Dan Gilbert: Connectivity Is Name Of The Game

Detroit native Dan Gilbert is the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and founder of Quicken Loans. He bought several downtown properties that cover about 2 million square feet. He says he hopes to attract new businesses, prevent brain drain and make the area a top tech hub. Gilbert discusses his vision with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are in Detroit today and we are talking about the city's past, present and hopes for the future. You might remember that President Obama has been praising Detroit, especially the auto industry, for its turnaround. In a few minutes, we'll talk about one of the difficult decisions that officials believe contributed to that turnaround: the agreement between the automakers and the Auto Workers Union to drastically cut wages for new hires. So now the industry is hiring again; new people are doing the same work as veterans for half the pay. We'll find out how that's working out in a few minutes.

But first, we have a visit with a man who has bet heavily on a continued turnaround for Detroit. Dan Gilbert is probably best known nationally as the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA team, and he is the founder and chair of Quicken Loans. That's one of America's largest retail home lenders.

But what you might not know is that the company moved its headquarters to downtown Detroit two years ago. At a time when many people are leaving the city, Mr. Gilbert has doubled down. He's bought some of the city's most significant structures, including most recently, the historic federal reserve building, making him one of Detroit's biggest landlords.

The goal is to revive Detroit as a center for technological innovation and entrepreneurship. And Dan Gilbert is with us now from his office in Detroit to talk about all of this. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAN GILBERT: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Could you tell us a little bit more about your vision for the city? And I might mention that, in addition to the buildings you've been buying, you've been pushing for a light rail public transit system. What's your vision?

GILBERT: Well, we'd like to see Detroit be one of the primary technology Web center development places in the whole United States, where there's a vibrant community of young people and old people alike who are living, working and playing right in downtown, and there's a lot of jobs, a lot of entrepreneurial activity and a lot of venture capital and just a lot of excitement in general.

MARTIN: Now, you are from here, so I do have to ask. Is this a project of the head or of the heart?

GILBERT: We call it our doing well by doing good, so there's both parts there and, you know, we think there's no conflict in that. We think there's a huge opportunity for investment, for sure, but also that we can affect the outcome. We can actually affect the change and with the automobile recovery, as you just mentioned, we think that there's an opportunity on both sides of that fence of doing great for our community. At the same time, profiting, as well.

MARTIN: You know, from the outside and you see, you know, what the headlines are, talking about, you know, parts of Detroit looking like a ghost town, people still leaving the city, wages are still depressed because of all the problems that we know so much about. What is it that gives you confidence that this investment is a sound one?

GILBERT: Well, you know, we're fortunate enough to be involved in several companies, Quicken Loans being the flagship of that, where we can affect the outcome by our people themselves moving downtown - working downtown and some of them moving downtown.

And so it's a little bit different than sort of investing and watching and seeing what happens, but actually investing - affecting the change by taking other action. And our people are very, very excited about it. They're charged up about it and there's something special going on here.

MARTIN: One of the things that the president has talked about, and not just the president, but other leaders with different political perspectives, is the skills gap. They've talked about the fact that there are jobs available, but often, there are not workers available who have the skills to fit those jobs. And I'm interested to know if you are finding that.

GILBERT: Yeah. We look at that a little differently. We actually look at - there's a brain drain in Michigan and Detroit and we're trying to turn it around into a brain gain. In other words, a lot of great, talented people are coming out of the universities of Michigan and Michigan State and Wayne State, Eastern and a lot of other universities in the area. And a lot of them, the best and brightest, are leaving the area, and what we found that they want to be in a central city. They want to be in the places that offer jobs and excitement and activity and retail and a place to live.

What we've done is try to work with others to recreate that attraction in downtown Detroit and we're working to make that happen so we can keep them here. They're the ones that are going to create the wealth of the future and the jobs of the future.

MARTIN: How do you know that you're not rearranging the deck chairs? How will you know? What will be your metric to determine whether you are really, in fact, sort of adding value and creating new opportunities as opposed to just moving them from place to place, if you see what I'm asking?

GILBERT: Well, most of our activity centers around startup, new businesses, new companies. So those companies are started from scratch, creating new jobs, new wealth. And, you know, ourselves, as well - again, the flagship Quicken Loans - it would have been very difficult from where we were in the suburbs to be in a lot of different buildings that were far apart from each other as we were.

Having our people work together and being close to each other and being able to walk over and see each other, whether they're in the same building or a different floor or even a building right next to each other is a major advantage for us in getting things done and being collaborative.

So some of these things you can measure by how many new positions are created and added and others are sort of more qualitative and you've got to just look at it by observation and realizing, know you're making an impact.

MARTIN: If there is something that you think other cities who are also struggling - or at least trying to kind of regain the spark - is there anything that you think that they can learn from your experience here, from Detroit? Or are the circumstances here so distinct that it really doesn't apply anywhere else?

GILBERT: Well, I think connectivity is the name of the game, whether it's the Internet connecting everybody in the world or whether it's people wanting to be in an urban downtown where there's collaboration and connectivity physically. That goes again with having, you know, great mass transit downtown where people are moving very quickly and easily.

But being able to have people connect in all kinds of ways is critical as the economy moves forward into the brain economy and the wealth-producing economy based on ideas, innovation, collaboration and all of that. So when you're a city, you know, to be spread out physically is just not the best way to create jobs, create startups, create action, create activity.

And, also, the young folks coming out of school, or in their second job or third job or whatever it may be, that's what they want. Overwhelmingly, that's what they want, so my advice to cities, as well as businesses is to become part of that and embrace that.

MARTIN: So, finally, how do you folks in Cleveland feel about all the time you're spending in Detroit? Do they feel jealous, like they feel like you're, you know, cheating on them? How do they feel about it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILBERT: I don't think so. You know, I was born and raised in Detroit and I think we've shown in Cleveland a major commitment. We consider it our sister city and there are very similar types of challenges in both cities and, you know, we're very active and invested in there. Hopefully, they understand.

MARTIN: So you have enough love for both places?

GILBERT: A lot of love for both of them. We call ourselves - we're very Lake Erie-centric.

MARTIN: OK. Dan Gilbert is the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans. He's the majority owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. He's become a major investor in downtown Detroit real estate and has moved the headquarters of Quicken Loans there. And he joined us from his office in Detroit.

Dan Gilbert, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GILBERT: Thank you.

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