Dan Gilbert has a keen eye for detail. If your company’s signage, Web site or marketing materials contain any kind of misspelling, misdirection or misleading verbiage, he’ll see it and he’ll let you know about it.
Take, for instance, the sign Gilbert saw at an automobile repair shop offering “alignment” — a sign that was off-kilter. Or the store that featured two signs near its entrance, one reading “Store Closing” and the other “Now Hiring.” Or, better yet, the store with the neon “scrapbooks” sign that unfortunately had the first “s” burnt out.
Absurdities like these are what Gilbert thrives on. As the chairman and founder of Quicken Loans Inc., the majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, and the operator of Quicken Loans Arena, Gilbert has more than a full plate. Yet, there’s always time in his day to focus on the little things that truly make a business great.
“If you do just one thing better than your competition, they’ll eventually figure it out and your advantage will be gone,” Gilbert says. “But, if you do a thousand little things differently, your competition won’t be able to keep up and you’ll be successful.”
Opportunities to make a difference are everywhere, says Gilbert, and they’re usually found in the little things. Quoting Al Pacino from the film “Any Given Sunday,” Gilbert says, “The inches we need are everywhere around us.” That quote is just one of Gilbert’s “isms” — guiding principles that shape the culture at all of Gilbert’s companies.
Whenever a new employee begins work at one of Gilbert’s companies, he or she is given “Isms in Action,” an employee handbook that defines and highlights the “isms.” But don’t think these handbooks are just given out, only to be placed in a desk drawer and never looked at again. Gilbert actually takes the time to spend a full day with the new employee, going over the “isms” and how things should be done.
From always being aware of your surroundings to being obsessed with finding a better way, the “isms” focus on empowering employees to do whatever is needed to grow themselves and the business. There’s no red tape or committees at Gilbert’s companies, just employees who are trusted and expected to do whatever needs to be done. To Gilbert, failure is an option, as long as it’s not intentional. Employees can’t be afraid to fail; they have to be able to take chances. As a leader, you have to foster creativity.
“You don’t want people who ‘just work here,’ you want empowered people who aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes to grow the company,” Gilbert says. “If you don’t build a good culture, there is no question that a bad culture will take its place.”
With a strong leader and empowered employees, Gilbert’s companies are set up for success. Still, those organizations are always looking for ways to improve, even when things are going great. And, the onus of improvement isn’t just placed on managers. Expecting managers to fix all the problems is, according to Gilbert, like expecting pilots to fix the plane. Often, front-line employees have the answers you’re seeking; they just never get asked. In other words, encourage everyone in the organization to submit ideas and find a way to “build a better mousetrap.”
And this isn’t your typical suggestion box that gets emptied and analyzed once a year. Whenever one of Gilbert’s employees submits an idea, someone gets back to him or her. Sometimes the idea is implemented; other times it’s not. But the submitter always gets feedback and an explanation of why his or her idea will or won’t work.
“It’s like the Napster of business,” Gilbert says. “Every day employees are ‘downloading’ ideas. Those ideas build and grow, and in turn, the company builds and grows.”
Another “ism” that helps Gilbert’s companies become and remain successful is: “Numbers and money follow; they do not lead.”
“Business will never be what you forecast it to be. Spreadsheets don’t analyze alternative universes,” Gilbert says. “Those who focus on expenses and expenses alone are destined to go out of business. Focus on revenue growth, not cost control.”
More than just sports
In addition to Quicken Loans and the sports franchises, Gilbert and his partners also operate and invest in several other businesses, including ePrize, based in Pleasant Ridge, Mich.; Fathead LLC in Livonia, Mich.; Veritix in Cleveland; Boston-based Xenith LLC; and Xeko in Seattle.
Gilbert was Rawlings Sporting Goods’ largest shareholder and was instrumental in effecting the sale of Rawlings to K2 in March 2003. He is a founding partner in private equity group Rockbridge Growth Equity and an investor and financier with Rock Companies.
On top of all that, Gilbert launched Bizdom U in Detroit: a nonprofit academy that trains, mentors and finances young entrepreneurs and their start-up businesses. Also, in November 2009, Gilbert successfully backed a proposal to authorize first-class casinos in Ohio’s four largest cities, which will create 34,000 Ohio jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for public services, safety and schools.
See how the Cleveland Cavaliers go above and beyond to serve their fans.
Len Komoroski, president, Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans Arena, talks about embracing challenges and leading change.
Danny Ferry, general manager, Cleveland Cavaliers, on how to work with top performers to improve the organization.