Since February, Christopher Letts has made the “reverse commute” to work each day, traveling from his new digs in Detroit to the Bloomfield Hills office of Morgan Stanley, where he is the co-founder of the Pine Harbor Group that advises clients in “developing strategies for personal wealth accumulation, family wealth transfer, and corporate succession.”
Yet it is in the Motor City where Letts made his mark as the president of the Detroit Chapter of the Association of Corporate Growth (ACG), a 430-member organization of lawyers, accountants, bankers, venture capitalists, and private equity specialists who serve growing middle-market companies.
In June, Letts was in the international spotlight when he was honored as the 2019 recipient of the ACG Global Meritorious Service Award for “outstanding achievement” as the youngest president serving within ACG’s 59 chapters and 14,500 members around the globe. The award recognizes an honoree who contributes to the “long-term success of the organization through extraordinary volunteer service and achievement” within the organization that was founded in 1954.
“Chris is the face of our chapter and a true leader,” said Sharon Kimble, executive director of ACG Detroit. “His ability to get things done and lead effectively, at his age and in this highly competitive environment, is truly remarkable. We’re thankful for his inspired leadership and genuine concern for the future of our organization and community.”
The 35-year-old Letts, a product of Birmingham Rice High School and Michigan State University, joined ACG in 2011 and was elected to the board three years later, eventually becoming the youngest president in the chapter’s 35-year history.
“Chris has a special drive and enthusiasm that is infectious,” said Mark Winter, an ACG board member and the president of Identity, a metro Detroit marketing and public relations firm. “He is a leader in every sense of the word and makes things happen under his watch.”
Letts became one to watch while serving as the chapter’s program chair, planning and organizing more than 35 meetings each year, while working to “engage next generation members,” according to Chapter Executive Director Kimble. His leadership role has continued to expand as ACG has moved to attract new and younger members.
“I was the youngest board member at the time and was very honored to be considered for the role,” said Letts, a native of Toronto. “The board made a conscious effort to appeal to a younger and more diverse membership base, and I have been delighted to help make that happen. I’ve been particularly pleased that we’ve been able to add a number of women to our leadership ranks.”
The Detroit Chapter’s growth will be in evidence this week when it hosts the Great Lakes ACG Capital Connection (see related story). The three-day event kicks off on Wednesday, Sept. 4 at the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit and the TCF Center (formerly Cobo Center).
“It is our goal to be the premier business networking organization in the metro Detroit community, and the Great Lakes ACG Capital Connection event will serve as another opportunity to showcase our efforts to make that a reality,” said Letts, who has relied on the strengths of a number of Detroit area attorneys during his time as ACG president.
Among those who have provided key help are Doug LaLone, immediate past president of ACG who is a partner with Fishman Stewart; Andrew MacLeod, an attorney with Dickinson Wright who is the incoming president of the Detroit Chapter; Danielle Bass, an associate with Honigman who is chair of the NextGen Committee; Thomas Vaughn, a partner with Dykema who is chair of the ACG M&A All Star Awards; and Justin Klimko, president of Butzel Long and secretary of the ACG Board.
LaLone, according to Letts, is a “remarkable leader and has been an invaluable voice of experience through my term” as head of ACG.
“Doug was honored with ACG’s prestigious Meritorious Service Award in 2017 for his outstanding achievements as president of our chapter,” said Letts. “In his current role as past president, Doug has spearheaded our efforts volunteering ACG Detroit resources, most recently with HAVEN and Heart-2-Hart Detroit, which has had such a positive impact on those in need within our community.”
MacLeod, who most recently served as co-chair of the Programs Committee, is succeeding Letts as president this month and is expected to continue the chapter’s upward trajectory.
“I am excited to have Andrew bring his unique vision, legal perspective, and experience to the leadership mantle of ACG Detroit,” Letts said.
Bass, who has been nominated to co-chair the Programs Committee, also drew praise from Letts.
“Danielle is the youngest member of our Board of Directors and has brought a unique female perspective to our many ACG initiatives,” Letts said. “She has overseen the incredible success and growth of our ‘under-35’ members and has been recognized nationally for her many contributions to our organization.”
Vaughn likewise has earned the respect and admiration of his ACG colleagues, Letts indicated.
“Our M&A All Star Awards has evolved into the premier Middle-Market Awards event in Michigan,” said Letts. “Tom’s extensive experience as an M&A attorney has contributed to both the respect and credibility of our judging process. His leadership of this program has had a tremendous influence on its great success.”
Klimko, an alumnus of Duke University Law School, also has played a pivotal role in the Detroit Chapter’s success story, according to Letts.
“Justin is one of our longest tenured board members,” Letts said. “I have sought his counsel and wisdom throughout my term as president. I have tremendous admiration for the way he processes challenges and develops solutions.”
Letts grew up in South Carolina, the older of two children, and was the first in his family to attend college. But before there could be dreams of college, Letts had to face the reality of prep school at Brother Rice, where the academic standards were much more rigorous than he grew accustomed to in the Palmetto State.
“I had something like a 3.7 G.P.A. in South Carolina, whereas it was more in the order of a 1.6 the first semester at Brother Rice,” Letts confessed. “It was a case of culture shock for me and an indication of how much harder I needed to work if I was going to be college-ready.”
The rude awakening on the academic front forced the 6-foot, 4-inch Letts to shelve his once promising basketball career.
“I had my sights set on attending Michigan State, so I knew that I need to buckle down in the classroom if I was going to gain admittance,” Letts explained.
His hopes were put on hold until the winter semester of the academic year at MSU and only if Letts proved himself worthy at nearby Lansing Community College.
He did, eventually finding his academic footing in the business program at MSU, where he graduated in 2006 with a degree in finance – with honors.
Then it was time to find a job, as signs began to emerge that the U.S. economy was about to go into meltdown mode.
“I first thought about investment banking, but I wanted to stay in the Detroit area and there was an opportunity to work for Morgan Stanley, a firm that my dad had been affiliated with for years,” said Letts.
Letts was one of 130 in the company’s 2007 class in metro Detroit.
“Our timing couldn’t have been worse, as the economy really started to unravel over the next two years,” said Letts. “The median age in the class was 52 and there I was at age 22, just barely out of college.”
But despite being buffeted by the headwinds of a global financial crisis, Letts weathered the economic storm, steadily building an investment advisory and wealth management practice that has been in a growth mode for the past decade.
“There are less than 10 of us left from that 2007 class,” Letts reported. “We survived through a lot of hard work and by paying close attention to the needs of our clients. I'll never lose sight of the importance of those two factors.
“I also believe in the enormous potential of Detroit,” he added. “It’s on the upswing and I want to help make it grow and prosper again.”