Interview with Donna Niester, president of Acheson Ventures

Profile for the 100 Influential Women recognition program, Crain’s Detroit Business, 2016

Donna Niester
President, Acheson Ventures LLC

Big win: Port Huron’s waterfront redevelopment. It began in 1998, when Jim Acheson and his family sold Acheson Industries, a chemical company dating back to 1908. He used his share of the proceeds to invest in Port Huron’s rundown industrial south side, particularly the waterfront. Niester became president of what would eventually be 14 different entities that sprouted up to support the work, from for-profit property investments to charitable donations.

She has been the lead executive on Acheson’s purchase of a cement company, scrap yard and rail yard — covering 80 acres — so the industrial structures could be removed from the waterfront in downtown Port Huron on the St. Clair River. Adjacent properties were eventually folded into the project, and 2 miles of waterfront were bought in all. Acheson gave a narrow, mile-long strip of shoreline to the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, which then raised $7 million to develop it into the Blue Water River Walk. Niester took on the additional role of chairwoman of the foundation. The for-profit side of the Acheson enterprise meanwhile turned its attention to commercial development of land adjacent to the River Walk and other nearby properties, including construction of an office center that kept a major employer in the area, Semco Energy Inc. The nonprofit side redeveloped residential properties in a rough neighborhood known for drug-dealing, near an elementary school. The entire project revived an area written off as dead and turned it into a scenic destination.

Career ladder: Trained as a CPA, Niester, 59, was a partner in an accounting firm before joining the Acheson entities in 1999. She attended Northwood University, where she earned an associate degree in advertising and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting at Walsh College. In 2000, she was tapped as CEO of Acheson Ventures by developer/philanthropist Jim Acheson.

Power metrics: On Acheson’s behalf, Niester has led investments and donations to redevelop 2 miles of waterfront property in Port Huron, transforming the area from aged industrial to mixed-used and recreational, including the Blue Water River Walk and Seaway Terminal, allowing visitors to better enjoy the St. Clair River and environs. Total investment: more than $150 million.

Super power: Sharing credit and showing kindness and interest toward others. “Make sure you give credit to other people and give them a chance to shine.”

I recently learned to: Fuse glass for art projects, at Studio 1219, a project under the Acheson umbrella to support Port Huron-area artists. “I’m an accountant so that means I’m not artistically inclined.”

Board/community connections: First chairwoman in the 70-year history of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County; chair, audit committee, McLaren Port Huron Hospital; board member, Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County. She is president of 14 entities associated with Acheson Ventures.

Power lesson: “You have more power when you share the power.”

Surprising fact: She once won a world championship title for youth in showing quarter horses.

What changes have you seen in how women wield power in Michigan or in your industry over the last 10 years? Niester is no longer the only woman in the room. “When I first got out of school, I was.”

What’s your next big goal? “To see Port Huron become the gem she can be.”

June 2, 2016 | Crain’s Detroit Business