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The Fixers: Onshoring to Detroit

Rukmal Fernando bought a tech business in Sri Lanka and is moving part of it to Detroit. His freelancers get $30 to $70 an hour.

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By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

Rukmal Fernando in his new office.
Detroit's upscale suburb of Birmingham, where Fernando set up shop.
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DETROIT ( -- When it comes to creating jobs, people in Detroit need to start experimenting and exploring.

Even if the auto industry recovers, no one really thinks it will be hiring people like it once did.

Rukmal Fernando is experimenting in Detroit, and experimenting with the global economy in an unusual way.

Originally from Sri Lanka, Fernando came to the United States for college in the mid-1980s. He studied finance at Indiana University and moved to the Detroit area in the 1990s for a job at a money management firm.

Two years ago, while on vacation in Sri Lanka with his family, he was approached by an acquaintance with a proposal: A majority ownership stake in the young man's tech start-up for $20,000.

Fernando took a look at the young man's products - graphically enhanced videos, especially ones designed for mobile devices like iPods or Blackberry's - and his team running a full service Web site design company.

"I was like, 'wow,' and it wasn't even the best stuff they were putting out," he said.

He took the deal.

Now Fernando has quit his finance job entirely. He's opened an office in suburban Detroit, along with one in Toronto and Dallas, and is drumming up business for the company, Breeze Design Studio. He's onshored a tech company to Detroit.

Well, not entirely. Of his 30 employees, half are still based in Sri Lanka. But Fernando says he, a full-time creative officer and a pool of interns are based in Detroit, and the freelancers he hires locally make $30 to $70 and hour. If his business takes off - it is yet to turn a profit - he plans to hire up to 15 full-time, U.S.-based employees.

"When I first decided to start this company, everyone told me to get the hell out of Detroit," he said. "But I looked at it as an opportunity to help others."

That altruistic spirit seems like a line a young businessman might tell a reporter. But Fernando seems genuine.

In his new office he's set aside space to help other budding entrepreneurs. His ultimate goal is to set up a business incubator where people long on ideas but short on cash can use the meeting room, digitally-equipped conference room, computers and even pay by the hour for lawyers, accountants, and other management experts.

He decided to set up shop in an office park in Birmingham, an upscale suburb northwest of Detroit. He said he would have opened his business downtown, but didn't get enough tax breaks from the city to lure him away from what he says is a nicer area.

His projects so far have included designing the Web site for his old financial services company and putting together a promotional video on Detroit for the Chamber of Commerce.

Fernando is just one of many individuals and organizations in the area trying to breathe new life into Detroit by nurturing its entrepreneurial class.

He's also part of the immigrant community, resourceful, hardworking people that many say might provide the best hope for Detroit to reverse decades of decay.  To top of page

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