"Our challenge throughout the campaign is to make people cognizant of the university and the need to get involved."
finds creative solutions
Delbert Mullens, ’74, works on the university’s behalf with the same passion and verve that brought him success in the business world
By Leon M. Rubin
Mullens, president and chief executive officer of Wesley Industries in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, never has been content to follow the path of least resistance. A successful entrepreneur with an enviable track record in the business world, the Buffalo native endowed a scholarship in UB's Graduate School of Education in 1992. Honoring one of his most influential former professors, the late Robert H. Rossberg, the "Thinking Outside the Box" Award goes to UB students selected for exceptional creativity in the way they conduct their studies and serve their communities.
At the same time, it captures Del Mullens's philosophy of life in a nutshell. Restless energy and creative spirit have propelled Del Mullens throughout his life-from his childhood in Buffalo to his career in the automotive industry. The same inner drive helped him to succeed as a track star at Bennett High School in Buffalo and again at Tennessee State University, where he earned a degree in history and English, with a minor in business.
Returning to Buffalo, he began law school but soon refocused his energies on his marriage and family. He worked for UB, Buffalo State College and several corporations, but found himself being drawn back to education.
He enrolled at UB to work on a master's degree in the evenings. "I was always programmed to be busy from sunup to sundown," Mullens says.
Such a schedule tends to wear a person out, however-a circumstance that sparked Mullens's relationship with Rossberg. Noticing how tired Mullens was in his counseling and educational psychology class, Rossberg would give his student breaks by asking him to go to his office to check Monday Night Football scores. The two would also get together on weekends to talk.
"He was a brilliant man," Mullens recalls. "We'd cover the rainbow from A to Z. I needed a sounding board. He was very influential in helping me to listen to myself."
Following graduate school, Mullens went to work for Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania and studied metallurgy at Lehigh University. After several years, Mullens says, "I realized I wasn't going to be chairman of the board. I was looking for intellectual stimulation, but I wanted to steer my own ship . to control my own life."
In 1983, he took a second mortgage on his house and started a company in Michigan that painted brake drums. ("Any color you wanted, as long as it was black," he jokes.) "I made 25 percent of the salary I had earned in the corporate arena, but I didn't care. I was free."
While his initial goal was simply to make enough "to educate my children and feed my family," Mullens remembers, "eventually the light called ambition went off and the learning process really began. I started to look at where I was going with my company. The more I got into it, the more exciting it became. I began to look more at the global picture, rather than just providing an existence."
That broader view led to diversification and growth. Wesley Industries, which supplies foundry and coating (painted) parts to the automotive industry and also imports ferrous and nonferrous metals, has revenues exceeding $100 million annually. The company has been honored as "Business of the Year" by the Michigan Commerce Department, the National Minority Business Development Council and Black Enterprise, and as "Supplier of the Year" by the Michigan Minority Business Development Council. Mullens himself has been named "Entrepreneur of the Year" by the Michigan Commerce Department and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Black MBA Association.
When asked if he's pleased with his successes, Mullens responds with a characteristically unexpected answer. "I'm prouder of how far I've come than of where I am. I'm a kid off the streets of Buffalo whose parents had no formal education. When I look at where I am, my focus is on where I'm going . on what the future holds," he explains. "The excitement is more in today and tomorrow than in the past."
Having an interest in where the University at Buffalo is going, Mullens created the award in Rossberg's honor and, gradually, has become more involved with his alma mater. His interest also was fueled when his son, Dorian, was working on his M.B.A. at UB. (After working in banking and at General Motors, Dorian is now a partner in Wesley Industries. Mullens's daughter, Mandy, is a marketing major at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Michigan.)
Thinking outside the box once again, when asked, Mullens joined the Graduate School of Education's Dean's Advisory Council, which he chaired. And when The Campaign for UB started, he volunteered. As he says, "I don't have enough money to change the world, but I felt I could make an impact as a fund-raiser. My hand went up."
He adds: "The school has fewer people involved and fewer resources than business or engineering or medicine, but it has more alumni than any of the others. Our challenge throughout the campaign is to make people cognizant of the university and the need to get involved."
As corporate America has shifted its hiring preferences from liberal arts graduates in the 1950s to scientists and specialists in the 1970s and 1980s to generalists today, Mullens believes that opportunities for university graduates with education degrees have expanded significantly. He says, "There's been such a gap in the ability of colleges and universities to prepare students for the world of work. Corporations now are looking for the generalist who can see the big picture-the broadly educated person.
"I'm proud of my educational roots and my degree," Mullens says, adding that his studies in counseling and educational psychology have paid countless dividends through the years. He explains, "I gained an ability to listen. It allowed me to be sympathetic and empathetic to people around me. To motivate and lead people, you have to listen to them first."
Mullens fully supports the Graduate School of Education's campaign priorities and is particularly committed to helping the university strengthen its ties with the community. "I hope the campaign will encourage more people to go to UB," he says. "We have to help people recognize what a jewel they have in their own backyards."
The university is no secret in Mullens's office in Michigan. So when the hard-driving CEO recently decided to "test the waters" for a doctorate, he turned to UB once again. He made the trip to Buffalo every week for a graduate class in comparative global education and, not surprisingly, got an "A" for the course.
It's just one more example of "thinking outside the box"-the type of behavior that Mullens exemplifies through his multiple roles as father, business leader and fund-raiser, and that he seeks to nurture through the award he funded at UB.
"Formal education puts us in boxes," Mullens says. "Many of the most creative people have avoided those boxes. The award recognizes that young people have a number of skills and talents that need to be developed, and that it's okay to switch gears-as opposed to deciding what you want to do the rest of your life at 18 or 19 years old.
"I want to encourage the Del Mullenses of today. I want to help them see that there's a broader world out there and to enable them to break out of their structure. You can have an impact even if you're not focused in the area where you received your degree."
Leon M. Rubin is a writer and public relations consultant in Boca Raton, Florida.