The Fred M. Butzel Award is the highest honor bestowed on a Detroit Jewish citizen by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
It has been a year of recoveries and beyond for Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans and one of the most visible figures in the economic revitalization of Detroit.
And in recognition, on Oct. 1, Gilbert, 58, will be the recipient of this year’s Fred M. Butzel Award, the highest honor bestowed on a Detroit Jewish citizen by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
“Without a doubt, Dan Gilbert stands alongside the most important leaders and philanthropists in the history of Jewish Detroit,” said Steven Ingber, Federation COO. “Dan’s presence at the Fisher Meeting, our annual event for the leading donor families in Jewish Detroit, has helped galvanize the resources in our community, and his personal generosity has made in a difference in the lives of thousands of individuals each year.
“It is hard to think of anyone who better deserves this award, the highest that Federation offers. We are deeply grateful for his commitment to our Jewish community.”
The award comes as Gilbert continues his journey of recovery from a debilitating stroke he suffered on May 26, 2019. The stroke caused temporary paralysis of his left arm and leg, but Gilbert has persevered, returning to work in February and even making public appearances.
“With my recent physical condition, I just learned what gratitude is, because it’s just been a humbling experience,” Gilbert told the JN.
And he has continued to blaze forward in his commitment to revitalizing the city of Detroit via his family of companies numbering around 80 entities — as well as the Gilbert Family Foundation, which he co-founded in 2015 with his wife, Jennifer, and into which they have channeled more than $125 million of their own money.
“Helping your hometown is like helping your family: If you can, and you’re in a position, I think you should do it,” Gilbert said. “That’s where it really comes from, for me.”
A Powerful Reputation
Gilbert’s peers in the business and philanthropic world hardly need an excuse to praise him.
“As an entrepreneur, philanthropist, citizen and friend, they don’t come any better than Dan,” world-renowned investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett told the JN on the occasion of the award.
For Gilbert, that kind of simplicity is highly valued.
“Dan has done something remarkable with his business and philanthropic work in Detroit,” native Detroiter Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, told the JN. “Not sure anyone anywhere has done as much to revive a city as Dan has. He inspires me.”
“Dan Gilbert is a passionate champion of the city of Detroit,” Stephen M. Ross, the influential real estate developer and namesake of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, told the JN. “His unwavering belief in the future of this city has inspired many, myself included, to invest in and forge new partnerships with Detroit to reinvigorate its enduring legacy as a global center of technological innovation.”
Ross and Gilbert both attended law school at Wayne State University. Each contributed $5 million to the school in 2016.
More recently, Ross and Gilbert have teamed up on The Detroit Center for Innovation. The U-M-anchored undertaking is expected to be a $300 million development.
In a 1992 article in the Jewish News, Gilbert, then age 30, remarked that fulfilling the goal of being a self-made man takes more than good ideas and hard work. “Drive, determination and focus are necessary ingredients in growing a successful business.”
And that drive has served Gilbert well. As of this writing, Forbes lists him as the 15th-richest person in America and one of the 20 most successful self-made individuals globally.
Building an Empire
Daniel Bruce Gilbert was born in Detroit on an unusually cold day, Jan. 17, 1962, to parents Shirley and the late Sam Gilbert. They lived in a modest apartment before moving to Southfield.
“He was bright from the day he was born, a go-getter from an early age and always a giver,” his mother told the JN. She and the Gilbert family recently visited Israel together.
“Dan has always been a visionary, can-do, optimistic person,” his younger brother Gary Gilbert said.
Gary Gilbert recalled many early entrepreneurial pursuits with his older brother. There were times in their teen years the brothers would buy pots and pans from the late Isadore “Bison” Goldstein on Seven Mile Road and then sell them door to door. They would walk into office buildings, suite by suite, and try to sell them to the receptionist or whomever else was there.
After hours, the brothers would go to nursing homes. “The night shift nurses didn’t have much to do, the elderlies were sleeping,” Gary recalled. “In a soft voice, we would sell them on what an incredible deal our pots and pans were!”
There was the time in 1981 when Billy Sims played for the Detroit Lions, and they had bumper stickers made that said, “The Lions are simmering!” and they would sell them in the parking lot of the Pontiac Silverdome before and after the games. In later years, they delivered for Papa Romano’s pizza — including during some of the chilliest days of winter.
Four years later, in the summer of 1985, Dan and Gary founded Rock Financial Corporation, along with Ron Berman and Lindsay Gross. Gary said he and Dan shared a small 10×10 room in a shared Southfield office suite.
“There were no fax machines yet,” Gary recalled, “so Danny and I would drive around together, hand-delivering closing papers to the title companies … We drummed up business by schmoozing with realtors.”
No one would have thought that the firm could devour market share from industry leaders. It began with $5,000, mostly from pizza deliveries and bar mitzvah savings. And yet, success ensued. In 1999, the company became Quicken Loans and made its focus more digital-oriented; by 2018, it was the largest overall retail lender in the U.S.
When Rocket Companies — the holding company of Quicken Loans —had its IPO this August, it catapulted its chairman’s wealth to an unfathomable ecosphere. Gilbert’s current net worth is estimated at nearly $50 billion.
When COVID-19 hit, Gilbert told Jay Farner, the CEO of Quicken Loans and Rock Companies, to do whatever he could to help Detroit. That included assisting with the state’s contact tracing efforts and supporting internet access within the city.
“Dan wanted to know how we could really help,” Farner said. “For everything that has gotten discussed over the years, there are dozens of things never talked about. Dan has sent a plane down to pick up team members impacted by a hurricane and has stepped in to support team members diagnosed with an illness, sometimes calling in to the Cleveland Clinic to help a team member in need.”
Rooted in Community
Gilbert is a past president of JARC, which his grandparents Ruth and Manuel “Manny” Feldstein helped to start.
“Dan is a triple threat in philanthropy today,” Carroll said. “He has his own giving style. He uses his moral persuasion to impart the importance of philanthropy in others, and he has created wealth, jobs and employment within the firm and for vendors of the firm to now have the capacity to help advance the community as well.”
Family has informed much of what Gilbert does. “There are a lot of people along the way who should share in this award, especially my wife,” he said.
Jennifer Gilbert is a serial entrepreneur in her own right, having founded interior design companies Pophouse, Doodle Home and Amber Engine. She serves as president of NF Forward, a neurofibromatosis charity, and on multiple boards.
“I am so proud of the man Dan is,” Jennifer said. “Of course, he is known for his impact as a businessman. But I think his most important role is within the walls of our own home. He is a loving father who provides an incredible example of philanthropy and using time and energy to make the world a better place. Not only for our kids, but for generations to come.”
The Gilbert children have caught the business bug, as well. Dan’s son AJ recently reached a million dollars in sales with his own company, Zuplift, which makes ethically sourced branding and promotional content.
The Gilbert Family Foundation has also become one of the largest donors in the nation to advance treatments around neurofibromatosis, an issue the family has felt personally through their son Nick.
The foundation is “going to take on more of a brand name soon,” Gilbert said, “as we promote the foundation and it really gets involved in some major projects. It’s very exciting.”
Joyce Keller is the foundation’s executive director and has worked alongside the Gilberts for more than a decade. Though she said medical research has been the foundation’s primary goal, “we’re now going deeper into the other piece of our portfolio, which is Detroit.”
The Gilberts also signed the Giving Pledge in 2012, signaling their commitment to donate the majority of their wealth.
Dan said, “All the dollars that come into the foundation will dwarf what the foundation itself has given out recently because we didn’t even know the kind of assets that we’re going to fund it with very soon.
“I would hope people will think we are upholding Jewish values,” Dan said, referring to the phrase “whoever saves one life, saves the world.”
In their teen years, Gary remembers his brother telling him that he wanted to own a sports team one day, and saying, “When we’re in our 50s, there will be people our age doing big things, so it may as well be us.” Today, Dan is majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“That shows you how much of a ‘sky’s the limit’ guy he was right from the start,” Gary said.
Dan credits Dr. Steve Adamczyk, an emergency medicine specialist, with saving his life. The two knew each other from coaching their sons’ basketball games. They were together with their spouses the night when Dan began to face abnormal visual issues.
After a couple of hours of convincing from Adamczyk, Dan headed to the hospital. Adamczyk, born and raised in Bloomfield Hills, now works as a full-time medical adviser to Rock Ventures.
The experience has also deepened Gilbert’s perspective on faith. “I wouldn’t say I’m a very religious guy, but I believe in spirituality and spirit and all that,” he said. “When you have what happened to me happen, you start to really get some perspective on that and all the time to think your way through things, so I would say it’s grown. I feel very, very strongly that there’s spiritual existence out there everywhere. You just have to figure out how to tap into it.”
At the culmination of the High Holiday season this fall, it will be near the 500th day since Dan raced, in the darkest hours of the night, to the hospital that May evening.
Dan, given the chance to have more time with Jennifer and children AJ, Nash, Nick, Grant and Gracie, embraced a mindset he’s long articulated as an entrepreneur. A value often learned far-too-late by way too many:
Every second counts.
Time, not money, is the most valuable commodity of all.
Time can never be replaced.