I had the opportunity last week to tour a dozen or so of the more than 40 buildings in downtown Detroit that Dan Gilbert and his various associates and companies have bought and refurbished. It was an amazing experience. Building after building, interconnected by walkways and underground passages, has been repurposed into really cool workspace for young tech workers (with a few of us seasoned types sprinkled in for good measure). Nobody in Silicon Valley has it better.
I was attending Detroit Venture Partners’ annual Demo Day with more than a hundred other people, including many out-of-town VCs, most of whom were originally from Michigan but had to leave after school to find suitable jobs. There is a subtle—perhaps not-so-subtle—attempt to recruit these talented people back to Michigan to help rebuild the economy.
Such a tour is one of the standard components of any visit to this special kingdom. It’s usually led by Bruce Schwartz, the fedora-wearing tour guide who describes himself as a devoted advocate of Detroit; a childhood friend of Dan Gilbert; and the former CEO of a company in the mortgage business. Recent visitors, he reports, have included Madonna; Michael Bolton, who is directing a documentary on Detroit’s rebirth; and Warren Buffett.
The tour has a few interesting touch points: on the eighth floor of the former headquarters of Chase Bank—their logo is still on the outside—is the main cafeteria for employees of Quicken Loans and the many associated Dan Gilbert companies. It is as good as any Silicon Valley food court, and I have toured those at Google, Apple, and Pixar. Chase still has some operations in the building; you can tell which floors they occupy by their corporate dullness and lack of entrepreneurial energy.
Similarly, the building in which Dan Gilbert keeps his office, and the model of downtown that shows all the buildings that are being repurposed, is the headquarters for the venerable last-generation software company Compuware. Riding up the open glass elevators you can see where Compuware ends and Quicken begins. Bruce points it out. One is dull, grey, colorless and lifeless; the other is vibrant, colorful, energetic, and buzzing with activity.
“Culture is everything,” Bruce says, quoting a few of his favorite corporate sayings. They call them “isms.” Various of these are painted on walls throughout the tour, and passing employees, when asked, can cite a favorite one. This is one way that people are selected in, and out, of the interrelated companies.
Three of the locations stand out most in my mind. One is the security center of the 20 or so square blocks of downtown Detroit. In it are dozens of monitors that link to cameras dotting downtown. “You can’t take pictures here,” Bruce warns.
In this basement command center, personnel can monitor pretty much anything that goes on in the area. For our benefit, security personnel bring up a picture of a hoodlum who grabbed an iPad out of a tech worker’s hands one day in Campus Martius, the center of the zone. A picture of him was taken off a camera and, when he returned the next day to the same park wearing the same shirt, he was arrested. (Whoever said criminals were smart?) The message spread to this dumb crook’s associates, says Bruce, is that this is not an area to do crime.
A second location is the basement of the old First National Bank building. Vaults no longer needed in the age of digital currency are left open and surrounded by tech worker space—couches, open cubicles, art work. When the building was bought, it didn’t come with keys to the many safe deposit boxes in the vault, most of which remain unopened. “We didn’t want to deface it by breaking them open,” Bruce says. Warren Buffett, fittingly, was the only person to ever open a safe deposit box on a tour and find something—a dollar. “It figures,” says one person on the tour. The vault is furnished with chandeliers and a long table, and can be rented for dinners.
The third location that stands out in memory is the fulfillment area for Quicken Loans. It’s in a basement somewhere—I got dizzyingly lost after a while, but it might have been beneath the old Federal Reserve Building on West Fort Street. Bruce showed us the loan documents that a Quicken customer gets: neat, tidy, clear instructions, all in a cardboard mailer the size and shape of a portfolio case; everything in its place.
“We reimagined the mortgage fulfillment process,” Bruce says. Who takes the time to reimagine the package of papers a homebuyer gets on closing a mortgage? Someone who believes in this: “Obsessed with finding a better way,” which is one of the aphorisms Bruce quotes to us.
I have bought a few houses in my life, and the process is horrible. The documents are mind-numbingly opaque; the person explaining them is motivated by a commission, not by serving me; the documents get filed away and never seen again. Lawyers wrote them and were, apparently, paid by the word. Not so here; the documents are clearly labeled, concise, and simple to understand.
It’s good business to do mortgages this way, too. In the wrap-up to the recent mortgage crisis, mortgage originators and banks paid billions of dollars in fines and were prevented by courts from foreclosing on houses due to poor documentation.
The fulfillment area is staffed by young workers, with a seasoned manager or two. They’re used to tours and they greet us warmly. They seem genuinely happy, too, which is hard to imagine for somebody who basically works in a mailroom in a basement. How could this be?
As Bruce says, “culture is everything.”