Revitalizing our cities

UBS Signature Series presents: A conversation with Dan Gilbert on Detroit's resurgence

03 Jan 2019

When Dan Gilbert was a child, his grandfather would take him for drives through downtown Detroit, pointing to empty buildings and reminiscing about what "u-sta be" in them. Today, the billionaire founder of Detroit-based Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures says that when he drives his daughter along the same routes, he sees something different: a city on the rise.

"We'll look around and say, 'That's gonna—gonna, gonna, gonna be that'," he said. "So it's a whole different deal and a much better feeling, of course."

At an exclusive UBS Signature Series event in Detroit, Gilbert sat down with UBS Chairman Bob McCann for a discussion about the city's revitalization and the importance of American cities as engines of growth and progress.

'Giving it a shot downtown'

After decades of decline that saw Detroit declare bankruptcy in 2013, the Motor City is making a comeback—and Gilbert has been a driving force behind this renewal. In 2010, he decided to abandon his company's suburban office space and consolidate his entire Michigan operation in Detroit's then-languishing downtown.

Today, Rock Ventures, his umbrella company of more than 100 businesses, accounts for 17,000 jobs in Detroit, making it the city's largest employer and taxpayer. UBS is opening a new office in one of Gilbert's buildings, becoming the first major wealth management firm to move back downtown in nearly a decade.

Asked why he decided to take a chance downtown, Gilbert replied: "We didn't do it for the investment. We did it for our business. But then it sort of grew from there."

In this video, he discusses his initial decision to relocate operations in 2010. "There still is a feeling in an urban core that you just don't get if you've worked in a suburban office park your whole life," Gilbert said. "I can't even explain it until you're there."

'We're building it right now'

Today, Gilbert's real estate firm Bedrock says 98% of its downtown Detroit office and residential properties are filled, and that there is a waiting list for tenants for properties in development. How much additional space is needed to keep up with the current rate of growth? "A lot," Gilbert said. "We do get numerous calls from empty nesters" asking what's available downtown. "I say, 'Pretty much nothing—but we're building it right now'." 

'A great, diverse workforce'

In addition to being the city's largest employer, Gilbert notes that his businesses are also Detroit's largest minority employer. "There's just a great, diverse workforce downtown. Black people, white people, Hispanic. Older, younger. I mean, just everybody. It really benefits your business and your company," he continued, "because you just get views and life experiences that you don't get" in a more homogenous suburban setting. 

'Going in the right direction'

Detroit may finally be turning a corner economically, but what will it take for the city to truly thrive for the long term? Gilbert pointed to four priorities: removing blight, reducing crime, boosting employment and improving the schools. While the city still has a ways to go, he said, "all four of them are definitely going in the right direction."