Crain's Detroit Business - Eternal Optimist

A yen for a Cadillac convertible as a teenager launched Herb Strather into a real estate career.

That was 35 years and $1 billion in projects ago. Along the way, Strather has also become a community volunteer, a philanthropist, a founder of clubs for Optimist International and is credited - and blamed - for bringing casinos to Detroit.

He's also been a boy with a stutter who entered oratory contests until he won as a teenager who knew that desires don't change lives, but plans to achieve them do.

Now Strather, 53, says he looks to a future in which he wants to empower a new generation of developers and investors willing to help improve urban areas. "My goal is to see a thriving, comeback Detroit before I die; then I can say that I fought a good fight."

The Cadillac in question was a brand-spanking new 1970 model, gold with a white top, that belonged to developer Bernie Glieberman, president of Crosswinds Communities, Inc. Strather was an 18-year-old car waxer in 1969 when he first saw it and thought: "That's what I'm going to drive!"

And he's driven them for 20 years, sometimes getting Cadillac Eldorados converted into ragtops when they weren't available otherwise.

Strather had purchased his first house in 1968 with his mother as a co-signer, but he was still without a concrete career plan.

But the Cadillac - and the fact that it was a developer who drove it - helped Strather make the decision that ultimately led to starting his own brokerage and appraisal firm, Strather & Associates, Inc., in 1975.

But that's not the beginning of Strather's Story. The beginning came in middle school when, as Strather puts it, "The Optimists saved my life."

Strather had spent a peripatetic childhood on Detroit's southwest side during which he moved with his family five times between the ages of 4 and 16.

"We were poor and on welfare. I stuttered real bad and was an insecure kid," Strather said. He was, however, determined to improve his life.

He began selling spices and tonics door-to-door for Watkins Products, at age 12, as much to overcome his fear of talking to people as to make money.

About the same time, he entered an Optmist International Club oratory contest at his school.

"It was embarrassing for me at first. I got the John F. Kennedy saying, "Ask not what your country can do..." backward, and the audience laughed and laughed while I stuttered, "I mean I mean..." trying to get it right."

But Strather entered the contest every year until he won.

After that, enthralled with public speaking, he decided to run for class president at Western High School and won - but not before bringing up his grades at the insistence of the principal.