DETROIT (WWJ) – The founder of Art Van Furniture stores, Art Van Elslander has died, a spokesperson has confirmed.
He was 87 years old.
Kim Yost, president and CEO of Art Van Furniture, said Van Elslander fought a battle with lung cancer, and passed away surrounded by his family.
Chairman and founder of Art Van, Van Elslander opened his first store on Gratiot Ave. at 10 Mile in Detroit in 1959. Currently, the company — which was sold to a private equity firm in 2017 — operates more than 100 stores in five states, employing 3,500 people.
“He was a dreamer, and a big dreamer at that,” Yost said, at a news conference Monday. “For all of us that know his story, he started from incredibility humble beginnings; and part of his legacy is that for all of us here in the state of Michigan, when you have a dream, and you stay focused and impassioned on it, and when you go together with the team that we did at Art Van, amazing things can happen.”
Equally known for his philanthropy, Van Elslander was credited with saving Detroit’s then-struggling Thanksgiving Parade, when in 1990 he wrote personal check for $200,000, saving the parade from the brink of cancellation and keeping the tradition alive.
“(He was) just a great man,” the Parade Company’s Tony Michaels told WWJ’s Roberta Jasina. “Today that sponsorship lives on…This is just such a tough loss, but we were so lucky to have Art in our lives.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan offered high praise for a man whom he said will be terribly missed and fondly remembered. In a statement, Duggan said furniture may have been Van Elslander’s business, but Detroit always has been his heart.
“Art’s kindness and generosity seemed to have no limits,” Duggan said. “Thanks to his support, families across metro Detroit and the nation are able to share in the annual tradition of America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Our premature and critically-ill newborn babies are being given the best chance at a healthy life at the Mary Ann Van Elslander Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St. John Hospital & Medical Center. And his extraordinary pledge of $20 million for the Solonus Casey Center will help to revitalize another city neighborhood.”
The mayor of Warren, where Art Van’s headquarter is located, said he will remember Van Elslander as a classy, down to earth guy; an inspiration and an icon who invested much in his community.
“His vision and inspiration created a great company. His altruism was a life long commitment,” Mayor Jim Fouts wrote on Facebook. “He was a great leader who led a successful company. His personal touch and humanity helped to make his company a success.”
Yost believes that much can be learned from Van Elslander’s legacy.
“Build your personal brand,” Yost said. “He was so fastidious and so conscientious about his personal brand. It was one thing to have his name on our stores; it was another thing to have his name on our community. And what he continued to remind us is that we all are a personal brand, so be the best you can be.”