08/04/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Entrepreneur in Flint, Michigan: Lessons from the Life of Billy Durant

I used to carry a picture of Billy Durant, a man I never met, in my wallet for years. Looking at the image, I recalled the courage of this great entrepreneur and the guts it took for him to be innovative and build one of the most important automobile empires in world history.


Billy Durant, co-founder of General Motors and Chevrolet (Wikipedia)

Whenever I go back home to Flint, Michigan I think back to Billy Durant, the cofounder of both General Motors and Chevrolet. Billy's story is an important one, and a story that can give both young and old entrepreneurs the courage to start their own small businesses.

For much of my youth, he was my role model. Arguably the greatest entrepreneur of the twentieth century, I carried that picture for years, and read everything that had been written about him. He created General Motors and made Flint the buggy capital of the world. He created the bowling alley and the supermarket. Billy had the courage to innovate and the skills to sell his products to the world. He started his career as a salesman, of cigars and eventually of the buggies that led to the founding of General Motors. When I was making my living in sales, I had this quote above my desk:

"Always get a self-seller, and if you don't have one, get one."

Famously, Billy turned just $2,000 of original investments into a $2,000,000 buggy company -- the kind of astronomical growth that can only result from entrepreneurial genius. Billy's own story inspired me to be an adaptable, driven entrepreneur that tried to give back to the community. The most important lesson I learned from Billy was to be alert to opportunity. He had taken a chance buggy ride on Dort Highway in Flint, around the turn of the century and noticed that the springs were better. The next day he was on a train to Clearwater, Michigan and purchased the company that made those buggies, moving it to Flint. Within a week, he took a sample to a buggy convention in Chicago and got 600 orders, returning to set up a factory in Flint with financing from the local bank Bill Ballinger. That was the beginning of one of the world's great achievements: General Motors.


The mausoleum of Billy Durant in the Bronx (Wikipedia).

However, he had the tragic entrepreneurial disease of expanding beyond his means. When he guaranteed that every share purchaser in Flint would not lose money, he went bankrupt. Even though he died penniless, I will always be impressed by the courage Billy had to turn a buggy venture into a global auto giant. He died in his last home on Gramercy Park and I try to walk by once per week in his honor, to remember this courage.


Gramercy Park, where Durant died in 1947 (Wikipedia).