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Living for the City: Bruce Schwartz Goes Behind the Scenes of Detroit

July 1, 2020

As the Detroit Ambassador for Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, Bruce Schwartz has an all-access pass to the city’s downtown — and he uses it to wow everyone from sixth graders to Madonna

By Nicole Frehsee Mazur

Photography by Allison Farrand

If you spend a lot of time in Detroit — or on Detroit-centric social media accounts — you may recognize Bruce Schwartz. He’s the smallish guy with the warm, gap-toothed smile who’s usually decked out in a fedora (from Henry the Hatter, the city’s 127-year-old hat retailer, natch), a giant Shinola watch and assorted pieces from other hometown brands, from Detroit Life to StockX.

For Schwartz, 58, repping Detroit doesn’t stop with his wardrobe — it’s literally his job. As the Detroit Ambassador for Rock Ventures — Dan Gilbert’s downtown-based portfolio of 100-plus companies — Schwartz has made a career out of selling the city’s merits to everyone from Warren Buffett and Madonna to sixth graders in Detroit’s public schools.

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

Schwartz at downtown restaurant Besa

“I’d say you’d call me the city’s unofficial welcome center,” says Schwartz, who’s known as Detroit Bruce to his approximately 22,000 followers on Instagram (@detroitbruce), where he posts photos of himself hanging out at various spots around town, often with celebrities. Schwartz leads a small team of ambassadors who ferry visitors around Rock-developed spaces downtown, from Parker’s Alley (a retail-dotted strip behind the Shinola Hotel) and The Belt to Capitol Park. (There are three full-time tour ambassadors besides Schwartz, plus about 50 company team members trained to lead tours on a volunteer basis.)

Last year the ambassadors took more than 16,000 people on tours, a number that includes students from middle school on up, as well as heads of multinational corporations, journalists, professional athletes and Kanye West.

One thing all the tour goers have in common: They’re dazzled by Detroit — or at least Schwartz’s version of it. “This is behind-the-curtain storytelling,” he says. “Every city has a visitor bureau but it’s not like you have the badge to every secret nook and cranny. If you want to do a Detroit tour, there are plenty of places you can go — but you can’t just get to the rooftop of every building or go into the vault of a basement that’s 100 years old.” (He’s referring to the conference room at Pophouse, a design firm founded by Gilbert’s wife, Jennifer, and located in the Chrysler House.) “That’s where we have this unique experience.”

“There couldn’t be any greater ambassador for the city,” says Michael Bolton (yes, that Michael Bolton), whom Schwartz met in Detroit around 2013 after the singer requested a tour, and now counts among his close friends. Incidentally, Bolton, who praises Schwartz’s “devotion to his community,” was so inspired by the city that he made a documentary called American Dream: Detroit.

Why are Bolton and others so impressed by what they see on Schwartz’s tours? “The culture and the cool factor of our spaces is incredible,” says Schwartz. One of his sure-to-impress, exclusive, spots: a dimly lit, speakeasy-style bar — a nod to Detroit’s Prohibition-era history — located behind a locked door on the second floor of Bedrock’s Woodward Avenue headquarters. “We don’t show the kids the secret bar,” he says. “But when Snoop Dogg comes in, trust me, I’m taking him to the secret bar.”

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

Schwartz with Michael Bolton

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

Schwartz with Snoop Dog

Schwartz has worked for the Rock Family of Companies since 1994, when he joined Rock Financial (the proto-Quicken Loans) as a mortgage banker. But his connection with Gilbert stretches back to the 1970s, when the pair met as third graders in Southfield. “Growing up, I lived in a different world than my friends’ parents who were doctors or Realtors,” says Schwartz, who moved from Pittsburgh to Michigan at age 8 when his dad, a professional pool player, got a job selling cookware. (Schwartz recalls afternoons spent accompanying his father to Detroit, where they’d hawk pots and pans out of a van.) “They didn’t know the hustle like I did.”

Schwartz formed a fast friendship with neighborhood kids like Gilbert and his brother, Gary (now a successful film producer) and Lindsay Gross (Quicken’s director of mortgage banking) — bonds that have endured to this day. In fact, it was partly thanks to his old crew that Schwartz returned to Detroit from Florida, where he’d moved with his family in the 1980s. “A couple friends visited me in Miami and said, ‘You should come back. We have this mortgage thing,’” Schwartz recalls, adding that he had zero experience in the industry. He was hesitant — who leaves Florida for Michigan in the middle of February? — but his mom clinched the deal. “She said, ‘You go. Danny knows.’” Two weeks later, he was in Michigan.

At that time, Rock Financial, which the Gilbert brothers founded in 1985, was based in Bingham Farms and employed around 200 people — a number that Schwartz admits he found overwhelming. “I had never been at a massive organization like that,” he says. (By comparison, today Rock Ventures boasts 30,000 employees across the U.S.) He formulated a strategy: Find the “best person” in the mortgage department, sit next to them and learn the business. That person was Eric King, now the vice president of Quicken.

Soon enough Schwartz was fielding referrals and closing loan after loan. He attributes his success to building strong relationships with clients. “I could get on the phone and talk to people — that was my forte,” he says. “That’s something my parents taught me when I was younger: Don’t just know someone, but really get to know them.” He also cops to being super competitive. “Everybody wanted to be on the front page of the production report, but I wanted to be at the top of the front page. If I was in the No. 2 slot, that was a failure.”

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

Schwartz with longtime friends Dan Gilbert, Lindsey Gross and David Carroll (clockwise from bottom left).

Despite his success, Schwartz was itchy for a bigger challenge. Under the Rock Family umbrella, in the early 2000s he launched what’s now known as Rocket Homes, a company that streamlines the home-buying process. He was CEO of the company for six years, and it was during that period that Quicken set up shop in Detroit and Gilbert — who formed real estate development company Bedrock in 2011 — began snatching up vacant buildings downtown.

As Gilbert sank more money into the city’s downtown and began transforming the time-ravaged landscape into an attractive setting for young people and businesses, it piqued interest nationwide. Potential employees, business executives and the media wanted to check out the place for themselves. “At that point we said, ‘We’re not selling Detroit over the phone,” recalls Schwartz, who had been showing prospective tenants office spaces downtown and officially stepped into the ambassador role in 2011. “You have to see it. And I was sort of the front door. I could set the stage and tell the story of our vision and why Detroit was the best place to be.”

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

If that seemed like a dubious notion early on — 10 years ago, the downtown stretch of Woodward Avenue was lined with empty buildings that had been neglected for decades — before long, even skeptics had to concede that there was something blossoming in the area. “Five years into it, we had proof of concept,” says Schwartz, referring to Bedrock’s real estate dominance. “We’re not just talking about it but look what we did. Ten years into it, every one of these buildings on Woodward is filled to 100% capacity.”

Indeed, over the previous decade, swanky hotels and trendy restaurants have populated once-vacant storefronts and mega corporations like Twitter, which opened an office in the Madison Building in 2012, began rolling into the city. (LinkedIn and Microsoft came, too, also settling into Bedrock-owned properties.) Schwartz doesn’t take credit for the influx, but he acknowledges his hospitality may have played a part. “[Companies] have to feel like, ‘We’re comfortable here, it’s safe here, our team is going to love it,’” says Schwartz. “The tour is sort of the setup, and then the real estate piece and the money piece has to work.”

Shinola is another company that put down roots in Detroit after its founder, Tom Kartsotis, met Schwartz about a decade ago. “I was fortunate enough to get a perspective of the place through Bruce’s unique lens,” says Kartsotis, who launched the company in 2011, not long after his first trip to Detroit. “I had a crazy idea to build a watch factory here and the optimistic, ‘let’s-go-friggin’-do-this’ mentality that permeates this place has been an inspiration.”

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

Schwartz at the House of Pure Vin in Detroit in June

In addition to businesses, Schwartz has been instrumental in scoring big events for the city and region, like the Rocket Mortgage Classic, a professional golf tournament on the PGA Tour. (It’s set to return to the Detroit Golf Club — sans spectators — on July 2.) He also helped attract the Shell Eco Marathon, a student competition to develop energy-efficient vehicles that first came to Detroit in 2016. “The perception of Detroit is don’t go there; watch out,” says Schwartz, who led Shell executives on multiple tours. “Once they saw and felt the city, they were like, ‘We’re in.’”

Despite their money-making potential, Schwartz is quick to point out that his tours aren’t only about bringing in dollars for the city. They’re also about presenting Detroit in a new way to the people who arguably have the most potential to shape it — its young residents.

To that end, for the last couple years, Schwartz and his team have led more than 5,000 Detroit Public Schools Community District sixth graders on a field trip called Day of Innovation, which aims to increase awareness of opportunities in careers ranging from IT to construction. “These young kids can see, ‘This is your future,’” says Schwartz. “‘This is for you.’”

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

For the past couple years, Schwartz and his team have led over 5,000 sixth graders from Detroit Public Schools on a field trip called the Day of Innovation, which aims to introduce them to future career opportunities in the city.

When it comes to the literal job of presenting Detroit, Bedrock has made some missteps. These include a 2017 ad campaign for a residential high-rise, which featured mostly white faces — i.e., a crowd not at all representative of Detroit’s demographics. After receiving backlash, the company issued an apology and took the graphic down.)

Still, the organization, which employs a chief diversity officer, has invested millions in community initiatives related to housing, employment, education and cultural programs. In April, for instance, the Quicken Loans Community Fund and the Gilbert Family Foundation committed to donating $2 million for computer tablets and high-speed internet for Detroit students.

“We care about the community and we want to impact the outcome,” says Schwartz. “[It’s about] how are we helping the city and community? How do we work in the private and public sector with the mayor’s office and community leaders and neighborhood residents and not just live in our own business bubble?”

These may sound like corporate platitudes, but Schwartz actually makes it a point to get acquainted with Detroiters. As we’re on the phone one day in June, he’s greeted by a man — who he later says is homeless, and whom he hasn’t seen since the pre-COVID days — on the sidewalk. He sets his phone down while he says hello, but I can hear their conversation. “That’s for you, bro,” Schwartz tells him, ostensibly handing over some money. “Nice to see you. Go get some food. Love you.”

In 2014, Schwartz found himself shuttling one of his most famous tour goers ever around Detroit. Madonna, who grew up in Pontiac and Rochester Hills, was in town on a mission to help local organizations serving women and children. “She comes and is all business,” says Schwartz, who showed her the Downtown Boxing Gym (an after-school and athletic program for kids and teens) and the Empowerment Plan (a nonprofit that helps the homeless by distributing sleeping-bag coats) — both of which she now helps fund.

He adds that he doesn’t get starstruck — would Aretha Franklin invite him to her annual Christmas party if he fawned over celebrities? — but Madonna triggered “butterflies.” (He also let her walk away with his brand-new Shinola watch, but that’s a story for another time.)

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

Schwartz has given tours of Detroit to celebrities, executives, athletes and journalists. He formed an especially close relationship with Aretha Franklin, even scoring an invite to her annual Christmas party. The iconic soul singer “took a little warming up,” recalls Schwartz, but once he shared his company’s community-engagement efforts, “that was the icebreaker right there.”

The only celebrities Schwartz has seen lately are on his computer screen. Unable to give tours due to the pandemic, Schwartz has pivoted to touting the city from indoors. (After moving from his apartment near Belle Isle, he now lives in the suburbs with his wife and four kids, who range from 9 months to 18 years.) He’s not sure when his regular tours will resume, or what they’ll look like, but he promises they’ll be “amazing.”

Earlier this year, he kicked off a series called Detroit Bruce Backstage, where he virtually chats with VIPs including Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo and Channel 4 news anchor Rhonda Walker. His first guest: Migos rapper Quavo, whom Schwartz befriended after the two met in Detroit earlier this year. “I try to get recognizable, inspirational people,” he says, adding that the project may transition to face-to-face interviews in the future.

Detroit Ambassador Bruce Schwartz

In May, just as Michigan was reopening and Schwartz was plotting ways to “fire people up” about restaurants and retailers who’d taken a hit during the pandemic, Detroit — and the country as a whole — found itself embroiled in another existential battle, this time age-old. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, as protests have roiled the city and community leaders have been called upon to speak up against racism and police brutality, Schwartz has used Instagram as his mouthpiece, publishing a statement that expresses support for those “using their voices and standing up for injustices faced by African Americans every day.”

“Now there’s this more open dialogue going on,” he says a few days after posting his statement. “I want people to understand where I stand.” Last month he attended the Belle Isle Freedom March to walk across the MacArthur Bridge with nearly 400 other people. Standing among his fellow demonstrators, some of whom were singing and linking arms with one another, Schwartz says he felt an intense surge of pride for the city he’s spent the last decade championing.

He says as much in a video from the march, which he livestreamed on Instagram. As one does these days, he’s wearing a mask (by Detroit Life, of course), so you can’t make out his expression, but his eyes are serious as they lock into the camera. “It’s the most beautiful thing,” he says, then surveys the sea of people around him. “Detroit is pure power and unity. There’s no other city in the world I’d want to be in.”

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