Howes: Could Gilbert’s Yahoo play be a boon for Detroit?
Detroit’s designs on Silicon Valley assets show no sign of abating.
Even as this town’s automakers scramble for competitive advantage in the emerging mobility and self-driving cars space, the chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. is bidding for the internet pieces of Yahoo Inc., one of the Valley’s bigger, if tarnished, icons.
At least that’s what legendary investor Warren Buffett, a Dan Gilbert admirer and erstwhile business partner, told CNBC. Gilbert? Not so much. He’s not talking. Key members of his inner circle aren’t talking, and neither are staffers charged with answering questions for the mortgage mogul — all of which speaks for itself.
Two fundamental questions arise, should Gilbert & Co. prevail over rival bidders: What would the serial investor with the Midas touch propose to do with a company that isn’t what it used to be and hasn’t been for a long time? Gilbert being Gilbert, smart money would not bet on more of the same.
And, second, what would it mean for Detroit? The town being transformed steadily by Gilbert’s insatiable appetite for real estate, and his willingness to reshape it with his prodigious wallet, could get a positive image jolt should one of its own buy his way into the Silicon Valley conversation.
He wouldn’t be the first. Ford Motor Co.’s expanded center in Palo Alto has held exploratory talks with 200 start-ups and completed projects with about a third of them. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV has a deal with Google Inc. to develop and produce autonomous vans.
General Motors Co.’s $500 million investment in Lyft Inc., a ride-sharing service, and its reported $1 billion purchase of Cruise Automation send clear signals that Detroit is deadly serious about parrying the threats and seizing the opportunities posed by Silicon Valley.
Detroit also could get more. When he began nearly six years ago to move Quicken staffers downtown from locations in Livonia and Troy, Gilbert insisted he would go big in Detroit or he wouldn’t go at all. Ninety buildings and $2.2 billion later, his reach is re-energizing downtown, reshaping the city’s economic development agenda, and more often than not bending City Hall’s agenda to his.
Is his Yahoo gambit another go-big-or-go-home play? It could be. It could be an opportunistic move by a deeply invested Detroiter to become a Silicon Valley media power, to make money, and to bolster his hometown’s image as a city on the move with business leaders willing to trade elbows with well-financed tech hotshots.
It could be a play by the owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers for a considerable digital footprint that still touches many users (and potential online Rocket Mortgage customers for Quicken) through its Yahoo Finance and Yahoo Sports sites, as well as its Yahoo mail service.
Besides the promise of potential financing from Buffett’s conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Gilbert brings one advantage to a prospective Yahoo deal generally not shared by publicly traded companies or private-equity firms with strict time horizons for earning returns on their investments:
He’s answerable mostly to himself. His Detroit empire is built on a foundation of financial capacity, confidence, passion, a tolerance for risk and the luxury of patience best described by one of his trademark “isms”: “Money follows, it doesn’t lead.”
Buying Yahoo assets would be a big move, even for a multi-billionaire whose forays into media are so far comparably modest. His Rockbridge Growth Equity Fund acquired the Robb Report, a luxury magazine, in 2014 for a reported $60 million, making a play for Yahoo markedly larger but not impossible.
The only failure here would be a failure of imagination. Given his track record, and his heavy investments in Detroit (and Cleveland), it would not be at all surprising if Gilbert inked a deal for Yahoo’s internet assets and promptly moved them to Detroit.
Why not? Servers are far easier to uproot than installed manufacturing plants. Silicon Valley culture can be replicated in the industrial heartland, as a walk through Quicken’s offices, or the M@dison Building on Grand Circus Park can attest. Real estate’s cheaper here, barriers to entry are lower and arrogance is a little less abundant than on the Left Coast.
There’s also no rule requiring an internet-powered company founded by two Stanford grads to remain headquartered in Silicon Valley. It can be run from anywhere — including from old buildings reimagined in a Detroit 2.0 slowly becoming reality.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.