal congress to raise the debt ceiling, no individual federal reserve to print currency. There is only the drive to fight another day. The stories of the three people you are about to meet are unique to themselves — yet each echoes a shared theme: Circumstance forced a change upon them without their permission. And, true to American form, all have surpassed their own expectations to emerge stronger than before. The call for reinvention, like that intangible quality dubbed greatness, is sometimes thrust upon those least suspecting it. Overlay that necessity with our area’s sputtering economy, and you have conditions near perfect for the mythical Sisyphus himself. Yet, these three endured, transcending obstacles to enjoy new careers. They made it happen with support from spouses and family, friends and strangers alike — perhaps even providence itself — and they did it here, in Detroit. A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY It was a safety net most of us only dream exists — a profitable business started by a father and passed on to his son. To Stephen Greenwald, 38, of Huntington Woods, it was both the safety net

ing a new career with temerity he always had but never asked for and dogged persistence. He — and was ultimately taken away said there wasn’t a career expo by circumstance. unattended, a lead unexamined Greenwald was a freshman in or a networking opportunity Ann Arbor when his father, Budnot seized. dy, founded United States Check “I made sure to set weekly Cashing and Payroll Advance in goals in terms of how many 1990. With the ensuing success of resumes I would send out, how the family business, the younger Stephen many networking meetings I Greenwald chose to pursue law, Greenwald would attend and how many enrolling at Wayne State Univerpeople I would reach out to,” sity’s law school upon graduating he said. “When I accomplished from the University of Michigan. After earning his J.D., and a year of private those job search goals each week, I really practice, he was called upon by fate to leave did feel like I accomplished something law and join the family business; in 1998, his positive and that I was in control of my situation.” father was diagnosed with cancer. Describing himself fearless when it Eventually running the daily operations came to asking people for career advice, of the company, the younger Greenwald’s achievement of financial success belied the Greenwald eventually came to the attention of ComForcare Health Care Holdunease of his father’s deteriorating health; ings Inc., a burgeoning home healthcare Buddy Greenwald passed away in 2001. company in Bloomfield Hills where he was A subsequent marriage to Dr. Helene eventually hired as its director of compliGreenwald and the birth of their first of ance. two children helped give Greenwald the Well into his second year there as a Caffirmation he was living the life he always level executive, he is charged with overseeimagined. That sense of security was to be ing the company’s nationwide expansion short-lived, however. “The state of Michigan passed a law that plans, ensuring franchisees receive the support necessary for success. Reinvenadversely regulated my business,” Greention was a journey he never asked to take, wald said. “I knew I was in trouble when but he said he is all the better for having I looked at my first six months of 2006 taken it. [cash flow] versus the second six months; “My wife and family were tremendous,” I was off nearly 50 percent due to the new he said of his metamorphic marathon. regulations.” “They truly wanted only what was best for With monthly revenue halved, comme.” bined with an ill-timed bank loan for expansion, the seeds for what would eventually lead him in the fall of 2007 to shutTHE GREAT IMPLOSION ter the business were sewn that previous Imagine founding a business, enjoying summer when the bank called in his loan. financial and critical success and operat“My biggest emotional challenges ing as its principal for most of your adult were depression and loss of confidence,” life. Your achievements afford luxuries Greenwald said of the 11 months he was that, through hard work and good stewunemployed after losing the business. “We ardship, include vacations, financing your definitely cut back on our spending; I also children’s college education and still took on some additional daycare responhaving money in the bank. sibilities.” Then imagine it ceases to exist. Fortunate that his wife, a child psycholFor Robert Schwartz, 50, the aforeogist, earned enough to ensure the lights mentioned is no allegory; his career as a stayed on; and between an occasional freelance job, Greenwald approached find- residential homebuilder and land

22 December 2010 |

Red Thread

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president of marketing, Turkin oversaw Real Property Law Section of developer was effectively cut the company’s licensed M&M-Mars prodthe Michigan State Bar, and the short because of a systemic coluct line for retailers nationwide. couple’s three children lending lapse in the real estate market Turkin and her husband, Todd, gave support, Schwartz searched for — a disintegration that began enough credence to the request that the the new him. in Michigan nearly two full couple began looking at real estate in Or“I started looking at different years before it gripped the rest lando. However, with three kids in high options that would work for me,” of the nation. school and two in college, they ultimately he said. “I wanted to get into Like many in his generation, decided the time was right to instead something that would challenge Schwartz (who is on the young Robert Schwartz strike out on their own. me, that I would enjoy and that I end of this peer group) is a “It seemed like a terrible time to had a reasonable chance of makproduct of residential construcuproot our family,” Turkin said. “The oping a living at; I began by looking tion’s old school — whose guidfor employment in all of the tradi- portunity would have been great, but the ing principle was to “build your timing was terrible.” tional ways, all to no avail.” way out of a rut.” The hot iron she planned to strike with Schwartz debated purchasing an existThrough the mini booms and subsewas of the cake-like variety, complete ing company but opted against it, fearing quent slowdowns of the last 30 years, the economy would only soften further (as with various toppings and decorated in builders and developers with the fortitude whatever manner came to mind. Taking (and cash reserves) to live through periods it, in fact, did) — in which case he would notice of the smattering of cupcake-only be saddled with two flailing concerns to of modest demand could more than make bakeries that were cropping up along the manage. up the lost business once the industry East and West coasts, Turkin felt that After coming up empty-handed in his regained its footing — which it inevitably Detroit would enjoy — and could support career search, Schwartz looked inward — did. — its own cupcake venue. to the organization he had spent a considUntil it didn’t; and some question Spending a year perfecting her craft erable amount of time donating his effort whether it ever will. in their kitchen, Turkin and her husto, the Anti-Defamation League. For the Even back in 2007, before the housband began their business the way many last six months, he has been the organizaing bubble had significantly affected the bakers do — they sold her cupcakes to tion’s assistant regional director and said national market, something seemed off in friends and family. At some point, the he couldn’t be happier. Michigan. Sluggish housing starts and a demand for her offerings exceeded the “Making the decision to change careers supplanting of qualified buyers by those available counter space in her home. is not an easy one,” he said. “In my case, who could least afford it both were signs Her husband, too, hitched his fate onto it was made easier because I was able to this slowdown would be different. his wife’s dream; he resigned from the turn work that I loved doing as a volun“By early 2007, I knew that things were company he founded to help the couple teer into work I could do on a paid basis.” going to take a turn for the worse,” the launch their new venture. “Todd and I West Bloomfield resident said. “By 2009, worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week it became apparent to me that the way I in the beginning,” Turkin said. “Neither FROST IT UP, CUPCAKE! had been earning a living for my adult life of us had any idea what was involved Most Detroiters have, at some point was no longer going to be possible for the until we started the business.” in their lives, expressed a desire to leave foreseeable future.” Once the point of critical mass presentbehind the snows of Michigan winter for Schwartz acknowledged that he, like ed itself, the Turkins used their savings to the perennially warm weather offered in many others, might have been slow to expand the operation and moved places like Florida or Arizona. recognize the industry’s changing trends, into the former Burghardt’s But what happens when the all of which were pointing to a significant Bakery facility in Livonia. With proverbial dog catches that retrenchment by purchasers. “It took a 2,400 square feet of kitchen car? couple of years for me to realize that I was space and more than 30 ovens, For Farmington Hills going to have to adjust to a new reality Turkin now produces on the resident Pam Turkin, 48, the and make some major changes in my life,” average of 60,000 cupcakes a moment came in June 2008 he conceded. month. when her employer at the time, With financial and familial obligations “We have had to give up a Orlando, Fla.-based Krunchie to fill, Schwartz undertook the arduous lot,” Turkin said of her retail Corp., asked that she relocate journey of figuring out what he wanted operation, Just Baked. “We have to its corporate headquarters in Todd and Pam to be when he grew up — again. With reinvested everything into the the Sunshine State. As the vice Turkin his wife, Karen, an administrator at the

business; we have shared a car, no vacations. The kids have been understanding and supportive.” Surrounded by her confections, Turkin says the steady paychecks from her corporate life were great; but there are no regrets. “I love my new career and all the great opportunities and people I have been able to become involved with,” she said, adding, “I would encourage anyone out there with a passion to follow it.” CROSSING THE RUBICON? Three great tales of fortitude cannot be the metric to hang our hats on when judging if our economy has crossed the Rubicon, but they should not be dismissed as anomalies either. Greenwald, Schwartz and Turkin each faced even bleaker times than currently exist. In fact, perusing recent headlines would have a reader think that happy days are getting pretty darn close; perhaps that there is actually a little good news to enjoy is enough to meet the threshold. Michigan’s jobless rate fell below 13 percent in October 2010, according to the state’s Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. As well, over the past 12 months, statewide job gains were recorded in manufacturing, professional and business services, education and healthcare. Wait, wait, there’s more: Monster Worldwide, the online employment behemoth, produces its own gauge of demand, titled the Monster Employment Index; of nearly 30 metro markets surveyed, guess which one registered the greatest yearover-year gain in recruitment activity? Detroit. Lest you think the worst is behind us, keep in mind that U-M economists still predict the state’s average unemployment rate in 2011 to be well above the national average — close to 12.5 percent. So don’t think reinvention will now be a snap. But take solace that the future is getting better, which makes believing in it the best thing for us all. RT

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