Howes: Dan Gilbert drove PGA Tour into Detroit with Rocket Mortgage Classic
For the first time ever, the PGA tour is in Detroit.
Thank Dan Gilbert, the billionaire mogul recuperating from a stroke as some of professional golf's top-ranked players descend this week on the historic Detroit Golf Club. And thank Gilbert's Quicken Loans Inc., whose five-year sponsorship of the PGA's National in Washington was a means to a deliberate end:
That is, making Detroit and the "Rocket Mortgage Classic" a recurring stop on the PGA calendar starting in 2019, showcasing DGC's two courses designed by the legendary Donald Ross. The move legitimizes the narrative that the reinvention of the city much of America gave up for dead keeps gaining traction, bolstering Detroit's rep even as it burnishes Quicken and its family of companies in the process.
By now it should be obvious: this is vintage Gilbert. Leverage sponsorship of high-profile events to achieve the dual purpose of building the Quicken brand and benefiting the company's hometown by garnering media attention, rebuilding its reputation and driving dollars into the local business ecosystem.
"We told them from the beginning our idea was to have this event in Detroit," Quicken CEO Jay Farner told The Detroit News, adding that half the vendors servicing golf-related events are Detroit-owned and 25% are minority-owned. "It's kind of a dual focus: Anything and everything we can do to bring events to the city of Detroit and partners ... is critical."
Privately held companies like Quicken can do that with a lot less friction than publicly traded ones. Not answerable to shareholders or boards of directors, they can realize Gilbert's mantra of "doing well by doing good," Farner says. It's the philosophy guiding the "family of companies, but especially at Quicken Loans" — now the nation's No. 1 mortgage lender tallying record results.
Last week, he added, Quicken booked its largest day of closed loans in company history. Closed loan volume in June is expected to be the largest ever, outpacing records set in April and then May. And the lender is on track to post its best quarter in the company's history, the makings of more resources to "do good" in its hometown even as the business "does well."
That's the kind of virtuous circle powering Gilbert's downtown real estate empire now surpassing 100 buildings, new construction projects on the Hudson's and Monroe Block sites, evolving plans for the Wayne County "fail-jail" tract on Gratiot near Greektown, and who knows what else.
Growing businesses that generate cash, especially those theoretically answerable to one guy, make that kind of mutually beneficial investment possible. The Rocket Mortgage Classic, scheduled to culminate in a final round Sunday, is just Gilbert & Co.'s latest effort to market Quicken, to sell Detroit and to prime the city's economic engine at the same time.
The chairman's done it in appearances at the Detroit auto show touting the Motor City's tech chops. In sit-downs at "Homecoming" sponsored by Crain's Detroit Business. In leading the failed effort to place Detroit among the finalists for Amazon.com Inc.'s second North American headquarters — a proposal that, in part, envisioned the online retailer occupying space in Gilbert-owned buildings downtown.
Quicken's done it with a Rocket Mortgage sponsorship of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle, a marquee event opening the June calendar. Next year it will be followed by a reimagined Detroit auto show, the traditional Ford Fireworks on the Detroit River and year two of the PGA's Rocket Mortgage Classic, a blockbuster series of events with international media exposure packed into a single month.
"It's really difficult to put a value on what this will mean going forward," said Larry Alexander, CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We have always done events well. The opportunity is enormous to create a new standard of what people expect when they come to Detroit."
Can Detroit handle it all? No question. For at least the past 15 years, since preparations to host Super Bowl XL, this town has repeatedly demonstrated the capability to successfully host major events even when the nearby "product" — vacant downtown storefronts, meager restaurant and bar options, fewer hotels and non-existent snow removal — was more ubiquitous than it is today.
This week's Rocket Mortgage Classic should be no exception, notwithstanding the numbing pattern of two days of sun followed by what feels like five days of rain. Or the fact that a drive to the course, depending on the route, could combine glimpses of stately Detroit homes in some of the city's best neighborhoods with some of its most blighted ones.
That's an authentic part of the reinvention story, too. Pretending such realities don't exist denies Detroit's troubled history of extreme wealth and poverty, investment and disinvestment, depopulation and slow repopulation, decline and revival.
Gilbert's corporate move to Detroit from Livonia, now nine years old, has proven a critical driver in the emergence of an evolving city that golf's finest, its media and its fans will get a chance this week to see themselves — which is just what this town needs.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM