A Conversation with Dan Gilbert

 Detroit isn’t an easy city to love. It’s a Dickens of a town, the best of times and the worst of places. But there’s a feistiness in its residents that keeps Motor City rolling even as the street lights flicker.

I’m not a native. Born and raised in another post-industrialcity with a Great Art Museum and World-Class Orchestra- Cleveland -- three hours down the road as the time flies. 

A Clevelander, I never dreamed I’d be a Detroiter, transplanted and staunchly adapted to a city so vastly wanting. Driving to work (and yes, there’s still a rush hour here) on the morning after Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, I listen as a BBC report on NPR describes Detroit as a “ghost town,” an urban prairie, a curious return to wilderness.



 Easy for outsiders looking in to see the worst in Detroit, a city I8 billion dollars in the hole with a crumbling infrastructure once built for 2 million, hanging in today with a population estimated around 600,000. At last “count” there was something like 128,000 buildings - commercial and residential properties -  that need to be removed, raized, cleared to make room for . . . ?

But wait, c’mon . . . Like every place else, our world view keeps spinning,  And now that we’ve hit rock bottom, the state of the city is looking up.

According to the Free Press, weeks before a state financial review team found Detroit's fiscal condition so dire that Gov. Rick Snyder would soon appoint an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, discussions behind the scenes indicated that an orderly Chapter 9 bankruptcy for the Motor City might be the best option.


To stop the bleeding


"This is an opportunity to stabilize Detroit,"  stated Governor Rick Snyder, appearing  on Sunday morning on NBC's "Meet the Press, "and even more importantly in the longer term, I'm bullish about the growth opportunities of Detroit. There's many outstanding things going on in the city, with the private sector, with young people moving into the city. It's got great opportunities. The last major obstacle is the city government." 


 Where it's at.  Above: Lobby of the M@adison Building, a Quicken Loans property and home to 30 startups. Below: detail of Compuware Building, Quicken headquarters at Campus Martius in the heart of downtown Detroit. 



  • Buzz feed:  Transformers 4 is calling all Actors, looking for paid extras.  Detroit remains a great place to shoot movies, by virtue of its spectacular ruins, including the abandoned Terminal and Packard Plant, both wildly popular with photographers


  • Whole Foods just opened a location downtown – a positive sign of urban gentrification in the city core


  • On Thursday morning, just hours before the city filed for bankruptcy protection, Quicken Founder Dan Gilbert put in a bid for an undisclosed amount  to bail out yet another chunk of the city in a deal encompassing the stalled-out Wayne County “Fail Jail” site.  



As everyone in Detroit knows, Dan Gilbert is Chairman and Founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures. Drawing attention around the nation as a driving force in the new Motor City, Dan is the man determined to transform Detroit’s urban core -  one building at a time.  In three years his company has invested about $1.2 billion in 30 downtown properties, more specifically about 4 million square feet of commercial space and another 3.6 million square feet of parking.  Several of the buildings include headquarters for Gilbert’s various companies, which have brought more than 8000 employees downtown to live, work and play.


“You gotta dream anyway, you may as well dream big.” -Dan Gilbert


Gazing over the city on a warm summer evening from the vantage point of the 11th  floor of  the Chase Building downtown,  the view of Detroit holds promise.  We have come for drinks and nibbles to listen with rapt attention to Dan Gilbert as he addresses a group of “NextGeners” – a division of the Detroit Jewish Federation, focusing on “retaining and attracting” young talent to the city.  For many, it’s a first time opportunity for a look at new developments in Detroit’s urban core from a rare, inside view of Quicken Loans’ new digs.  By design the offices in the Chase Building look more like a creative agency or high tech firm- aptly described on the Quicken Blog as a “mortgage banking Candyland.”


There are whoops and stadium cheers, as the CEO of the Federation, Scott Kaufman warms up the audience.  “The efforts  of many are driving Detroit forward,” says Scott,  “but all movements need a leader, and Dan is the leader at this moment to rebuild Detroit.   There is no place in America with a deeper connection from people to place than here …  and we are very grateful that he has decided to put his energy here.”


A hush then falls over the room.  Dan Gilbert is in the house.


Dan has entered the room, just moments before his introduction – accompanied by what appeared to be an entourage of staffers, some of them wired and large enough to conceivably be bodyguards.  (At 5 foot 6 inches tall,  Dan’s stature in the community has nothing to do with his height.) Choosing not to speak at a podium, Dan takes a comfortable seat on stage, accompanied by longtime associate and Quicken Political Operative Dave Carroll.  In talk-show format, Dave lobs questions to Dan.  The following are excerpts of their 35-minute conversation:


DAVE: 8000 people downtown.  1000 summer interns.  Millions and millions of dollars invested downtown. Why Detroit?


DAN: We had a decision to make. Our leases were coming up in the suburbs. We had three choices: To stay in a bunch of office buildings spread out all over the suburbs;  to find a piece of vacant land and build a new headquarters;  or to come downtown. 


We chose the third option for altruistic as well as business reasons.  My grandfather was born in Detroit, my father was born in Detroit, I was born in Detroit; a lot of our leadership in all parts of our company had generations in Detroit.


"We were in a position we felt we could impact the outcome and make a difference.  We came down here with the number of people we had and the capital we had to invest. We could at least give it a shot.


It was a “doing well by doing good” strategy.


DAVE:  There was something big going on today. Tell us about Demo Days? 


DAN: A part of our engagement downtown is a partner called Detroit Venture Partners (DVP),  with Managing Partner Josh Linkner (a serial entrepreneur whose last gig was ePrize.)  DVP had this Demo Day where all the companies we’ve invested in are now pitching other venture capital companies from around the country.  And interestingly enough, we had 200 people there today and 120 of them were from VC (venture capital) firms from around the United States.  Last year we did this we only had 10 or 20. 


The story here in Detroit and in the technology corridor is that the interest from California and New York and all over is now very strong.


DAVE. What does opportunity in Detroit look like. 


DAN: Roll tape. 


Opportunity is molded It’s built. It’s created.  Opportunity, Made in Detroit. 

We launched (the campaign) #Opportunity Detroit for a reason. Because we believe that there’s massive opportunity in this city and the momentum keeps growing. It’s beyond us.  

We have 8000 people down here working full time now.  45oo were hired in the last three years. 3500 lived or worked in the suburbs  at one point. There’s no way we’d get the work we get done every day in four office buildings that are spread out all over the suburbs, it just doesn’t happen that way. The kind of logistics and the kind of technology and facilities, the quick action and decision that takes place when you’re close together makes those  things easier.

"If you are an entrepreneur, your company can not excel in 2013 in a suburban location as quickly as it’s going excel in a downtown core that’s focused on technology, where the creative energy is,  and where those with skills and talent most want to be.   Live work and play here is the word.

Look: this summer we have 1000 interns with 187 colleges represented. What people don’t know is that we received 18,000 resumes without advertising. What that means is there really is a national interest in Detroit. I’m sure they don’t wake up and say, “Wow I wish I could work for a mortgage company in downtown Detroit.”  That’s not the deal.  That’s not Quicken Loans. We think we’re cool, but not that cool.  It’s the city and the fact that they can make a difference.  


A QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: There are a lot of us here tonight trying to impact the outcome.  What one or two points of advice would you give us?

DAN: You can’t just do the same thing we’ve always done and incrementalize your way to greatness or major impact. It’s not going to work that way. There’s a saying: Incrementalism is the enemy of innovation, and I believe that because what it means is if you improve things a little bit or are satisfied with little bites of the apple, it doesn’t register on the dial. 

You have to take a risk. So I would say if it’s in you, if you have the dog in you, and you really do want to make major impact and change, you have to be bold, you have to be very determined to make that happen.  No matter what the noise is around you.  No matter who doubts you. No matter if you doubt yourself, no matter if you fail.  

Because  (even if you fail) you’re going to learn stuff and next time go a different direction much quicker than you otherwise would .  That what I would say.

“You’re going to think anyway, so you may as well think big. You’ve got a dream anyway.  You may as well dream big. We’re only here for a relatively short period of time.  You may as well impact positively as many people as you can.”

Detroit photos: VHenoch,   Dan Gilbert: Brett Mountain Photography 

Portions of this article are reposted from the July issue of myJewishDetroit.org

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