The Duke of Downriver

If ever there were a bigger booster of the Downriver area, he or she would have impossible shoes to fill. Heinz Prechter was likely the only person who could fill them with as much ease.A Facebook poll taken by this website found when people were asked, “What person reminds you most about Downriver?”, a whopping (though unsurprising) 90% of respondents named this German immigrant who settled Downriver in the late 1960s, made Southgate his work base in the early 1970s, introduced America to the glory of automotive sunroofs, displayed a kind heart through his countless support of charities & good causes, more than held his own when it came to dealing with automotive power brokers & tough politicians, and yet would have the ability to be at ease with anyone in the room. A man who shamelessly promoted Downriver as if it were his own was recognized thusly.

And Heinz Prechter was a man who left this world far too soon.

Prechter, born in 1942 in Germany, started his automotive career at age 13 as an apprentice in automotive trim, tool and die making. He would complete studies at Nuremberg’s Berufs-Oberschule, then contined at OHM Polytechnic Engineering School in that city.

Prechter’s first introduction to the American way of life, as the story goes, involved him as a cab driver in Germany, transporting American Servicemen that were stationed there, and he was less than taken to the way the Americans presented themselves. Still, having completed his studies in his homeland and having practical work experience start to mount (Faunwerke in Germany, electronics supplier Siemens, among others), he set out for America in the early 1960s… with very little on him except $11.00 worth of German currency – and a desire to introduce America to the wonderment of the sunroof.

He ended up in San Francisco where he would take classes in Business Administration at San Francisco State College. The sunroof installation business he had on the side was a little more painstaking (when it came to results) than it would prove to be some years later. Although Prechter did make friends and establish contacts around campus, the idea of sunroofs were still a novelty in America. Prechter’s initial plans were to stay in the United States for one year, then return to Germany. But in between those times, something must have clicked… because it would be three years before he made his first journey back home.

Prechter had started the American Sunroof Co. (now ASC, Inc.) in 1965, as a one-man business in Los Angeles after spending $764 on tools and picking up an old door to serve as a workbench and a sewing machine from a junkyard. The firm became known for its custom sunroofs and for supporting the development of specialty vehicles for the film industry.Prechter moved his fledgling company from California to Michigan in 1967 to be close to the “Big Three” – GM, Ford and Chrysler. Downriver, in those days, was still very much a blue-collar community that provided many workers for the Motor City’s auto plants.
Heinz Prechter is shown with his business partner outside American Sunroof of Southern California, his first major business venture, in the mid-1960s.

It was a completely different environment than what the young Prechter was used to seeing, but it was one he (as well as his business acumen) welcomed seeing more than anything. He would initially move to Ecorse in 1967, where he established his first garage. In less than two years’ time he would move operations to Lincoln Park, where he would spend two additional years. By 1970, Prechter decided to relocate once more to the city of Southgate, which was just beginning to realize its potential as a light-industrial town since the completion of I-75 through the area just a few years before.

When Prechter set up shop, Ecorse and much of Detroit’s downriver was declining as people and businesses pulled out. Downriver, however, was Prechter’s choice. It was the region where he preferred to live and work, and he made it his home. He felt Detroit’s downriver region was at a crossroads, where it could continue to improve or decline. So Prechter would ultimately expand ASC in Southgate and lived in the region, determined to demonstrate his vision.

As business grew, Prechter eventually met Detroit financier Max Fisher and automotive leader Henry Ford II, and both men would become his mentors.

Prechter with some of his installations. Photo undated, but autos have been identified as late-1960s models.
Prechter would end up falling in love with Downriver and the United States in general that he would apply for, and receive, his U.S. citizenship in 1972. George Moroz, a one-time director of Henry Ford Museum / Greenfield Village, said that an annual citizenship ceremony at the attraction was one of Mr. Prechter’s personal highlights: “He delivered a brief speech at the start of those ceremonies where he explained to the new citizens about the possibilities and the potential they had for being Americans. A potential he greatly valued.

“He told them that this country had given him the opportunity for success,” Moroz recalled, “and they needed to take their advantages and in turn contribute back to their community.”

As his sunroof business grew and became well-known, Prechter would invest in other various properties or interests to diversify his portfolio. He would purchase the News-Herald Newspapers just before their merger with the Mellus Newspapers. Publisher Ernest Nagy had the idea to present Prechter with the proposal. Despite some initial hesitation (since Prechter had not owned a publication before), he did agree that the News-Herald, if sold, should retain their Downriver character and flavor. By buying into the chain, they did so for many years after the Mellus merger in 1986.
Prechter accepts the award for Harvard Business Club’s Entrepreneur Of The Year, circa 1979.

Despite owning the publication outright and overseeing expansions of the papers themselves into new areas, Prechter never had an “iron-fist” rule. Those who worked under him did not see him in the offices very often; Prechter and ASC did not wish to use this as a marketing, attention-grabbing tool. As a result, the loyalty of his workers ranked near the top of any executive or business Downriver.

Prechter’s pride for Downriver extended to the point it even played a role in a visit by President George H.W. Bush some time later. A sitting President visiting the area at that time could have dined at Dearborn’s Ritz-Carlton or other fancy places. Prechter would end up hosting the President at the Ramada-Heritage Center (the former Presidential Inn) at Northline & I-75 – next door to the ASC headquarters.

“Heinz believed that if development is going to happen, it should be made beautiful so people can take pride in their region.”
“As I grew to know him, I realized that he was truly a pioneer, just like those honored in the hall. He knew what it meant to start with nothing and build a company… Any time I saw him, (he was) upbeat and looking for new challenges.”
Former President: Automotive Hall of Fame
For so many modern industrialists, it was all too easy to think of only the present-day. The immediate wants of the customer were the biggest consideration. New generations were being introduced to consumerism without knowing how consumerism presented itself in the past. Heinz Prechter was firmly rooted in history, acknowledged it, and made it a core focus in his business dealings. To him, it was important for people to understand the pioneers of the auto industry. Among friends who knew of Prechter’s historical interest was Gene McKinney, former president of the Automotive Hall of Fame (AHF) in “Ford country,” near Ford Motor headquarters in Dearborn. 

McKinney was also a member of the so-called “old guard” of American auto companies during his tenure at the now disbanded Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. Prechter was very supportive of AHF’s educational programs and constantly pushed to include children in the AHF’s happenings, according to McKinney.

But ranking above all else, perhaps, was his outstanding skill at befriending people, and being a philanthropist, serving on Board of Directors groups for Comerica Bank, Detroit Renaissance and Thyssen-Krupp steel.

He had reshaped ASC headquarters into a campus of office and technical buildings. Since 1997, Prechter Holdings was created to oversee ASC Inc. and his real estate holdings. It would grow to employ 5,300 people in 60 facilities worldwide.

Prechter was granted five honorary doctorate degrees, held directorships of many companies, including the Budd Co. and Thyssen-Krupp Automotive, and of organizations such as the Economic Club of Detroit and United Way. He also served on advisory councils for many universities and received countless awards. Mr. Prechter’s holdings would eventually include weekly newspapers, hospitality, transportation, real estate development and… beef cattle holdings, which would put him in contact with President George H.W. Bush and his family thanks to purchase of a cattle ranch in Texas.
With the concept car Chevrolet Corvette Spyder at the 1993 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The President though so much of Prechter that in 1990, he was appointed to serve as chairman of the National Advisory Committee on International Trade.

Prechter would also be among the first to discuss the potential of a second Bridge To Canada, nearly twenty years before a potential shovel would be lifted. As early as 1996 he began touting that idea, as a way for Downriver people to reach Canada more easily instead of having to travel (and wait in long lines) at other border crossings. Despite the idea not catching on quickly, by 2001 many were starting to get convinced of his message (delivered at the North American International Auto Show that year), with traffic lines and wait times worse than before.

Very rarely did Heinz Prechter receive grief for major problems or controversies.  One notable exception did have residents shaking their heads briefly.  Vision 21, founded by Sandy Hudson in the early 1990s as a bridge toward rebranding (re-imagining) the Downriver area, believed that the term “Downriver” was too outdated and reflected an image they (as a group) would rather not market to younger people seeking to move into the area. 

The majority of people were dead-set against changing the name or Downriver’s image as a blue-collar area, seeing it as a source of pride.  Mr. Prechter actually agreed that the name and focus of his adopted area should be changed — Metro Shores was the popular name suggestion. “There is a ‘down’ connotation some have to Downriver,” he said in a news interview.  “(Vision 21’s goals were) a campaign to show we’re ‘up’ with Downriver.”

Needless to say, the name (to this date) has not changed, and there was never a further tone by Mr. Prechter on the subject when the movement finally lost steam some years later.

Heinz Prechter, despite all of this success, suffered from Bi-Polar disorder and frequent depression that the general public was not aware of. His closest friends and associates knew he had difficulties, but to them he would recover from the worst symptoms time and again. He would still appear strong, self-assured, unstoppable and full of energy, and these strengths made others question whether he was capable of pushing himself toward suicide. He would have flashbacks from the past, according to his good friend David Treadwell: one of Prechter’s earliest life memories was hiding behind the door from bombers in the German farmhouse he grew up in.

Success – ultimately – could not sustain Downriver’s favorite son. He was found inside his Grosse Ile home by his wife, Wally. William Barron, then the chief of police for Grosse Ile, immediately ruled the incident a suicide. Nothing had been amiss in the home; no intruders had been reported on the property, and staff on hand at the pool house indicated there had been no outside foul play. His passing stunned Downriver and was felt all over the automotive world, as well as in his native Germany. Thousands of people would visit his wake and over seven hundred people attended his funeral. He is buried in a place of honor at Michigan Memorial Park, southwest of the 18-city area – Downriver – he so proudly embraced upon his arrival from California.

“He was a very warm person with a big heart, always trying to help bridge gaps that might separate people, whether within the United States or internationally. He was also extremely generous to others — financially (and) with his time and his advice. And, he epitomized the positive attributes of a self-made man in America, someone our company has always known as a valued business partner.”

Posthumously, Heinz Prechter would be elected into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2004.  And in April 2010, the long-awaited Performing Arts Center at Taylor’s Wayne County Community College campus was dedicated in his memory.  Yet even nine years after his death, the gap he left behind Downriver was still staggering… and he is missed to this day.

Wally Prechter (in pink scarf) attended the April 9, 2010 ribbon-cutting ceremony at Wayne County Community College’s Downriver campus dedicated the new Performing Arts Center to her late husband.
“…More than anything, (Heinz Prechter)  was this area’s leader. And he was never afraid of that role.  When I think about the current plight of the Downriver area, he’s the type of individual we sorely lack. And his absence hurts twice as much because the stakes are so much higher than they have been in decades.”
Former Editor: News-Herald Newspapers