FLINT, Michigan -- Traveling down Davison Road, between Chavez Boulevard and Franklin Avenue, the road is pockmarked with buildings that are falling apart or completely gone. Some, like the old funeral home, which was set afire, are cleared from their lots. Other buildings are boarded up. Some are just plain crumbling away. But there is an oasis of clean green space and older but obviously well-maintained buildings. If you ask about those green spaces and buildings, you will generally be directed to Brown & Sons Auto Parts.
Why, I wondered, would I be told about an auto parts store when I was asking about improved community sites?
A customer shops inside Brown & Sons Auto Parts.
I made an appointment with Nicholas Branoff, one of the grandsons of the original founder of Brown & Sons, to find out. When I walked in the door, I was greeted by three things: the smell of auto parts and history, shelves of AC Delco products which surrounded me, and the smiling men behind the counter. Brown and Sons, ever since the day it was founded back in 1949, has prided itself on treating everyone who enters as someone in need of help. But it goes much deeper than merely business.
Expecting a lot of conversation about auto parts when I arranged this interview, I instead had a nice hour-long talk with Nick describing why this business has been present and successful since the late 1940s. I learned how Brown & Sons flourished in this location since moving here in the 1970s, how the business model currently in force at Brown & Sons reflects the ethics impressed upon the Brown family by founder Jack Brown, and how this is reflected in the community around the business.
Mr. Branoff (“Call me Nick”) greeted me warmly in spite of being busy. After a moment to finish his work, he made it a point to put down what he was doing and focus directly on me. I found out through casual inquiry later that this is the normal attitude for him. People come first.
Nick’s grandfather, Jack Brown, was already a successful businessman when he moved to Flint from Pennsylvania. Realizing that new interstate highways were being constructed at the time were going to bypass most small towns and their businesses. That meant being located nearer to interstate exit ramps was vital, and Jack set out to do just that. He started with his home garage, his Chevy, and a strong set of ethics.
“He (Jack) instilled in all of us the same ethics he followed,” Nick said.
For example, Brown & Sons was one of the first businesses in Flint to offer employees healthcare. Jack felt that taking care of employees means employees will take better care of customers. This approach has led to an incredibly low employee turnover rate throughout the years.
Those ethics especially included service. When discussing customers, Nick stated, “People come here for help, so we try to give it to them. If we don’t have the part a customer needs, we go out of our way to find it.”
When it comes to their employees, they are flexible and foster family time. If an employee’s child has a sports game to play, the employee is given time off to do so without loss of wage.
“You won’t remember what you were doing here this afternoon, but you’ll remember what your child did in the game, and your child will remember you being there,” Nick said.
The Flint Fire Department building in the early 1900s.
This service extends into the neighborhood also. One way is by the restored buildings around the store itself. One of the older buildings I noted while going to interview Nick was the old fire station, built around 1917. Brown & Sons bought it and immediately started renovating it. You can tell Nick’s enthusiasm for the renovation by the look on his face when he talked about horse-drawn firetrucks and stables. Since they moved to this store (back in the 1970s), they quietly added several buildings as they’ve grown, and the pattern is obvious in their building choices: along with the old Davison Road Fire Station, they’ve bought the AC Spark Plug building, over by Buick City, the Davison Road Glass building, and other lots they turned into green spaces. The focus is consistently on keeping the area as vibrant as possible.
The Flint Fire Department building today.
“We also go out, employees and family, and clean up around the on-and-off-ramps around here, clean up derelict properties, clean up empty lots,” Nick said.
Pointing out the window at a beautiful green spot across the road, he told me about even buying properties with condemned buildings on them and paying for demolition/reclamation themselves. At the present time, Nick indicated that Brown & Sons were looking for groups in the area to partner with for help with those cleanups. Specifically, near the freeway exits, at the old Homedale School site and the new ballpark on Kearsley Street.
Nick identified the 1960s, when Brown & Sons were just a short distance away on Lewis Road, as the heyday of the area on the eastside.
“Back then, people pulled together to make the area attractive,” He said, also noting the strength of the local economy, Flint’s increasing popularity, and residents’ pride in their neighborhoods. He also was encouraged by the current increasing cooperation of Flint residents in restoring Flint by cleaning up neighborhoods and fighting blight.
I asked Nick how he’d “bring Flint back.” Nick had very definite ideas, such as supporting local businesses.
“The money we spend at corporate businesses mostly goes somewhere else,” he said. “The money put into local businesses puts money back here. And here is where it’s needed.”
He also advocates for more programs for young people, in which the city sponsors high schoolers spending school half-days out working in the community to fight blight or assist residents.
“The city can give them transportation, food, water, and school credits. And they’ll learn the value of service while they’re out there,” he said.
He suggested fixing the infrastructure so that Flint has its own water supply and employing Flint residents in its operations. He also suggested the city take over abandoned/derelict properties. That the owners, whether local or not, be fined or have the property confiscated. Reduce turnaround time, give larger companies incentives for sponsoring the acquisition and renovations of these properties, and sell the renovated houses to low-income residents, at a price affordable on minimum wage, are other ways he believes the city could continue improving.
“This creates more property owners, less homelessness, more taxes, more investment in the neighborhoods, and better economics,” he said.
Regardless of what changes in the city, one thing remains a constant. “We’re (Brown & Sons and the Brown family) not moving. This is our home,” he said.