Don Soenen is a self-made multi-millionaire, philanthropist, investor, engineer, and car enthusiast. He and his wife Colleen have lived in the Plymouth community for over fifty years. He is perpetually engaged in a variety of business and charitable ventures and always on the go, go, go!
Plymouth’s own Citizen Kane, he embodies the can-do spirit of the entire community and he is also an accomplished race car driver with a wall of trophies that speaks for itself.
Born January 4th, 1947, Don Soenen (pronounced ‘soo-nin’) grew up in Marshall, Minnesota, located in the southwest part of the state, about ninety-miles from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
He had a Catholic education and hails from a family of hard workers and high achievers.
Let’s hear from Don in his own words, unobstructed by the vicarious conjecture of journalistic filtering:
“Well, my family were all farmers with eighth grade educations. All four of my grandparents were Flemish (ie: from Belgium). Two of my brothers became execs, my sister did cancer research at the University of Minnesota for decades. My other brother was in the U.S. Air Force and spent 17 years in Hawaii working for the government, then California and Japan.”
“In 1969, Colleen and I got married. I was simultaneously taking twenty-four credit hours and working a full-time job. Got my mechanical engineering degree from the University of Minnesota that year. Then a few months later, we found ourselves living in Plymouth, Michigan at Ann Arbor Road and Sheldon Road.”
“Ford Motor Company brought me to the great state of Michigan. I was supposed to work as a co-op at the assembly plant in St. Paul, Minnesota but the UAW had a long strike, so Ford said I could go to Detroit. They told me this on a Friday afternoon. I arrived in the Motor City on Monday morning. Started working at the Ford Automotive Assembly Division General Office (AADGO) on Oakwood Blvd in Dearborn and my career just took off.”
Don Steps Out on His Own
“Back in 1980, I decided I wanted to quit Ford and go into business for myself full-time, so I did.”
“My neighbor became president of Sensors Incorporated (Saline, MI). I left Ford, and we purchased the company in 1982. I was soon President of Sensors, which manufactures emissions test equipment for internal combustion engines.”
“We sold the company two years later in 1984 to Dynatech Corporation for $10 million cash. I became group VP of Dynatech and was managing 14 tech companies. I bought the company back in 1993; then, in 1998, Sensors was sold directly to the employees via a stock ownership plan. I’m still on the board to this day.”
How do you build a company?
“Everything is personal relationships. I cannot emphasize that enough. Success or failure depends on your ability to build personal relationships. You need to be actively engaged with the entire spectrum of your fellow humans, not just a narrow subset.”
Don the Race Car Driver
Walking into Don’s private garage at his house is stepping over the threshold of mundane everyday reality into a car lover’s wonderland.
Retro gas pumps, vintage car memorabilia, custom soda fountain with chairs and tables featuring original herringbone tops. In the corner is a beautiful hand-painted mural featuring a ’58 red Chevy Corvette and ’57 aqua Chevrolet Bel-Air.
On the far side is a sparkling wall of hundreds of trophies and in the center of the garage are the centerpieces: several beautiful cars.
Don has a 2005 Ford GT (goes 200 mph), Superperformance Cobra (Ford Windsor V-8 engine, 600 horsepower), 2007 Shelby GT 500 Mustang limited-edition, 1999 Plymouth Prowler, a few race cars and more. Don recently sold his ex-Brett Bodine Ford Taurus stock car and his ex-Rusty Wallace #2 Miller Lite stock car.
In fact, Don’s garage is so impressive that he made the cover of Rex Roy’s 2007 book ‘Motor City Dream Garages’ and along with people like Henry Ford and Jack Roush, Don has his own chapter in the book.
“I run open wheel, closed wheel, high horsepower, low horsepower, etc. It’s kind of like golf, some people just have a knack for it. I took to racing cars like a duck to water.”
“I love the history of car culture and have always had an interest in cars and racing. In 1998, I attended the Bob Bondurant Racing School in Phoenix, which was considered the best in the USA at the time. It was a four-day school and if you passed, you got certified to drive race cars.”
“I went to 26 different racing schools to get advanced coaching and training to regularly increase my proficiency. I was racing 20 events per year, each event averaging 5-6 days long. 1/3 of my year was spent racing.”
Philanthropy and His Life’s Work
Don drives the cars but what drives Don? Making a positive difference in the community.
“I feel I owe a lot to the Plymouth-Canton community. When working for Ford and Dynatech, I used to live on the road and this community served my family very well.”
“When I got past the travel phase, it was time to give back (ie: Michigan Philharmonic, Village Theater, the Penn Theatre, PARC, the Rotary Club, various non-profits, etc.). We’re big supporters of NPO’s, especially ones that serve people who are distressed (police depts, Lost Voices, Samaritas, Safe House A2, First Step in Plymouth, the churches).”
“Plymouth has a beautiful old movie house called The Penn Theatre, which opened in 1941 and closed in 2003.”
“In 2006, we helped the Friends of the Penn form an investment group to acquire it and save it from becoming a distant memory. We formed a limited partnership called Penn Theatre Realty LLC and purchased the theater for $1.2 million dollars and leased it to the Friends of the Penn for $1.00 per year for 15 years. It re-opened a few months later and has been going strong ever since.”
“For the past eight years, I’ve been very involved with being president of PARC-Plymouth Arts & Recreation Complex, where the upcoming Plymouth-Canton Bookfest will be held.”
“PARC is mission-focused and it’s a major undertaking. Back in 2013, I talked to the school board, representing a group that was interested in buying the old Central Middle School (old Plymouth High School). Mark and Patty Malcolm put up the money to buy the facility. With considerable community donations, the property and building have been completely renovated. With 52 tenants occupying all 62 classrooms, it’s become an amazing success story and a huge asset to the community.”
“If I’m not racing cars, we’re on the boat on Lake Erie or up at our cottage in Traverse City.”
“We have a large family (one son, three daughters and eight grandkids), and we love seeing them when we can.”