New Quicken Loans tech centre a Windsor beachhead, says Rock Ventures principal

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross


The recently announced foray by Dan Gilbert's Quicken Loans into Windsor — a 100-job tech centre in the rejuvenated former Fish Market building — could be just the beginning, Gilbert's second-in-command said Tuesday.


The recently announced foray by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans into Windsor — a 100-job tech centre in the rejuvenated former Fish Market building — could be just the beginning, Gilbert’s second-in-command said Tuesday.

Matt Cullen, principal of Gilbert’s umbrella company Rock Ventures, described the new tech centre coming next year as a “beachhead in Windsor,” that’s a “big deal for us.”

It comes after Gilbert led the Detroit-Windsor bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. Though the bid failed, “from a Quicken Loans/Rock Ventures standpoint, it was a bit of an eye-opener for us, the opportunities over here,” he said in an interview prior to speaking at the second annual Tech Show Day at the St. Clair Centre for the Arts. Cullen is the first Gilbert official to speak publicly about the Quicken move to Windsor since it was announced two weeks ago as an exciting boost to the downtown and a crucial inroad into the burgeoning tech sector that has revived Detroit.

“We have a voracious appetite for tech talent,” said Cullen, explaining that during the Amazon pitch last year, his firm learned about the tremendous amount of talent available in Windsor.

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if Gilbert’s companies did other things in Windsor, in addition to the 100 Quicken Loans tech jobs.

“We are 100 different companies, most of which are all focused on tech, and so access to that kind of talent is critically important,” he said, adding that the company also likes to have its people close by and connected.

“So Windsor is kind of a win-win. It opens up a new talent pool but it’s three minutes away from our headquarters, so in that way it’s real attractive. So we’re going to try to look at it for sure.”

Mayor Drew Dilkens said if this Quicken Loans tech centre is a success for the company, “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to future investment in Windsor. When the announcement was first made, some people shrugged at the 100 jobs.

“But the potential that exists as a result of this first foray into Windsor is huge,” he said, describing how tech firms including Quicken are hungry for programmers that they can’t satisfy in Detroit. The border is a big barrier. While 7,000 Windsorites commute to jobs in Michigan daily, there are many others who can’t because they can’t get the proper work permits. A location in Windsor negates that barrier for Quicken and other U.S.-based firms, he said.

“With those first 100 jobs, we have to blow them out of the water, make sure it’s done right and that we support the company and do whatever we can to help them to attract talent,” whether that talent is available in Windsor or if they must be recruited from elsewhere, the mayor said.

Having the Windsor tech centre would enable the company to recruit international tech employees who might not be allowed to work in the U.S. “That’s a category,” said Cullen. “But there’s a lot of smart Canadians too, a lot of great universities with a lot of talent. A lot of it is just homegrown talent here we could plug into as well.”

During his talk, he detailed the transformation of Detroit in recent years, from a blighted rustbelt city into an exciting tech-focused urban centre. In recent years, Gilbert’s companies have invested US$5.6 billion in 16 million square feet of downtown real estate, transforming many vacant buildings into “incredible work environments” that employees love. All of this is about connectivity — getting working people together in vibrant workplaces.

That’s why Ford Motor Company bought the old Michigan Central Station — once the poster child of Detroit blight — with a $740-million plan to transform it into a centre for development of autonomous vehicles. It wanted to be able to attract the young, tech-savvy people it needs, and felt it wouldn’t attract them to a bland office building in Dearborn, Cullen said.

The Fish Market building in Windsor has a similar feel to the cool, open office spaces Rock is developing in Detroit, said Cullen, a former General Motors executive who played a key role in GM’s acquisition of the Renaissance Center, was the founding chair of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and has been involved in a myriad of Detroit projects including the QLine streetcar on Woodward Avenue. Gilbert’s Detroit’s workforce has grown from 1,700 introduced in 2010 to 17,000 currently.

If there’s a need for more space in Windsor after Quicken Loans’ first 100 employees settle into the Fish Market building, Dilkens said there’s lots available, including in two buildings — formerly the Beer Market and Chatham Street Grill — recently bought and being renovated by the same partnership (Mid South Land Development Corp. and owners of Cypher Systems Group) transforming the Fish Market building.

“If you look at that entire block, there’s lots of vacant space there and lots of potential in that block and blocks adjacent to that block,” the mayor said. “It could almost be a hub.”