Rescue mission: Former chair of Opera Theatre helped keep institution 'alive'


Photos courtesy of MOT

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

During his 17 years as chair of Michigan Opera Theatre, Birmingham attorney Rick Williams became accustomed to “riding the rapids” as head of a nonprofit, never more so than when a convergence of untimely events threatened to bury the Detroit cultural institution under a mountain of debt.

In 2006, some four years into Williams’s reign as chairman of the MOT Board of Directors, a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place to christen the opening of a 700-space parking structure across John R Street from the Detroit Opera House. The seven-story parking garage was heralded as a much-needed addition to the MOT’s downtown footprint, carrying the promise of a safe and convenient parking venue for theater patrons and neighboring businesses.

“It all sounded good in terms of the projected revenue flow and then the bottom fell out,” said Williams of the economic storm that slammed Detroit. “By the end of 2007, things were really starting to fall apart in Metro Detroit with the mortgage crisis and the auto companies headed toward bankruptcy. Some of our biggest supporters were in financial peril and, accordingly, our future was anything but bright.”

Especially with an elephant in the room in the form of an $18 million debt to pay for a new parking structure that suddenly had lost a lot of its luster.     

“With the onset of the recession, business was drying up everywhere and tenants were fleeing the downtown,” Williams related. “Any funding support from the city, the state, or the federal government just evaporated. We were left to wonder, ‘How many more bad things could happen?’”

And still there was a “monster debt that we had to deal with,” said Williams.

“Somehow, we had to chop that debt down to make our payments more manageable in relation to our cash flow,” Williams explained. “Of course, we also had to deal with the fact that no bank is excited about taking a haircut on a loan.”

The job of convincing lenders to consider a “more friendly” loan package for the Michigan Opera Theatre was made particularly difficult by the fact that “we were dealing with out-of-town banks,” according to Williams.

“Banks not headquartered in Detroit aren’t especially interested in extending ‘home-town discounts’ to borrowers,” said Williams. “They simply want to be paid and they were well within their rights to feel that way.”

Over the next few years, the MOT was forced to operate in a “crisis mode” as officials mulled the organization’s financial options. At the MOT’s Annual Meeting in November 2011, Williams generally painted a not-so-rosy picture while offering a glimmer of hope.

“As I have explained in the past, our primary problem is too much debt,” Williams told the MOT board at the meeting. “Currently, we owe approximately $16 million to our bond holders plus we have potential obligations for another $2 million under an Interest Rate Swap Agreement. Today, we have the opportunity to reduce our debt load to approximately $7 million. This can be accomplished, provided we are able to meet the challenge of raising $11 million within the next six months.

“How do we intend to raise $11 million? The first and most important source of these funds will be our own benefactors, starting with our Board of Directors and Trustees,” said Williams, setting the stage for an ambitious fund-raising campaign over the next year.

Williams and the late David DiChiera, the Michigan Opera Theatre’s founder and general director, joined forces to spearhead a last ditch fund-raising drive designed to stave off creditors until the debt could be restructured to a manageable level. The pair worked feverishly over a six-month period to raise the money, securing a lead gift of $1 million from the William Davidson Foundation that provided early momentum to the campaign.

“That gift was a real shot in the arm and a commitment we were able to leverage to get support from other foundations,” Williams related.

Armed by that early show of support, Williams, DiChiera, and others went into “total fund-raising mode,” approaching longtime benefactors across the region, canvassing the community the “old fashioned way,” according to the then MOT chair.

“By shifting course, we made it and we were able to get out of a terrible hole by June of 2012,” said Williams. “Hair-raising, but we did it.”

By assuming the lead in the successful fund-raising campaign, Williams cemented his standing as a savior of the MOT, according to Wayne Brown, president and CEO of the organization.

“Rick, throughout his years as chair, played a critical role in the stewardship of the MOT,” said Brown, a University of Michigan alum who formerly was director of Music and Opera for the National Endowment for the Arts. “The importance of his work in the fund-raising campaign for the parking structure is well-documented and put the MOT on a path to financial stability. In all my years in the nonprofit world, Rick is as strong and effective a leader as any board chair that I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

So much so, in fact, that the stage of the venerable Detroit Opera House has been named in honor of Williams, Brown reported.

“It was announced at the Annual Meeting in November and was greeted with an enthusiastic response from the board,” Brown said of the naming honor. “Rick is especially deserving of such a tribute and we are delighted to know that he, as past chair, will play a key advisory role to the MOT in the future.”

Helping shape that future will be Ethan Davidson, who last fall was named as the new chair of the MOT Board of Directors. A Birmingham resident, Davidson currently serves as chairman of the Grants Committee of the William Davidson Foundation, a philanthropic organization launched by his late father, the former owner of Guardian Industries and the Detroit Pistons.

Now, as a past chair, Williams joked that, “I am more and more irrelevant by the day.”

And yet, he can take pride in helping the MOT surmount “our financial issues during the recession and developing plans for the future,” which he hopes will include a paradigm change.

“Unless the government gets serious about supporting nonprofits,” Williams cautioned, “MOT and all the other cultural nonprofits in this country will always be fund-raising, adjusting, and fighting to stay relevant and alive.”  


Firm’s managing partner has business in his blood

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A product of the renowned Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Rick Williams seemed destined for a career on Wall Street after earning his bachelor’s degree from Ivy League Princeton and his law degree from the University of Michigan.

“I’ve always had great interest in business and finance, and initially didn’t have that same kind of passion for the law,” said Williams, one of the founding partners of Williams Williams Rattner & Plunkett (WWRP).

It became an acquired taste after he worked for several years in New York as an investment banker and then as a management consultant for a major financial firm. His move into the legal profession also followed four years of service during the Vietnam War as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, where he graduated from the Defense Language Institute specializing in Russian. His military service involved plenty of “secretive stuff,” he acknowledged, while preferring not to elaborate on such matters.

His business background was developed at an early age, due in large part to the influence of his father, Jamie, a U-M engineering alum and former football player for the Wolverines who rose through the executive ranks of American Metal Products to eventually become president of the publicly traded company.

The company traced its roots to 1917 when it was founded by a 25-year-old wunderkind named Fred Matthaei, who eventually became one of U-M’s most generous donors. Over the years, American Metal Products morphed into what is now Lear Corp., the automotive supplier and Fortune 500 company based in Southfield.

“My father’s expertise in the fields of engineering and business served him well throughout the course of his career, and it helped expose me to how successful companies are built and operated,” Williams said. “My dad had his hands in a lot of business ventures and was an early investor in Roger Penske’s enterprises.”

That entrepreneurial spirit was inherited by his son, who over the years has started or bought seven companies, including Green Optics, Nexlink Communications, Great Lakes Coating, Clarke Power Services, and North Pointe Insurance Co.

“It’s among my passions,” Williams said of his many business interests.

He remains just as passionate about his continued role as managing partner of WWRP, which has built a reputation for excellence in business law and commercial litigation, real estate, municipal law, tax and estate planning among other specialties. The firm’s success in those fields has made it a merger or acquisition target itself at various times over the past 45 years, according to Williams.

“We have been courted by most of the major Detroit firms,” Williams acknowledged. “While we have been flattered by the interest, we have repeatedly decided to stick with our model and our mission, to remain a mid-sized firm that is talented and experienced enough to handle virtually any legal challenge, while also being nimble enough to respond quickly to a pressing need of a client.”

Williams, who was an All-American swimmer at Princeton, seemingly thrives on challenges. During the summers of his youth, he used to swim some 3-1/2 miles across beautiful Torch Lake in northern Michigan while towing a rowboat that was tied to his feet. The daily workout helped him develop upper body strength that would propel him to swimming stardom in the freestyle.

The father of four children (Blake, Jamie, Tod, and Carter), Williams also is the grandfather of five, and has enjoyed married life for the past 14 years to his wife Karen.

“She is a wonderful woman, and formerly worked in New York with Harper’s Bazaar and then in sales with a Detroit radio station when we first met,” said Williams. “She has brought great joy into my life.”


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