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Melissa Price and Detroit’s dPOP continue to reinvent the way downtown Detroit workers make and do

|This article appeared originally in the February 2016 edition of Bellow Press|

By John Q. Horn

The physical aesthetics of the American workplace has transformed.

Enormous, glass-encased conference rooms, hideaway work pods, popcorn machines and pinball are the new beige. Functionality, design and how a company introduces its story to visitors has superseded the significance of the receptionist’s desk.

And nobody exemplifies that reinvention more than Melissa Price and her Detroit-based company, dPOP

We say, “her company,” because Price is the CEO. But dPOP rests comfortably under the umbrella of ownership of billionaire and Founder and Rock Holdings and Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert. He also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers. And at some point of every busy day, he makes it a point to let team members know that they have value. Gilbert’s CEOs, VPs and others do the same. To call is “rah-rah” is being tame. Rock Holdings not only includes Quicken Loans, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Fathead, there are corporate sponsorship relationships with NASCAR, The PGA Tour and the Detroit Lions.

Gilbert set the standard for development in downtown Detroit when, in 2010, he relocated his suburban mortgage company headquarters in the middle of a drowsy Central Business District, its bored workers and overwhelming plentitude of empty, aging skyscrapers.

 

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In five years, Gilbert would sire 92 companies and acquire dozens of buildings in and around central downtown, while spending more than $2 billion in the process. And it all started, much like dPOP!, when the company moved in to the former Compuware Building in Campus Martius Park at the city’s urban core.

When that building opened, it marked a landmark unveiling for Price and her Facilities team. It would lead to the formation of dPOP, ushering in a new jack movement fortifying downtown Detroit and establishing sustainability for generations.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

For Price, that includes not only the recent transplants now working downtown but to those stalwarts who have always been here. She said she recognizes that calling Detroit’s growth-resurrection a “comeback,” could be considered by many as a poor choice of words.

“It’s not a rebirth,” she said. “There are so many community members who have cared and curated through the years. They’ve been here the whole time.”

She earned the crown when she moved downtown last year, setting up shop in a renovated Albert Kahn-designed apartment building, The Albert, blocks from dPOP’s stunning space, The Vault.

“Living downtown is a great bit of pride,” she said. “Not only is my business downtown, but I live here too.”

And what a business. What an amazing, significant, necessary business operation she leads and guides. During the most dismal years, downtown Detroit office space had a 47-percent occupancy rate. That number is rapidly on the uptick, with more than 150,000 people working downtown, including 15,000 who, like Price, work for Gilbert-owned companies.

People Matter

Its swell became noticeable to outsiders with Gilbert moving Quicken Loans to the Compuware Building from suburb to city in 2010, just two years after an pic mortgage crisis that fed like a host virus on the nation’s crippling recession.

“That was a tough time,” Price said. “Dan made sure that the emphasis was ‘every single minute, every day, every lever we can pull, we need to make sure our clients are safe and happy.’

“They were strategizing on caring about the people-side first.”

Gilbert was committed to moving downtown, irrespective of the commercial housing market. And Price’s facilities and purchasing knowledge would have a role so significant in that transition that it can be described only as hemispheric in its size and scope.

“There was a lot of energy and passion behind that move,” Price said. “Compuware was the first building.”

Bedrock, Gilbert’s massive property management company, now holds clean title to 85 buildings.

But in her salad days, Price, who was raised in Florida and moved to Detroit at age 21, started with Quicken in IT on the help desk. She would later advance to IT project management.

Positions morph. Companies grow and adapt, and Price did just that.

“I was doing all of the purchasing and contract buying,” she said, of outside vendors and assorted tradespeople. That experience proved invaluable when it was time to move. In terms of equipment, space, design and functionality, she knew exactly what everyone needed.

 

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Price and her team took all 500 employees, to a crosstown move that, years later, would later usher in 15,000 company team members.

In crafting the look of Compuware, Price shattered conventional design expectations and assumptions of the brave new workplace. Beaming, bold colors rage in in a pop-out work pod with a killer view that can hold only only three people. Cool, soothing-colored walls do their work in a different space, maybe a roomy, built-for-12 conference room. Price embedded casual and comfortable work concepts that married up to prominent levels of functionality. Dynamic and inspiring breakout work spaces. Transparent conference rooms. Isolated work areas where it’s quiet and calm as you employees need it to be. Commanding color schemes in high-use kitchens keep you awake. A high-end cafeteria with every taste and lifestyle sated is at the read. The world’s largest indoor water structure is sin the lobby. You should see the nap pod.

It was so impressive, other companies wanted a tour.

“As all of that was happening, companies wanted to tour our building,” Price said. “This was all day. It turned in to a full-time job.”

The more outside decision-makers saw of the space Price and her team created, the more they liked. And they wanted Price to do something similar for them. dPOP then was birthed.

When Bedrock buys a mothballed skyscraper, Price and her crew are the first to walk through, and commence strategizing on how to convert previously unused space into something magnificent. Nearly mummified, these countless structures still retain rich architectural DNA and unrivaled hand-crafted detail.

That’s when the ideas start. And it results in plans, execution and installation, conceptualizing and deep-diving to the core of what the company represents. Price eventually reveals a space that ultimately looks like no place you’ve ever worked, coupled with the functionality unlike anywhere you’ve ever been. And this, from a heap of empty office space most people wrote off.

“To be able to walk through and see those spaces, to bring it back, the craftsmanship, the trades; not everyone gets to unravel something like that,” Price said. “That’s a real honor. We are the first to work on it. It’s stunning, it’s humbling, to be able to figure out how to bring a building back.”

 

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Working for Gilbert, Price and her Facilities team where charged with one building that would later into 85 buildings. That’s a lot of conference rooms, kitchens, restrooms, elevators, work stations, storage and parking.

Jennifer Gilbert is Chairperson of dPOP, wife of Dan Gilbert and deeply embedded in these massive undertakings.

“I am always inspired by Melissa Price’s creativity and passion for designing spaces that are both innovative and purposeful. With her guidance, the dPOP team is revolutionizing the environments in which people live, work and play. dPOP’s designs are far more than just pretty spaces; they foster innovation and collaboration for those who work in them.

“At dPOP, our clients are as diverse as the industries from which they originate. One common thread across the board, however, is the importance placed on culture. Our work fosters vibrant company cultures and vibrant company cultures help businesses thrive.”

|images courtesy of dPOP|

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This article article appeared originally in the February 2016 edition of Workspace Magazine, published by Bellow Press in Grand Rapids.

 

Detroit Business Incubator Reinvents How Detroit Works

By John Q. Horn

Grand-scale manufacturing loss, staggering crime and a national economic recession sank of a lot of middle-tier cities. Detroit, for decades, was one of them.

But, an invigorating entrepreneurialism – even in small pockets on the fringes of a now-bustling downtown – is creating an innovative approach to work where the automotive assembly line that made Detroit great is being complemented by a steady line of small business owners intending to make the city greater.

When Detroit needed to rethink how it approached work – following an auto industry collapse, a federal government bailout that came with it; and a corrupt city government leading to bankruptcy and emergency management assistance – reinventing Detroit’s work identity unraveled unconventionally.

Billionaires like the late Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illich, and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske and others, have been moving people and companies toward the Central Business District by the tens of thousands into buildings that were for decades empty, aging, eyesores. This has generated a downtown pulse that once barely registered.

Equally critical to the city’s health are the entrepreneurs and small business creationists filling the gaps of a city’s workforce and its path to becoming again whole. With countless manufacturing jobs disintegrating in both the city and suburbs, Detroit required a solution outside of the billionaires. Ponyride, a collaborative bricks-and-mortar workspace, galloped onto the landscape, bringing with it a zephyr of small business generation and community-based entrepreneurship.

 

ponyride exeterior

Back in 2005, Phil Cooley bought real estate along a then-empty and silent Michigan Avenue, inserting in it what would become the city’s signature restaurant, Slow’s Bar BQ. Through that success, Cooley and his associates would make more investments in Detroit. In 2010, the foreclosed property at 1401 Vermont caught his eye, as Cooley said he sought space to live and work. At 30,000 square feet, the bank said it would take $100,000 for the property. But for that sweet price, Cooley would need to convert it into a multiple-use space. He met with community members for feedback. The result is the rebirth of an empty structure, named Ponyride, packed with a litany of small businesses that all got their start or grew there.

“We want a workspace that encourages people the way Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were, before they were successful, old and rich,” Cooley said. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs need to exist and create jobs. “

And that’s precisely what is happening. Kate Bordine Cooley, Phil’s wife and owner of Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery and tasting room merely blocks away, said they let the community tell them what the space should be and “organically folks showed up needing space. Bit by bit, the spaces in Ponyride have grown into what they are now. We have a café, co-working space, textiles, metal and wood studios.”

 

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Specifically, there are dozens of work areas carved out for small business entrepreneurs to create and distribute wares. Among them is a professionally built dance space, a recording studio, a coffee café, the makers of Beard Balm, Detroit Denim (and their $250 jeans), Dirt Apparel (urban-influenced clothing), The Line Studio and their glorious furniture with concrete countertops and Floyd, a progressive furniture manufacturer catering to smaller living spaces with pieces that attach to any surface to convert to a table-bed system.

“It’s a Democratic space,” Cooley said. “Why should tech be with just tech? Or manufacturing with just manufacturing? We don’t want to isolate people. It’s not textbook to have a quiltmaker next to a hip-hop dance teacher.”

Nothing about Detroit is, or ever will be, textbook. It’s always been tough in this city.

Detroit went from hey-day vibrant, to grossly violent, to complacently desolate, to laughably corrupt, to, literally, bankrupt. This pattern required five-plus decades of sweetheart deals and immoral bookkeeping. All while the rest of the nation watched, contorting its nose as if amid flatulence. It would seem logical that the decades it took for Detroit to de-evolve should be congruent to the time it will take for the city to again feel whole – a state many considered incomprehensible.

“To throw away that infrastructure is foolish. But, also, it’s the tenants themselves, the way they share resources, tools and ideas,” Cooley said. “Lazlo (a company housed in Ponyride) has a guy working for him who just got out of prison.”

Bordine Cooley supported the assertion that co-working, especially at Ponyride, crystallizes the way new work is being done in Detroit.

“When the Jit Crew said they needed a dance studio, we gutted a room that was once eight separate offices and laid down a reclaimed gymnasium floor,” she said.

Dance studio space cost $10 per hour to rent, and includes lessons, recitals, events and parties. Most workspace is $300 per month. The waiting list is currently at 200 people with great ideas. Ponyride quickly went from incubator to white-hot oven.

Ponyride is home to The Empowerment Plan, an organic operation bringing together homeless women and puts them to work. Their finished product is a thick, down jacket that converts to a sleeping bag, designed specifically for those living on the streets. The hum of 20 sewing machines at a time is nearly symphonic, once the humanitarianism of it all washes over you.

 

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Cassie Coravos, business and communications manager of The Empowerment Plan, says the organization provides twice-weekly GED classes through Pro-Literacy Detroit. It assists with online college courses, finding viable housing and involving members with financial literacy through Level One Bank. It offers resources and support, including everything from onsite temporary housing to vehicle acquisition and repair.

“Ponyride has been a great space to be a part of,” Coravos said. “We love being part of this community, but we are quickly outgrowing our space. We currently have 20 seamstresses. We want to hire more and make more coats, and we are near capacity in our current space.”

Detroit SOUP also operates out of Ponyride. It’s not so much a café, rather, an open-air forum where guests enjoy locally sources soup and salad, paying $5 for both comfort food and a vote, listening intently to at least four locals pitch their products and ideas. These range from urban farming, to legal fees for the wrongly accused, to education and technology initiatives – many born from bare-bones, grassroots projects.

People eat, listen, vote and reward. The five-year-old program has raised more than $85,000 for independent projects in Detroit. It’s a council of community-minded Detroiters and their suburban neighbors putting up $5 at a time to help fund an entrepreneur’s dream. Yeah, someone has an idea for a garden on a beat-down lot and that night’s Detroit SOUP brought in $400 for the endeavor. That’s $400 that wasn’t there before. And like the business incubator space that also wasn’t there, so is a presence of support that didn’t previously exists. Be it $10 or $100,000, in Detroit, in the right hands, it makes a difference.

Joanna Dueweke is a community activist and content strategist. She is also the director of Detroit SOUP, and she describes perfectly the position in which Detroit, and its work culture, finds today.

“Nothing about Detroit can be traditional anymore,” she said. “We have to change so the city can change and prosper in new and different ways.”

New and different should be on the welcome mat.

Like The Empowerment Plan, whose founder Veronika Scott started by herself with a modest Detroit SOUP grant, the path to crafting a dream where soon-to-be-former-Detroit women could make a warm coat-sleeping bag for their sweet brethren and sisterhood, these things take time.

Creating coworking space and connecting with a community to make it feasible is embryonic in the larger glimpse. Putting the right resources in a place like Ponyride sharpens the focus for those who want it.

“Three and a half years ago, it was just Veronika,” Phil Cooley said. “Now look at it. That’s five years. That takes some heavy lifting. I hope there is more patience.”

 

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