Tony Michaels is no stranger to navigating choppy waters. The CEO and executive director of The Parade Company, which puts on traditions like America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Ford Fireworks, took the helm of the Detroit nonprofit during tough times, at the height of the financial crisis. “2008, 2009, are you kidding me?” says Michaels.
Before heading such institutions, Michaels was CEO of Big Boy Restaurants. He’d effectively spent his entire working life there, starting at age 14 in various restaurant roles with Elias Brothers, which held the Big Boy trademark. “I just kind of grew up in that company.”
“As the company was headed toward financial trouble … I was made CEO,” he says. “My job was to keep the brand going and find a buyer.” With Elias nearing bankruptcy, Michaels found that buyer, getting a signed letter of intent for the purchase the same day it filed for short-lived Chapter 11. “I ran the company for seven more years and we were booming.”
Having served on The Parade Company board, Michaels moved into the organization’s top spot in spring 2009. “We cranked it up and really improved this organization, so many facets of it,” he says. “The whole idea was, make everything great and we will get more sponsorship and we’ll be able to do more really great things.”
Broadcast in 185 cities across the U.S., America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was voted by USA Today readers the “Best Holiday Parade” in both 2018 and 2019. “There’s something very, very special about the parade,” says Michaels. “We’re in our 94th year and that is just such a tradition. There’s a million people lined up on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.”
Michaels says bringing those people together makes his work worthwhile. “When you see the faces of the kids and the families and the camaraderie on that day. … Everybody’s together, everybody’s taking it in and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”