Once-Insular City's Business Climate Warms to Outsiders -- and Green Shoots Are Starting to Show
On a recent morning at Zuma's Coffee Shop, an independently owned joint in the affluent Detroit suburb of Birmingham, a man in his mid 40s wearing jeans and a casual shirt sits in a windowless alcove hunched over his iPad, a BlackBerry on the table and a briefcase at his side. It's about 38 degrees, warm enough to melt the stubborn March snow cleaving to the roadsides -- sweater weather at worst for a native Michigander. Yet the man is clad in a down coat even inside the café.
It's Joel Ewanick, GM's global marketing chief, on the job in Detroit for 10 months and no Michigan native, having left the more seasonable climes of Southern California at Hyundai, with a brief stop at Nissan in Nashville, Tenn., before accepting a move to Detroit that he had previously resisted.
Mr. Ewanick comes to this often empty alcove at Zuma's "to get some work done and to think," he said, before making the 25-mile trek from his home in Bloomfield Hills south to General Motors' glass and steel edifice on the Detroit River. Mr. Ewanick, who went from having only marketing responsibility for GM's North American operation to the whole world two months ago, said he often tries to stay outside the office -- known as "the tubes" around Detroit because of the multiple-cylinders configuration of the building -- and has to ration his meetings "or the important work is not going to get done."
That important work is marketing the post-bankruptcy GM that is still 40% owned by the U.S. Treasury. That job, and that of reshaping the new Chrysler and surging Ford, is increasingly being done by newcomers and outsiders such as Mr. Ewanick who are re-energizing the "new" Detroit, where creative green shoots are once again springing up. Among them at GM: CEO Daniel Akerson from the Carlyle Group; North American marketing head Chris Perry from Hyundai; Goodby Silverstein & Partners CEO Jeff Goodby, who has been leading Chevrolet creative since last summer; and Chairman Pat Fallon of Fallon Worldwide, Minneapolis, which now handles Cadillac. Also new to town: Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and chief marketer Olivier Francois from Italian automaker Fiat; Chrysler agencies Wieden & Kennedy and Richards Group from Oregon and Texas, respectively. And perhaps most prominently, Ford CEO Alan Mulally from Boeing Co. and his chief global marketing executive, James Farley, from Toyota.
"There is still a lot of money here," said Toby Barlow, chief creative officer at Team Detroit, who is speaking at Ad Age's Idea Detroit Conference this week. "The auto companies are back, and they have some of the biggest budgets, and good people and good ideas and creativity will come to where the money is." Mr. Barlow himself is an outsider who arrived almost five years ago from New York and San Francisco before that.
Some of the outsiders are laying down roots; some are transient. Mr. Barlow, for example, lives in Lafayette Park in downtown Detroit and is a frequent megaphone of creative possibilities and business opportunities around the city. He also published a novel, "Sharp Teeth," in 2008, which is being developed into a movie by "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle.
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