Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 10, 2013

Businessman who launched Indian-owned factory dies

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY - Long-time businessman William “Bill” Russell, who launched the region’s first Indian-owned manufacturing plant in 1975 and initially hired only fellow American Indians when no other company would, died at his home.

Russell, 77, died late Wednesday. He started and owned Nish-Nah-Bee Industries from 1975 to 1998. It employed 550 Indian and non-Indian workers at its peak in the mid-1980s. Nish-Nah-Bee means “original people.”

“He believed that for native people to flourish and get things accomplished, Indian people needed to get involved in business,” said John Bailey, of Honor, who served on the Michigan Indian Commission in the 1970s, and in the 1980s worked for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Friends and family described Russell as determined, hard-working, strong and gracious, an inspiring man who insisted on living life on his own terms right up to the end. He was diagnosed with bile duct cancer last June and was told he would die within three to four months.

“I prefer to dance with my opportunities, not my limitations,” he told George Antoine last fall when they discussed his memorial service.

Antoine, a long-time friend and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians tribal council member, will officiate at Russell’s memorial service on May 15 at Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home. Visitation will be held at 2 p.m. and the service starts at 3 p.m.

“He was given a diagnosis, but it didn’t matter until a few days ago,” niece Jane Rohl said. “It wasn’t a death sentence. He lived every day of his life under his own rules.”

Russell stayed active, and got up and dressed each morning, even if he didn’t feel well. He ate healthy meals, exercised and spent time with friends. He also told his family he wanted his obituary to note he was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and proud of his 31 years of sobriety. He attended his last meeting May 4.

He was born during the Great Depression in December 1935, the 11th of 12 children in a home with a dirt floor. It was a time when few Indians could find jobs, often lived in crushing poverty and frequently confronted racism and discrimination. A teacher once told Russell he never would graduate from high school or be successful because he was Indian, his family said.

He proved the teacher and others wrong. He left his parents’ home forever when he was about 10 or 11 in the 1940s. He lived a summer outside, and slept at Clinch Park Beach while doing odd jobs for downtown merchants and working a paper route. He then moved in with an older sister and her family until he graduated from high school in the early 1950s and joined the Marines.

Antoine said Russell recently told him the proudest day of his life was his high school graduation day and looking out in the audience to see his mother there.

“He had tears in his eye when he told me,” Antoine said.

When he returned to Traverse City, he enrolled in Northwestern Michigan College in 1958 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University and a master’s degree in accounting at Central Michigan University to become a certified public accountant. He also taught school a few years in Chesaning, Buckley and Suttons Bay, where he also coached basketball.

“He was the first person of color to coach there and to the best of my knowledge the only Indian," said Jo Keusch, a niece.

In 1966, he opened Biz-e-Bee, a local hardware, which he owned until 1970.

Nish-Nah-Bee Industries, an auto components supplier to General Motors, initially was located in a small shop off South Airport Road as a minority-owned enterprise that qualified for certain contracting advantages with companies that did work for the federal government. Russell later moved the plant to 2440 Aero Park Drive and created two subsidiaries: Nek-Tiga and Nish-Nah-Bee Plastics.

Russell was one of several original investors and shareholders in the enterprise, but in time became majority shareholder. By the early 1980s, it employed 550 people, but those numbers fell to about 100 in 1992, primarily because of outsourcing to Mexican plants.

The company went through a wrenching strike in 1984, when 300 workers walked out. The company hired new workers and the union was voted out the next year. Russell retired in 1998 and closed the plant.

“We were spit on, yelled at, our cars keyed, tires flattened and one car was blown up in the parking lot,” said Keusch, who began working for him in 1975, when all of the employees were Indians, except one. “We were not even safe in our own homes. Very scary. Uncle Bill did everything he could to ensure our safe passage into and out the plant."

“He did so much for Indian people in his life,” Keusch added. “Basically, he taught work ethics, and he saved so many families and did everything in his power to make sure we had food on the table. He was a leader among men.”

A full obituary will be published in Sunday's Record-Eagle.