Early hardship forged McElya's desire to give back
James McElya didn't have a typical childhood.
Left at the Salvation Army when he was 6 weeks old, this year's Rubber Industry Executive of the Year, as named by Rubber & Plastics News, was in and out of 11 foster homes by the time he turned 18. How he has operated as head of Cooper-Standard Automotive Inc. is due, in large part, to his past.
"You don't grow up and go through the experiences that I went through and not be affected," he said.
Not everything was uncertain during his younger years. When he was 13, he met a girl named Jane, and told a friend he would marry her. They married when he was 18 and had a son, as McElya built his career.
"I had two great mentors," he said. "They just dumped everything [they knew] on me, for me."
The two -- one noted for his business sense and the other for his humanitarian ways -- took him under their wings and taught him everything they could.
"I didn't like a lot of the jobs they gave me," he said. But he did them anyway, even though it meant moving 15 times in 30 years. He learned from each job and experience and began to understand what his strengths were.
"One of these guys told me, 'Look, son, if you want to get ahead, No. 1, you need to let people know you want to get ahead, you're willing to do whatever you have to do, you'll take any job and you'll go anywhere as long as it will further your career,'" he said. "I give that advice [now] to every young person I can get to listen to me."
Even before these two men, he said he was lucky enough to have people watching out for him early on in his life -- from his third-grade teacher cleaning him up on picture day and talking with him about faith, to his gym teacher keeping after him to get into sports.
"I've just been blessed that I had people, when I was getting ready to go the wrong way, who were there to push me in the other direction," he said.
As these people believed in and guided him, he has made it a point to do the same with those who now walk into his life.
"I think we have to get back" to the idea of mentorship, he said. While some people might worry about a protege walking away for other opportunities, McElya said he considers it an investment in a person.
"There are people who don't really believe that investment in people is as worthwhile as it used to be," he said. "I completely disagree."
Mentorship isn't the only thing growing at Cooper-Standard. The mind-set of giving back to the community also has taken hold within the company.
"The company has a great heart for giving and for giving back," he said. "It's not me, it's the company, and it is so cool."
From helping local food banks deliver food to raising money for a clinic for the homeless, the employees have gotten behind giving back to their community.
The most visible evidence has been a partnership with Detroit journalist Mitch Albom that resulted in the 2008 opening of the S.A.Y Detroit Family Health Clinic, which offers medical services to children and their mothers.
What gratifies McElya the most about the charitable efforts is that it's not just the company writing checks. It's the employees' having bake sales, car washes and walks, and donating for the right to wear jeans on Fridays.
"The first year we saw 2,000 patients, the second year we saw 4,000 patients, and the third year we saw 6,000," he said. "And, unfortunately, this year we are already above that."
With the need for this kind of clinic growing, McElya said many people don't understand the mind-set of the homeless. "When I'm out doing fundraising, people say, 'Why don't they just go to the emergency room?" he said.
But when they do, hospital employees often ask questions that can lead to a call to child services. "When one homeless mother loses her child, it spreads like wildfire through the homeless community," he said. "So they don't go. They don't take their children to the emergency room."
These charity efforts not only help members of the community, but they also have attracted some good people to Cooper-Standard, McElya said.
"I think it also attracts the right people, the people who want to work for a good company," he said. "And good in a different sense. Not good because it's profitable and pays more; it's good because it's a contributor to the communities in which it has facilities."
As he departs from Cooper-Standard, McElya won't be stopping his charitable ways. He will be devoting his free hours to the Jim and Jane McElya Charitable Trust, which he described as a faith-based foundation focused on children.
Said McElya: "There are a lot of people in need like I was 65 years ago."