Once in a while, someone comes along that defines a generation. Michael George is as close as you can get to that kind of person. That is how Mike Sarafa describes his uncle.
He is among the masses who share a similar sentiment and their own feelings about a community icon.
“Mike is one of the truly great leaders in our community,” said U.S. Senator Carl Levin. “His unchanging youthful spirit, his zest for life, and his unwavering good nature make him a joy to have as a friend.”
Around town he is known to many as Uncle Mike, Mr. George or just Mike; regardless, the expressions are uttered with the utmost respect because Mike George has earned it in business, in the community and among friends and family.
He has gained the reputation as a fair-minded and savvy businessman during the 53 years he owned Melody Farms and over the last several decades as a mentor in the community and as a mediator in business.
“We have heard the slogan, ‘when E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.’ That same slogan holds true for Michael George,” commented son Robert George, known to many as Bobby. “Working alongside my father has been the most educational and rewarding experience.”
A man with no plans to retire, Mike George recently celebrated his 80th birthday still focused on community projects and business ventures.
“I get asked the question all the time, ‘when will you retire, Mike?’ I say, ‘when I retire you are all invited. It will be my funeral.’”
The Chaldean News first sat down with George a couple of months before the publication was launched in 2004 to write an article about the history of his family’s business and his contribution to the community. Always humble, he asked us not to publish the article, instead encouraging the Chaldean News to focus on stories about other people in the community.
Nine years later, he accepted our request to highlight his career with no knowledge it would be the cover story.
When Mike George first graduated from high school, he had no interest in the grocery business. “My father said to me you have two choices — you can go into the bread business or the milk business because during the Depression people were poor and always needed milk and bread,” George recalled during that first interview in December 2003.
His father had been in the milk business in the 1940s during the Depression. Mike George ran the company until he joined the army in 1953, where he served for two years. His brother Sharkey took over until Mike returned from the service.
“I enjoyed being in business with Mike,” said Sharkey George. “We always got along with each other. We made a success of Melody Farms and it became a big name in the dairy business. I love my brother and I wish him a happy birthday on his 80th birthday.”
“We were distributing milk through Wilson Dairy at the time,” recalled Mike George. “It was homogenized milk. There was no 2 percent or low-fat at the time. We added vitamin D to the milk and as a result we had the highest butterfat milk of all the competitors. The more fat the smoother the product.”
In 1962 the name changed to Mello-D to compliment the smooth texture and the vitamin D, but they eventually changed the spelling to Melody Farms.
“It was very marketable and we able to create an advertising tune from the name,” said George. “Melody Licious, Melody Light, Melody Delectable, Melody Farms!”
George’s youngest son and namesake Michael was featured in many of the Melody Farms ads. The commercial increased the business dramatically and Melody Farms went from $10 million to $30 million in sales.
During this time, the Georges acquired several companies and distributors, eventually buying nearly 20 dairy companies. In the late 1990s, the George family bought Stroh’s.
Although George never anticipating selling his dairy empire, the sale eventually occurred in 2003.
“We were always buyers,” said George. “We were looking for additional production facilities because we needed more capacity to produce more products. We approached Dean’s about buying their plant in Livonia and after several months of negotiating they decided not to sell. Several weeks later they came to us and wanted to buy our company. I was shocked.”
All in the Family
Selling the business was not something George anticipated. His sons and some nephews were active investors in the company. Mike and his wife Najat have six sons — Anthony, Bobby, Rodney, Lenne, Scott and Michael — and 10 grandchildren.
Bobby is the president of Pioneer Meats, ServFresh Foods and Hot Pies and is also managing director of George Enterprises. He officially started working for the family after college but says the business lessons started young.
“From a very young age my father conditioned my brothers and I to be leaders,” Bobby recalled. “He encouraged us to work at the retail level so we could better understand their operations. Then, when making the transition into manufacturing and distribution, it became easy to work with those retailers because we understood their business.”
Son Rodney started working with his dad at age 9. “My brothers and I are very blessed to be working with my father and each other under my father’s guidance,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that! My father has taught me to treat people with respect, to be responsive and to take responsibility.”
Scott’s first position with the company was in 1988 working as a business developer for Melody Farms. “Working with my dad has helped me achieve my greatest accomplishments in my life,” explained Scott. “He taught me the most important things in life such as hard work, discipline, respect, integrity and leadership. He taught me how to build relationships in the business world, so I can gain respect in the industry.”
Each of his son shares the same sentiments of gratitude and admiration. “There are many traits that I have learned from my father,” said Lenne. “One of the most valued is the importance of our family and the ways of the Chaldean culture as we knew it back then and today. All the years growing up with my dad I have noticed his honesty, which brings us to trust. I can go on and on about my dad.”
Said Anthony, the eldest son, “When it came to my dreams he has never said no. He always told me to reach for my goals and pursue whatever I wanted in life. He has always backed me up in everything that I have done and has supported me as I worked my way up from the bottom.”
When the family finally sold Melody Farms, the timing to sell was optimal. The sons were groomed to move onto the next level and the industry was on the cusp of change.
As a savvy businessman, George evaluated the marketplace and realized the big box stores were squeezing out some of the independents, who were his customer base.
“Our business was built on relationships, “said George. “Our customers were re-inventing themselves and going into different businesses.”
Dean Food, based in Texas, eventually purchased Melody Farms from the George family. Mike George sold the business much like he had done business over the previous five decades, with a handshake.
“We went the closing without a purchasing agreement,” said George. “They wanted to write a purchase agreement and we told them, ‘go ahead but we did not need it.’ A contract can be broken but you can’t break your word.”
George not only made the decision to sell based on the economic climate but he was concerned about the community. “Most of our people didn’t choose their profession at the time we were building our business,” he said. “They did not have a choice to go into the grocery business. Our people are true entrepreneurs. They know how to re-invent themselves. They take risks.”
True to his words, George has not retired. He has been running his many other ventures with the family. They have many entities including food, manufacturing, technology, health and fitness, real estate, warehousing, entertainment and philanthropy.
The most active companies are Champion Wholesale (warehouse fresh meat, deli and flowers); ServFresh Foods (processor of deli trays); Pioneer Meats (ready-to-eat meat and deli products), UrthTech (natural disinfectants) and Port Atwater Parking (a commercial parking deck).
George has also dedicated countless hours to helping other entrepreneurs, charitable organizations and community projects. Never asking for recognition or even a thank you, others have realized the impact he has had on the community. He is not only been a business leader, but an advocate for the community. He has been involved with community and charitable affairs for decades, “which have been very gratifying,” he noted.
“My dad was instrumental in establishing the Bank of Michigan and Shenandoah Country Club as well as uniting all the charitable organizations within the community with the intent to ensure that the Chaldean community has a strong identity and voice among the masses,” said Michael George II. “When I was young, I didn’t always understand why my dad spent so much time on community projects. His efforts and beliefs have paid off; they have taught me the importance of helping our community prosper and succeed.”
A man with a true sense of pride and humility, Mike George said, “Business is simple, we make it complicated.”
He credits his success of being able to build a multimillion-dollar company from a truck and a route to three simple rules: always tell the truth, treat people with respect and be responsive. “In the end, it is not about price. It is about the relationships you build over the years.”
Keeping Up with the Times
Born in a time where getting mail meant walking to a mailbox and cell phones seemed as unimaginable as flying to the moon, Mike George is quite tech savvy today. “You can’t do business with the technology,” he said. “I have a Smart Phone, I-Pad, an administrative assistant equipped with technology and a group of professional instructors always willing to assist.”
Over the years, generations of businessmen and women have sought his advice. “Life is simple if you just remember to always be truthful and responsive,” he said. “Exaggeration and unfounded perception turn to rumors that can literally destroy people. Follow through timely on your commitments. Do not procrastinate. The success of our companies has been and still is one word: responsiveness. When you respond timely and truthfully, you inherit creditability.”
He has made lasting impressions on all who have known him because as he has shown and explained, he always has good intentions.
“My husband Michael has been a blessing to me,” said Najat George. “When I count my blessings, I always thank the Lord for him. He is the most important part of my warm and treasured memories. I hold him in my heart because he has always made me feel on top of the world. I love him dearly and I am proud of him. I am grateful to be able to celebrate his 80th birthday with him.”
“It is more important to my family and to me that we leave an everlasting impression,” said George, “an impression as having conducted our lives with honesty and integrity and doing works that have benefited our community.”
A Lasting Legacy
Mike George has made an impact on the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the years. A few share their memorable moments and birthday wishes.
I would like to wish Mike George all good things, health, holiness and peace. It is good to see him continue his dedication to the community even after his 80th birthday. He is a man of service to all without preference. We thank him profoundly for the many services he has offered to all of us.
Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim
Chaldean Catholic Diocese
Mike George’s many contributions to the Chaldean community, and to the state of Michigan, have had a great impact over the years. From Melody Farms to his numerous real estate investments and philanthropic work, he is helping revitalize Detroit, which is essential to the reinvention of Michigan. On behalf of all Michiganders, I wish Mike George a very happy 80th birthday, and many more.
Governor of Michigan
Mike George’s story is a quintessential American story — he is a treasure of our community. He has long been an important mentor to many men and women in our great community, and his leadership, wisdom and generous heart have endeared him to people of all faiths and backgrounds. We all wish him a happy and healthy 80th birthday.
Gerald E. Rosen
Chief Judge, U.S. District Court
Mr. George has been a trailblazer in the food industry and the Chaldean community. From his service in the United States military to ownership of Melody Farms to his willingness to help get people into business, he has been a great example and role model for people to follow, look up to and emulate.
President and CEO, AFPD
I heard about Mike George before I had the privilege of meeting him. His reputation within the entire community was a person who was very innovative, had high integrity and character, and was an outstanding businessman who cared deeply about HIS community. Years before I ran for public office, I had the chance to meet and watch him. I learned how he was instrumental in causing so many young businesspeople within his community get a start. Because of his capacity of wanting to help others more than himself he singlehandedly, in my view, helped create the small businesses that lead to larger businesses. He created a culture of encouraging those who began their businesses working long hours in their stores or gas stations to work with and use suppliers of businesses from within their community. He encouraged those businesses to hire outside their own ethnic affiliation and thus, in my view, helped establish a good overall community relationship. As mayor, I had privilege of working with him, seeking his advice when issues came up and needing a resolution that would be fair and just. My only surprise is that Mike is celebrating his 80th birthday —- his personal activity and staying involved within the total community would cause most to think he is considerably younger.
Dennis W. Archer
Former Mayor of Detroit
Chairman Emeritus, Dickinson Wright PLLC
He is an altruistic role model emphasizing humility and ethics in both business and his personal life. I have had the privilege of attending business meetings as well as social and political gatherings with my father and am perpetually astonished by the respect he both offers and receives; he has a truly remarkable gift of eloquence which lends itself to his continual success. I always loved and admired his entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity and I believe he has given me the foundation and insight which compels me to get up every morning motivated and ready to take on life’s daily challenges. I still look forward to working with my father every day and it continues to be a very gratifying experience. If I could put what it was like working with my father in one word, it would have to be …. motivating!
Son Bobby George
Mike George was quite instrumental in my career path decision in 1976 to become a lender and very influential when I was making a decision to come to the Bank of Michigan in 2005. Over the last 35 years, we ultimately worked closely on hundreds of loans that were referred to the bank. Many of the earlier loans were to new entrepreneurs purchasing their very first stores, approved only because Mike George was willing to guarantee them. Integrity was and is so important to Mr. George; his guaranty was oftentimes pledged on just a handshake. He is a true gentleman, a man of honor and my own life has been enhanced by knowing him.
Loan Officer, Bank of Michigan
Mike George has been a trusted friend and great neighbor. He has been a mentor not only to us but to the entire Chaldean community. We wish a very Happy 80th Birthday and we know his legacy will carry on forever.
Tom, Jean, Terry, Ronnie, Larry and John Farida
Long-time friends and neighbors
Our community is blessed to have Mike George. Never have I met a man so caring and passionate about helping others. He has taught us the importance of serving and continues to lead by example, always in a humble way.
President, Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce
The past 34 years of my relationship with Mike have had a most positive and impactful influence on my life. Never once have I ever regretted joining the Melody Farms team. He has been a wonderful teacher by both words and most importantly by his actions. No matter how difficult the situation he would say, “always tell the truth, it works every time.” I have always tried to maintain this approach. His unselfish commitment to the Chaldean community is admired by all. He certainly has a remarkable legacy and his family and I could not be more proud.
article by: By Vanessa Denha Garmo