Ford’s Dearborn transformation takes 1st step at mall
Dearborn — Ford Motor Co. is one year into a massive 10-year transformation of its world headquarters that’s intended to make its Dearborn facilities — and the city itself — attractive to young talent and establish it as a center for innovation.
This is Ford’s answer to an increasingly competitive market as it and other American automakers enter the mobility and autonomy fields. They are competing with high-tech companies like Google, Apple and Uber for workers.
Ford’s plan calls for demolitions, renovations and new construction to create a walkable, centralized headquarters that ditches the six-foot cubicles and beige walls that’ve been in some of its buildings since their construction 50 years ago. About 30,000 workers from 70 buildings will be consolidated onto two central campuses – one behind Ford World Headquarters on Michigan Avenue, the other at Ford’s product development center near The Henry Ford. The automaker has not disclosed the overall cost, but estimates have put it at a billion dollars and beyond.
To accommodate nearly 2,000 employees being displaced by the first round of construction, Ford recently completed a remake of the vacant Lord & Taylor wing of Fairlane Town Center Mall into new offices. The automaker retrofitted 240,000 square feet of space inside the former department store and several other storefronts.
The airy new space creates “hubs” in each of the former storefronts. Those surround a central “park” area lit by skylights and decorated with greenery where employees can socialize, take lunch or work. It all is conducive to a more collaborative workspace.
“This is a big culture shift,” said Kelley Vallone, Ford’s Dearborn campus transformation planning manager and director of workplace strategy.
The office areas have low cubicle walls, ergonomically designed workstations, lounge areas, cafes and treadmill desks for employees who want to move while they work. Private rooms and shared spaces spread throughout the hubs make it conducive to a “me-we” environment.
That’s just a first step. By the mid 2020s, the company will have a vastly altered Dearborn footprint, especially in the area around the product campus, which will feature an 812,000-square-foot design center and several new buildings encompassing a central park area to connect them. Early designs call for basketball courts and sports fields that would be accessible to the public at the World Headquarters campus, which will also get a brand new building for Ford Credit, and new data center to support Ford’s expansion into technology and software development.
Ford also plans to create additional offices in a separate $60 million mixed-use development planned for three blocks of Michigan Avenue between Mason and Oakwood Boulevard in the city’s West Downtown District that would help revitalize Dearborn’s main shopping drag.
“We did a lot of benchmarking, and we understood our need,” said Dave Dubensky, chairman and CEO of Ford’s real estate arm, Ford Land.
And that was to revive the company facilities and make Dearborn a better fit for Ford employees.
“We built the house, now you fast-forward 40 or 50 years and it’s in need of renovation and change,” he said.
Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly said Ford’s plan will help property values, boost retail and bring people back to the city.
The Fairlane project is a fresh approach at filling a glut of unused retail space in Dearborn. Ford has a 10-year lease on the space with the option to renew when the time is up.
“We’re going to see more people coming here to work, and we’re also going to see that kind of new image that’s going to be created,” O’Reilly said. “There are no losers in this one... this is the catalyst that is really making all the difference in the world.”
Ford and its home city will also see benefits from an increasingly vibrant scene in downtown Detroit. Detroit’s dining and entertainment options could attract potential Ford employees to Dearborn.
“It’s helpful that Detroit is transforming along with us,” said Julie Lodge-Jarret, Ford’s chief learning officer and global director of learning for development and recruiting.
Ford hopes all of this will spin the company into a future that Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford has repeatedly outlined as mobility-driven. The development aims to help Ford attract new types of employees as it builds to that future.
Natalie Pohlman, a 23-year-old engineer who recently relocated to the Fairlane offices, said she wasn’t aware of Ford’s plans before joining the company, but the new offices are an added early perk. She thought the campus changes would come further down the road.
“I didn’t think it would happen so fast,” said Pohlman, who grew up in the Upper Peninsula. “I’ve met so many more people, and it’s so much more open... I know a lot of my friends love it ... . We’re used to this kind of environment.”
Vallone and Lodge-Jarrett said Ford worked with employees across several generations to develop the framework for the new facility. Lodge-Jarrett said the Fairlane space amplifies that “the whole premise of innovation and collaboration is very much a part of the company going forward.”
She said Ford could not just rely on the company’s heritage to compete with Silicon Valley and the East Coast.
“We have had to shift our approach for sure,” she said. “The reality is that some of these software engineers could write code anywhere.”