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A Second Wind

Every professional athlete faces retirement. But after these four bowed out, they found success in new careers, applying the same talent and work ethic that made them sports stars.
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

(continued from page 5)

Dave Bing
NBA Hall of Famer/Owner and CEO

The elegance of Dave Bing's attire—a pin-striped business suit, a shirt the color of Cabernet Sauvignon with a snow-white collar and French cuffs, and shoes of Italian leather—would suggest that he owns the bustling factory he's walking through even if his name weren't on the building. He passes laborers in coveralls and earplugs hunched over machinery; those who see him offer a silent wave. "We like it loud," Bing shouts over the din. "That means we're busy."

Dave Bing played 12 seasons in the NBA, from 1967 to 1978. He scored 18,327 points (leading the league in scoring in 1968 with an average of 27.1 points per game), recorded 5,397 assists (six per game over his career), and appeared in seven All-Star Games, including 1976, when he scored 16 points and was named the Most Valuable Player.

But the statistics he has amassed since his retirement are even more impressive. These days, The Bing Group employs 1,414 people, making it the largest privately owned business in Detroit. It had $372 million in revenue in 2004 and will hit about $600 million in 2005, thanks to recent acquisitions. Its goal is $1 billion by 2008, which would make it the second-largest minority-owned business in the United States. "These presses range from a quarter of a million dollars to a million and a half," he says now, walking past a row of massive machines. "This one here is going to be a new one, state-of-the-art. Two million dollars. That will take me up to a new level."

The Bing Group is the amalgamation of several companies, all owned by Bing. One buys steel from manufacturing mills and cuts it to size. The next takes that cut steel and stamps out automotive parts. A third welds parts together and does basic assembly, while a fourth adds other materials such as plastic, leather and foam and makes seats, side-view mirrors and other pieces of cars. "It's a very low-margin business, particularly the steel, but we have a vertical integration that the others don't," he says. "That gives us the advantage."

Bing knew little about the industry when he founded Bing Steel in 1980. He only knew that he wanted to be in business. His father, Haskell, had run his own construction firm in Washington, D.C., and Bing worked there as a water boy and then a laborer, haunting the neighborhood rec centers at night to hone his athletic skills. Basketball brought him to Syracuse University—where he majored in economics and business administration—and then to the Detroit Pistons, whose disappointed fans had assumed they'd be getting local hero Cazzie Russell in the draft.

Bing won over the city with his consistent, heady play. By the time he was traded to the Washington Bullets in 1976, he'd decided to settle in Detroit when his basketball career ended. He couldn't envision staying in sports. "If you were going to stay in the league as an African American, it was as an assistant coach or, maybe, a coach," he says. "I didn't see myself doing either one."

In Detroit, the economic opportunities were centered in the auto industry. Bing had spent six summers working at the National Bank of Detroit, two more at Chrysler, and then completed a training program at Pentagon Steel. His bank contacts and basketball success enabled him to get a loan, which wasn't easy for fledgling African-American entrepreneurs in 1980, while the time spent at Chrysler and Pentagon gave him a glimpse of a possible niche. Bing Steel lost $80,000 in its first six months, and Bing started to question his plan and his aptitude. But he began to get orders during the second six months. One year on, he knew it was going to work.

"I didn't have corporate experience or exposure," Bing says. "But I think being exposed to a team sport helped me grow. I think I was pretty clear-eyed as to what my strengths and weaknesses were."

Knowing the steel industry wasn't a strength, but he could hire people for that. He had people skills from two decades of competitive basketball, knew finances from classes at Syracuse, and had an innate sense of marketing. "Steel is essentially a commodity," he says. "I'm out there doing the same thing the next guy is doing, so I have to outcompete." That's something he well understood. One business turned into four, giving him economy of scale.

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