2011 Detroiter of the Year: Dan Gilbert


Dan Gilbert can’t remember a time when the entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t surging through his DNA. Indeed, had the twig been bent at a slightly different angle, he might have found himself competing with Mike Ilitch as Detroit’s hometown pizza baron.

“In sixth grade, I actually started a pizzeria out of my mother’s kitchen,” the 49-year-old financial mastermind recalled in an interview for the Kauffman Foundation. “We were 12 years old. I had my friends involved, and we’d have our 9-year-old brothers deliver on bikes the pizzas we made.

“We passed out fliers in the neighborhood. Then, after a week, the health department came over, I think because some of the real pizzerias in town found out. It was our first exposure to regulations.”

Nothing much has stood in the way of professional success for Gilbert, Hour Detroit’s 2011 Detroiter of the Year, since that flawed pizza venture. His dizzying recent string of commitments and acquisitions completes the modern trinity of downtown-Detroit saviors, following Ilitch and Compuware’s Peter Karmanos, among others. And although Gilbert has yet to match the accomplishments of his predecessors, he’s practically sprinting to catch up.

Last year, Gilbert moved his corporate headquarters — and 1,700 of its employees — from Livonia to leased space in the Compuware Building in downtown Detroit, with intentions to move another 2,000 workers there in 2011. When the nation’s construction climate eventually improves, he plans to build an ultramodern new home for Quicken Loans in the city’s central core.

This great influx of young, paycheck-earning mortgage experts presumably will eat and play as well as work in Detroit. Some actually may decide to live there, sending waves of revitalization across our long-beleaguered city.

That’s not all. At press time, Gilbert was in the process of buying the Chase Tower downtown for a reported $16 million, and this month, he was expected to close on the Albert Kahn-designed First National Building, erected in 1922. He also reportedly had under contract the Two Detroit Center parking structure on Congress.

Some cynically suggest he’s attempting to place a stranglehold on the city’s parking spaces, but all those incoming employees have to have somewhere to stash their vehicles — that is, until the M-1 Rail initiative, the nonprofit on which Gilbert serves as co-chair, realizes its dream of a light-rail commuter system into and out of downtown.

It has been said that, upon his first visit to the Compuware Building’s sixth floor and its panoramic view of downtown Detroit, Gilbert began pointing at surrounding office towers and asking, “What’s that building?” like an excited teenager at a video store. Even then, it appears, visions of a central-business-district conquest were formulating in his mind. Why such enthusiastic, concentrated commitment to downtown Detroit? What does Gilbert see that so many other investors are blind to? Far beyond the undeniable affection for his hometown, he didn’t get where he is making business decisions led by his heart. “I like to be the contrarian in these things,” he says. “The opportunity to me is immense because, first of all, there’s not a lot of other people looking. They say, ‘Aw, it’s at the bottom.’ Well, you want to buy at the bottom and sell at the top, right?”

And that’s not all. Gilbert also is adrenalized about identifying other creative high-tech types for his Quicken people to play with downtown and keeping their great ideas from fleeing to urban centers elsewhere. To that end, in 2007 he launched Bizdom U, a nonprofit entrepreneurial academy to train, mentor, and finance start-up enterprises in Detroit. He’s a principal in Detroit Venture Partners, a venture-capital firm that funds new-stage technology companies in Detroit. Earlier this year, he purchased the historic Madison Building facing Grand Circus Park, with plans to convert its upper floors into a business incubator that encourages partnerships among local entrepreneurs. He’s personally invested in the operation of several local, consumer-based, tech-oriented businesses, including the interactive promotions giant ePrize, the sports-graphics retailer Fathead, and the new fashion and beauty online community Stylecaster.

He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!

And if Detroit can turn around as dramatically as Gilbert has over the past year, we may be the Paris of the Midwest again sooner than anybody dreams. It was just last July that Gilbert may have been best known nationally for the scathing letter he wrote to fans of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers, of which he is majority owner, after his megastar LeBron James bolted to the Miami Heat, prompting a $100,000 fine from the league. The Cavs went on to suffer a dreadful 19-63 season, while Gilbert’s casino projects in Ohio became mired in red tape. In May, however, the Cavaliers secured the coveted No. 1 pick in the NBA-draft lottery during a nationwide telecast with Gilbert’s 14-year-old son Nick, born with neurofibromatosis, representing the team as a good-luck charm (and raising more than $70,000 to fund research for a cure through his appearance).

Quicken Loans is on the move, its employees seem to be happy with the Compuware Building’s upscale cafeteria and lavish fitness center, the casino issues appear to be easing, and now, Detroiter of the Year. To borrow Nick’s now-famous catchphrase, what’s not to like?

Rarely has any Detroit captain of commerce generated such universal admiration and respect from fellow business leaders. A sampling:

Dave Bing

Mayor of Detroit and Hour Detroit’s 2007 Detroiter of the Year:

“Dan has been a blessing for downtown Detroit. But equally as important as the commitment and the investment that he’s made, I think he’s constantly out there saying good things about Detroit. His family had a business here in the city when he was a child, and I think he’s got fond memories of Detroit and what it used to be. And now he’s pretty much a visionary, and a very successful one. He’s trying to make sure he can put his stamp on Detroit relative to what he thinks it can be.

“He’s one of those persons that thinks outside the box. In his mind, I don’t think anything is unachievable. But he’s an astute businessperson and he surely understands how important people are to his success. I’ve met a lot of his key people and they are all top-notch. So not only does he come to the city with his intellectual capacity, but he’s also bringing a lot of other well-educated, relatively young people into our city, and a lot of those people want an urban lifestyle. I think that’s just a really good sign for the city of Detroit.”

Peter Karmanos Jr.

Executive chairman of the board of Compuware Corp., 2003 Hour Detroit Detroiter of the Year, and Gilbert’s new landlord as Quicken Loans moves its headquarters into the Compuware Building:

“I’m very excited about what Dan is doing. He’s got a lot of energy, a lot of great ideas. He’s always a lot of fun, and he’s always interesting. He loves the city and believes in it, and especially believes that downtown’s got a great, great future.

“He’s put a lot of money into the [Compuware] building to get the space for his company to fit the culture of his business. He’s going to be there for a while, while he’s doing a lot of other stuff downtown. I’m not sure what his ultimate plans are; I just know he’s making a big adjustment in a lot of the infrastructure in downtown Detroit. It’s exciting working with him … I would be happy to be in partnership with Dan on anything he wants to do.”

Nate Forbes

Managing partner of The Forbes Co., which owns Somerset Collection, partner in Gilbert’s Ohio casino ventures in Cleveland and Cincinnati, minority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and a close personal friend of Gilbert’s:

“Dan is a highly committed individual. He’s very firm in his beliefs and convictions, and he’s passionate about trying to be part of the rebirth of the city of Detroit and keeping the young, educated, spirited entrepreneurs that are graduating from our colleges and universities a reason to want to stay as opposed to moving to other urban cities. I think all of that plays into Quicken’s move downtown, trying to create additional jobs and opportunities for companies to move downtown and aggregate together to create a critical mass of young, tech-driven, cultural-building companies around Woodward — or as he calls it, ‘Webward Avenue’ — help rebuild and start a positive vibe in the city of Detroit.

“When you move Quicken with its employment base downtown — a lot of them young, Internet-savvy, spirited people — it drives creativity, it drives interest, it drives involvement, and it begins to open people’s eyes. Other people start looking at Detroit as a place to locate their business. A stronger Detroit is a stronger Michigan. You certainly want to have a strong city to be your base and help support all the suburbs, and the suburbs support the city. It helps the entire region when you have a strong urban core.”

Cindy Pasky

Chair of the Downtown Detroit Partnership and founder, president, and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions, a global IT and business-services company celebrating its 21st year headquartered in Detroit:

“Dan is a proven success. He moves quick. He’s fast. He’s creative. And I’m very glad that he’s here and he seems to want to continue to expand his presence here. He sees the incredible real estate we can have at low price points. He sees committed leadership that doesn’t put up a lot of roadblocks, that’s accessible. He sees support from his peer group, those who are larger than he is, those of us who are smaller. But I think the first thing he sees is just the incredible talent that we have here, and the pace and speed at which he can move to acquire Chase Tower and other properties. And he’s right. It’s many of the same things that we’ve seen for a long time, and we’re thrilled when somebody else notices it.”

George Jackson Jr.

President and CEO of Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the nonprofit that works with businesses, government, and other entities to manage and promote economic-development projects, also a 2006 Detroiter of the Year:

“His decision to bring his Quicken Loans headquarters to downtown speaks volumes about the man and his contribution and commitment to Detroit all by itself.

“But I believe he’s very much a part of the solution in making our city, particularly downtown, a very viable place that he’s willing to invest in and bring people into. Bringing thousands of people here, putting feet on the street, is vital in regards to making Detroit’s downtown a very exciting place to be in terms of living and working and playing. He wants to make a difference. That’s what it’s about. It’s really a part of our presentation in regards to why businesses should move to Detroit, and downtown Detroit in particular. He’s a living and breathing business case. He’s a part of every speech I give!”

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