From Detroit to Mississippi: MMA-Secretary Treasurer Kirk Lewis Embraces His New Home
Kirk Lewis just wanted a haircut.
The year is 2012, and Lewis was recently named the Deputy Mayor of Detroit because his good friend and Mayor, Dave Bing, was on leave due to a medical procedure.
On this particular day, Lewis took the elevator down to a barbershop in the basement of the mayor’s office.
“Oh man, the security went nuts,” Lewis said. “You would have thought that I had been kidnapped. They stormed down there once they found out where I was at. That was kind of my realization that this is different.”
It was a different role than his full-time gig working with Dave Bing, and that role as chief governmental and corporate affairs officer is something he never envisioned having, either.
These roles he had with his long-time friend are also symbolic of the relationship Bing and Lewis share, and it’s a relationship not everyone gets to develop.
“I got to be friends with Kirk’s father and mother because they were big Pistons fans,” Bing said. “They were two of the big fans who sat behind the Pistons bench, so that’s how we got to know each other.”
Bing isn’t talking like he was a fellow ticket holder, though. For the uninitiated, Bing played 12 years in the National Basketball Association and spent his first nine seasons with Detroit. In 1990, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Suffice to say, Bing is a Detroit sports legend and one of those guys people meet once and tell their friends about forever. But to Bing, Lewis is basically family.
“Kirk became a ball boy for the Pistons,” Bing said. “Then he started coming to my basketball camp. He was like a little brother.”
As the years went on, the older brother continued to excel in the NBA while the little brother played lacrosse and began focusing on what he wanted to do with his life. After high school, Lewis went to Michigan State and graduated with a degree in accounting.
“Originally out of undergrad, I went to work with PriceWaterhouse. I thought I was gonna be a CPA (Certified Public Accountant),” Lewis said. “After about six months of that, I was like, this is not for me.”
Around that same time, Bing, who was just beginning his life after basketball, started a stamping company. It was at this time where little brother and big brother got back together.
“[Dave] called me up one day and said, ‘Hey, I’m getting ready to start this stamping company. Why don’t you come work for me?’” Lewis said. “And I was like, well, I don’t know anything about that. But, you know, I’m not really happy so let me do it.
“So, I went to work with him. I started off as the first employee of the company, and so, I did everything. From buying equipment to working on the bank loans, to leasing the facility, I was a one-person shop.”
After three years, Lewis began thinking about his next step. However, he knew that the next step would involve leaving Bing.
“I had a good friend who was a high-level HR person at Ford Motor Car Company,” Lewis said. “And they put this program in place where they were gonna hire BBA’s (Bachelor’s of Business Administration) and then pay for them to get an MBA (Master of Business Administration) and work at Ford.
“I left Dave, which was a really tough decision. But I knew if I wanted to get an MBA, if I wanted to expand my horizons, I couldn’t keep working in this small company because I just didn’t have the time to be able to do that kind of stuff. So, I left, went to Ford for seven years, got my MBA, and really focused on finance.”
But he and Bing weren’t done working together. Instead, after seven years with Ford, Lewis went back to work for his longtime friend and became the Chief Financial Officer of his company, the Bing Group.
Not long after that, an unlikely opportunity came knocking when Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned from office in 2008. An influential group of businessmen in the area, including Roger Penske (Penske Corporation), Tony Earley (former CEO of DTE Energy), and Jim Nicholson (Chairman, PVS Chemicals), recruited Bing to run for mayor. It took a lot of convincing, but Bing eventually decided to run, and he won.
“At that time, we had decided that it was probably best to shut down the businesses,” Lewis said. “So he went into office, and my task was to wind down the business.”
Bing said Lewis has always been great at developing and maintaining relationships, and in 2010, that skill led to an opportunity from Toyota. Toyota wanted to open a steel factory in Blue Springs, Mississippi, and Lewis was their guy to run the plant.
However, a delay in opening the plant kept Lewis in Michigan. That delay was convenient for that same group of influential businessmen who convinced Bing to run for mayor because it gave them a chance to get Lewis to join Bing’s staff in the mayor’s office.
“It was probably one of the best things that I ever have done,” Bing said. “I learned so much about politics. I was the primary contact with The White House. I got to greet heads of state. I spoke at a lot of events. It was a great experience.”
It was a great experience that also included that short stint as the Deputy Mayor. But, in 2013, Lewis’s long-time working relationship with Bing came to a close when he resigned from his position on the mayor’s staff to move to Mississippi and take over Blue Spring Metals.
He didn’t leave without asking Bing to join him, though.
“At that point, I was 68 years old, went into the mayor’s office at the age of 64, I did four-plus years, that was enough for me,” Bing said with a laugh. “I’m happy for him. We lost a good guy from this area. It’s Mississippi’s gain.”
While Lewis was eager to move to the Magnolia State, he didn’t find a reciprocal feeling when it came to finding talent.
“We struggled with getting folks with automotive experience that wanted to come to Mississippi,” Bing said. “People have such a negative view on Mississippi that just don’t know Mississippi. I was constantly saying, you guys, when I came here, too, I don’t know if this is the right place for me. You get to know the people, you get to know what’s going on here. And you find out this is a great place.”
Lewis has family from Alabama but had never spent much time in Mississippi before he moved here eight years ago.
So, understanding he was an outsider, Lewis found a way to better understand his new home.
“I’d get in the car and drive. I’d drive to the Delta, just look and just see things,” he said. “I went to the Sweet Potato Festival, just things to learn about Mississippi. That was extremely helpful. I met a lot of people that way.
“I did ‘Leadership Mississippi’, which was really helpful because it put some of the issues that Mississippi’s facing on the table, and able to have a discussion with some of the folks.”
In March 2018, Lewis was named to the Mississippi Manufacturers Association’s Board of Directors. Then, during this past board meeting in October, Lewis was named to the Executive Committee as Secretary-Treasurer.
“I didn’t come in here saying I wanna be on the board. First, I wanted to learn and understand,” Lewis said. “Because you just can’t come from the outside and say I wanna run this thing.”
Lewis is in line to serve as Chair of the Board in three years, which would make him the first African American to hold that position. He said that possibility, combined with Pat Thomasson becoming the first woman Chair of the Board, is a sign of continued progress being made in Mississippi.
“Mississippi has changed,” he said. “Do you still have challenges? Yes. Do they have challenges everywhere? Yes. What’s happening at the MMA is really what’s going on in Mississippi.
“I’m excited about the makeup of the board. I’m excited about getting out and letting people see who we are, what we do. I think it’ll maybe bring more members in when you see that diversity there. And then you gotta have a lot of kudos for the leadership who said ‘it’s time’. And I’m sure it wasn’t just a straightforward conversation. It’s different. The world’s changing, we’re making progress.”