Sustaining the Soul of the City: An Interview with Lear Corporation’s Matthew Simoncini

For a businessperson, Matthew Simoncini certainly talks a lot about the “heart” and the “soul.” But then, there is more to a “businessperson” than business. For Mr. Simoncini, President and CEO of the Southfield-headquartered Lear Corporation, it is also about being a person, a help to one’s fellow people, a participant in humanity and all its struggles and successes. The industry of automotive seating and electrical systems of which his company is a global leader is for Mr. Simoncini not an end unto itself. The strides the company has made, in his view, are a means to better the lives of its many employees, their families, and their community.

Central to that community, to Detroit, are Michigan Opera Theatre and its fellow cultural organizations. Lear has taken the driver’s seat (its specialty!) in sponsoring MOT’s entire 2014-2015 dance season, deepening its role from sponsoring one production, as it did last year for the presentation of Dance Theatre of Harlem. For Mr. Simoncini, an MOT board member, it is essential to support Detroit’s artistic institutions—what he thinks of as “the heart of the city.” A heart that beats resoundingly in gratitude.

Q. What do you enjoy about going to the Opera House?

So much. It’s an exciting event in the city, you’re downtown, you see friends. And the art form itself. These performances expand me as an individual; I learn from them. My parents were huge opera fans, so I reconnect to my youth, too. I love the music, I’m passionate about dance. It fulfills me—it fills a void.

Q. Any MOT performances that stand out?

I don’t think I’ve missed a single Alvin Ailey performance in Detroit going back 20 years. There are aspects that remain the same, but it’s always changing, this combination of traditional dance with soul and with heart. It never fails to inspire.

Q. And what inspires Lear’s leaders to give to organizations like MOT?

We believe very strongly that we have a moral and civic responsibility to give back to the communities we do business in and benefit from. Our employees that attended The Nutcracker said afterwards, “I was so proud of my company, so happy to work here, when I saw that Lear sponsored that wonderful event.”And just personally, this theatre and organization are very important to me. It’s inspirational, what’s been accomplished under David DiChiera, and now Wayne Brown is taking it to the next level. It’s a gem of our city, this theatre—a jewel.

Q. You grew up in this city, yes?

Born and raised! I’m a product of Detroit public schools, I graduated from Wayne State. I’m a lifelong resident. I’ve seen it in its glory years in the 60s and some tough years afterwards.

Q. What do you think of its current state and hopes for the future?

We’re at a turning point for the city, finally. I really believe that unlike any other time in my life, Detroit is on an incline and not a decline. And like any city, it needs the contributions of residents, services, and also the arts. Of course, the business sector is important. But so are the Opera, the Music Hall, the Symphony, the DIA. We all collectively joined hands and saved these great institutions. We need to continue to support them. Because as much as anything, it’s the cultural center that is the real heart of a city. If services, mass transit, and infrastructure are the skeleton of the city, then the soul of the city is the cultural organizations.

Q. Any other ways Lear helps philanthropically to nourish the body and soul of our city?

Too many to list. Our main thrust is in childhood development. Each of our salaried employees in the tri-county area contributes to United Way. We give tremendous support to Detroit Parks and Rec, millions to Detroit Public Schools. We contributed in a very meaningful way to the “Grand Bargain” that ensured the DIA’s control of their artwork. We’re very active on many levels. I serve on a lot of nonprofit boards. But MOT has a truly special place in my heart.