The Real Deal

Can a raffle ticket turn your life around? Just ask Frank Venegas, Jr., the CEO of the multi-million dollar company, Ideal Group. It was 1979 when Venegas bought a raffle ticket for $150, hoping to win a brand-new Cadillac Coupe Deville. With a little bit of luck, Venegas took home that prized Caddy, but he didn’t keep it for long.  After nine days, Venegas sold it to fund his first business, Ideal Steel and Builder’s Supplies, Inc. Forty years later, Ideal Group has grown into eight  companies with more than 300 employees and annual revenues of $350 million. As if determined by destiny, the headquarters for Ideal Group is located in Southwest Detroit, on the same land where that car was built.

Before winning the raffle that changed his life forever, Venegas used to be an ironworker. “I was  a young kid, 25 years old, trying to figure out which road to go in my life,” he says. Venegas started out working in the residential steel business where he would cut steel beams for basements and two-story buildings. But he wished to build structures as big as his dreams.

“I wanted to build stadiums. I wanted to build tall buildings,” says Venegas. In 1996 he bought the old Cadillac plant, which had been closed for about 12 years and two years after Ideal Contracting was founded. “I looked at things and found out that the only way I was going to be able to do it was to hire ironworkers,” says Venegas.

He went to the local ironworkers union, but they didn’t take him seriously. “At first they looked at me kind of odd, probably saying ‘Here’s another guy who’s probably going to have five ironworkers working for a year,’” says Venegas. But they were in for a huge surprise when they got to know Ideal Contracting. “We are really proud to say that a lot of the time we have more ironworkers working for us than any company in Michigan,” says Venegas.

This is seconded by Bill Brown, the Co-Chair of IMPACT, an organization which supports ironworkers and creates opportunities in their industry, and the Chair of Ben-Hur Construction Company. “Ideal is the largest minority contractor of ironworkers in North America,” he says. “And Frank is committed to bringing women and people of color into the crafts.”

Brown recalls that he met Venegas three years ago, when Ideal Group was building an automotive assembly plant in Fort Wayne for General Motors and was thoroughly impressed. “The more I visited with them, the more it was apparent they were the real deal. They’re honest, hardworking people. It’s a very young organization, and they all have lots of gas in their tanks.”

Today, the Ideal Contracting continues to grow. Some of the companies they work with include not just General Motors but also Toyota, Ford Motor Company, Fiat Chrysler, Amazon, and more. Locally they are working on multiple projects in Metro Detroit and helping renovate the historic 18-story Michigan Central Station.  Ideal Contracting is also working on the new Gordie Howe International Bridge that connects the U.S. to Canada.

Truly, Venegas is living the American Dream in the Motor City. “My grandfather had the strength to leave Mexico and come to a foreign land. He came to Detroit  to work at Ford for the $5 per day job,” he says.

Both his grandfather and father worked at Ford for 40 years until they retired. Venegas’ mother, who worked as a seamstress, showed him the ropes. “My mother taught us entrepreneurship, we may have not known what to call it, but we lived it. She was a dressmaker in our neighborhood. She taught us that being an entrepreneur allows you to be independent.” says Venegas, who passed on these lessons to his children, Jesse and Linzie. Both of them started working for their father on Saturdays, and grew up to become executives in the company. Jesse and Linzie split roles as Vice President, and Frank’s brother, Loren Venegas, is the President. “We truly have a family here. I’m the luckiest guy in the world!” says Frank.

Linzie was born about two weeks after the business started. “Sometimes I reference the business as my big sister. Ideal is my home,” she says. Her father was Linzie’s inspiration. “By watching my dad and watching as the company continued to grow, seeing all of the different families that we have here, and learning the business, I always wanted to take on new jobs and new opportunities,” says Linzie.

Venegas and his family are deeply rooted in Detroit, and very proud of their heritage. “We celebrate being Mexican-American,” he says. As a philanthropist, he believes the way to help his heritage is “by teaching and educating people and hiring Latinos to come to work, but more importantly by giving people a chance.” And that’s exactly what he did.

When Venegas bought the old Cadillac plant, Southwest Detroit was experiencing tremendous hardships. “Unemployment was at about 40 percent, the gangs were running crazy, we had a lot of crime here” he says. But Venegas wanted  peace in the community for his employees and the residents. He spoke to four out of the five leaders of the major gangs in the neighborhood. “It scared the hell out of me, but when I asked them what they wanted in return for peace they told me they wanted jobs, with medical benefits and career growth opportunities,” says Venegas. After developing a plan Frank with his partners hired 80 of the gang members. “They were fighting with each other one day and the next they were all working together, they were building things. That was one of the first things we did in the community” says Venegas.

Next, he took charge of giving Southwest Detroit youth an opportunity. Ideal Group and Detroit Cristo Rey High School have formed a close partnership, by providing students with resources for academic preparation and future careers. Ideal Group sponsors students, paying for tuition in exchange for real work tasks and experience in a real workplace. But there was also a need to start at a younger age, that’s when Venegas approached Holy Redeemer Grade School. Ideal Contracting and other partners have renovated over 16 classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias. Venegas also implemented a STEM lending library that allows students to check out STEM related games to play with at home. Holy Redeemer Grade School is now a feeder school to Detroit Cristo Rey High School. As an advocate for education, Venegas is also involved with Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. “I feel a real value in it, in how we educate,” he says. He currently sits on the University Advisory Council for Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, where he also teaches classes.  Venegas is passionate about teaching small businesses. He regularly mentors and speaks at Tuck School of Business Minority Program. For his philanthropic and entrepreneurial efforts in Southwest Detroit, Dartmouth gave Venegas an honorary Doctorate degree and the Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Award.

Linzie, also an instructor at Tuck School of Business Minority Program, hopes to sustain her father’s legacy. “Both my brother and I want to continue to be able to do the things that he has done for the community, but also maintain the culture that he has really created here,” she says.

If you wish to become an entrepreneur like Frank Venegas, maybe buying a raffle ticket isn’t a bad place to start. But if you want some advice, his message is simple: “Do the job your boss doesn’t want to do and you’ll have a job every time”

By Stephanie Sanyour