If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, Charles Letts figured a bushel basket of apples keeps a company in good stead with Ford Motor Co. and its founder, Henry Ford.
"My great-grandfather brought him a basket of them for Thanksgiving or something, and he just kept it up," says Charles "Chip" Letts III, president of Letts Industries Inc. "Then Henry Ford II took over, and I think they wondered who the old guy with the apples was."
Letts, still in Detroit on Bellevue just north of Lafayette, is one of the oldest suppliers to Ford Motor. It began supplying forgings to the automaker in 1915. Charles Letts used to load all the forgings made during the week into a horse-drawn carriage and take them to the Ford plant in Highland Park, Mich.
"Henry Ford would come out and sign for them personally," says Chip Letts. "My great-grandfather would take the signed receipt down to the bank and borrow money off Henry's signature to pay the workers who made the forgings."
Since 1915, Letts Industries has made everything from simple rails in the early days to steering and suspension components for the current iteration of Ford's Super Duty pickup truck.
Letts Industries was one of the first automotive suppliers that went through a union organization. In 1936, future UAW President Walter Reuther organized the plant, which used to be on Fort Street where the foot of the Ambassador Bridge now sits.
"We've had a long history with them," Letts says. Ford accounts for 75 percent of the company's business, he said. In 2002, its revenue was $80 million.
"They keep throwing business our way," Chip Letts says. "We're not big enough to turn them down. We've been expanding with Chrysler and other business, but for so long they've been a dominant player for us."
Michael Strong is a staff reporter for Crain's Detroit Business, a sister publication to Automotive News.