Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. sat down with Crain’s Senior Reporter Chad Livengood and Automotive News’ Ford beat reporter Michael Martinez for a wide-ranging interview June 14 about the automaker’s purchase and plans for redeveloping the Michigan Central Station.
Ford said the company plans to have up to 2,500 employees working in Corktown in the train station and other buildings in Corktown totaling 1.2 million square feet of space.
Here is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
FORD: This is, obviously, a great day for us.
MARTINEZ: Can you take us through just how it started? ‚Ä¶ When did you think, ‘Let’s buy the train station!’
FORD: So about a year ago, I was down at The Factory, which is where our AV and EV teams are in. And I thought that it was a terrific space and I always felt that we needed a strong presence in Detroit. Coincidently, our Team Edison, which is the AV/EV team was being formed, and they were looking for their own space. So we did The Factory.
FORD: And I must say, as a native of this area for 61 years, every time I would see an negative article on Detroit, nationally, it was always with the train station as the poster child. And it always really rubbed me the wrong way.
And as I was driving back and forth to The Factory, a couple of things struck me. One was how quick the trip was down Michigan Avenue from Dearborn. But also, I’d always had this vision that we would build the future of Ford Motor Co., particularly as it pertained to autonomy, we needed to do that in a city setting ‚ÄĒ because that’s where these vehicles will be deployed, and that’s where we need to really try them out. And so, I would drive by the train station and I started asking myself, ‘What it? Is this fantasy?’ I came back and talked to Dave Dubensky, who is head of Ford Land, and said to Dave, ‘You know, what would you think if we made a move on the train station?’ And Dave is incredibly open-minded, thankfully, and we talked about it. But it was predicated on a couple of things. One, does the deal make sense financially? Because if it doesn’t, we’re not going to do it. And two, what kind of shape is this building really in? Can it be renovated? Structurally, is it sound? And then what kind of time frame are we looking at? ‚Ä¶ And could we get this deal done relatively quickly within the bounds of what we’d consider a really good business deal? So all of those things had to be answered before we got the greenlight.”
But I must say, I started getting excited about this deal probably in the last three months or so, because we were negotiating with Matt Moroun, and he was terrific. And we never really hit any stumbling points with Matt along the way, which is obviously also important. So that’s kind of the timeframe, if that helps.
MARTINEZ: So you mentioned that you would see it as a symbol of Detroit’s decay. What do you want it to become? What will it be for Ford Motor Company?
FORD: Well, I’ll tell you, if all it is an incredible renovation of an iconic building, that would be great. But it’s going to be much more than that. ‚Ä¶ To put a little symmetry around all of this, Detroit is where Ford Motor Co. began. And when Henry Ford was building the Ford Motor Co., it was sort of like the Wild West then in terms of, it was like Silicon Valley today ‚ÄĒ there were lots of companies being formed, lots of them failing, there was a great debate over what would be the next propulsion system: Would it be steam? Would it be electric? Would it be gasoline? All of that was created in Detroit. And so here we are now and we are again reinventing the future of transportation, just as it was done 115 years ago. And that, to me, is going to be the power of this building, is that it’s not just going to be a standalone, beautiful building. It will very much be part of the fabric of the new transportation model. And our future at Ford will be largely invented there. And it will become, I believe, a really wonderful magnet for talent, because nowhere else in the country can anybody, will anybody, be able to work in a setting like that and in a Corktown community like that.
And, of course, you know sort of the family history, which also provides some interesting symmetry for me in terms of Ireland, my relatives coming over during the potato famine. Henry’s father William and his father John came over in that period. And since we’ve announced this, I’ve gotten some emails from Cork, Ireland, saying, ‘This is awesome because we had relatives come over and settle in Detroit during that period.’ Of course, that’s not why you do it. But it’s all part of the tapestry of this story. And then of course, there’s this transportation corridor from Corktown to Dearborn, keep going ‚Ä¶ the airport, Willow Run and Ann Arbor. ‚Ä¶ It really becomes, to me, a really interesting transportation invention corridor.
We do plan to run shuttles in between Corktown and our Dearborn campus ‚ÄĒ and maybe further west to Ann Arbor.
MARTINEZ: The Chariot shuttles?
FORD: The Chariot for sure. Could be others as well. They may not start off immediately as autonomous shuttles, but they eventually will be AV shuttles. Don’t know if those will be Chariots or not. Haven’t put too fine a point on it. We’re talking four years out now.
LIVENGOOD: How many employees are you envisioning, Ford employees in Corktown?
FORD: “So, we’re thinking in this building about 2,500, and there’s room for about 5,000, we think. So then you’d say, what’s the rest of it going to (be). So the rest it. I would love for this to be like the Sand Hill Road of Michigan, where entrepreneurs, startups, partners all want to come and be part of this creation process. That would be amazing to me ‚ÄĒ and I think that can happen. Because the future of mobility should be created in Detroit ‚ÄĒ and I believe it will be.”
LIVENGOOD: Could you envision having other automakers there?
FORD: Uh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t. In the train station or in Corktown?
LIVENGOOD: Yeah, in the train station.
FORD: I doubt it. Never say never, I suppose. And if we have partners, sure, why not? I’m not sure another OEM would want to be there unless we were actively in partnership with them. And if that were the case, sure.
The building itself is going to be amazing. One of the inspirations I had was I was out in San Francisco and went through the ferry terminal out there ‚ÄĒ and it’s incredible. It is a gathering spot for people in the city. Yes, some of them are taking the ferry. But many of them are just there to meet friends and family. There’s really fun restaurants. There’s really fun retail, coffee shops. All of that envision that being the ground floor of the train station ‚ÄĒ completely open to the public. And my vision, it would be a place where people would meet family and friends, hang out, and then do something fun in Detroit ‚ÄĒ whether that’s a ballgame or the DIA, or something else, it could be anything, go to dinner. Although they could probably have dinner in the train station, if they would like. But there are plenty of other great restaurants around too.
One thing that’s very important to me is that this is not seen as a corporate takeover of Corktown. So we’re going to spend a lot of time, engaging the community, asking them what they would like in the facility, are there activities they would like to be part of in this facility, what things would they not like to see happen in the facility. And how could we make this a great enhancement to Corktown and the quality of life of people around there, rather than this becoming a corporate island. That’s not what will happen here. And we’ll have other facilities in Corktown too. And so everything I just said for the train station is true also of whatever we do in Corktown. It’s really important that we become part of the community and that we’re not isolated or insulated from it.
LIVENGOOD: So you see the concourse of the train station being a community gathering spot?
FORD: Yes, very much so.
LIVENGOOD: Where people could step off and experience Detroit?
FORD: And have fun. I want this to be, and believe it will be, a really fun destination for people ‚ÄĒ both Detroiters and people coming in from outside of Detroit. It would be great if this was one of their first stops. It would be a great place to meet friends and family and then go from there.
MARTINEZ: So do you plan on running, using trains?
FORD: Well, we can’t do (that). It would be great. I’d love that if that ultimately were to happen. Obviously, that’s not really within our control. If that happened, it would just add the quality of the experience. If we ever do get regional transit here, which I’m a big proponent of, you can image the AVs talking to the trains, talking to the buses and all of the transportation systems working together. In that respect, it would actually help our development if we had trains coming in.
MARTINEZ: Any other teams? You mentioned mobility, autonomous.
FORD: We really don’t ‚ÄĒ we’re saying four years ‚ÄĒ we don’t really know. We’re saying 2022. I wouldn’t put too fine of a point on that because one of things we know about renovation is you don’t know what you don’t know. And you get in there and we could run into (problems). And we’ve tried to factor that in. So, you know, talking to Dave Dubensky, he’s saying, “Well, yeah, four years, 2022, let’s just put that out there. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.’ But so much could happen in four years. But clearly the intent. So we’ve already said that our Dearborn campus build-out is continuing and our headquarters still is going to be in Dearborn. For instance, our PD teams will be co-located here in Dearborn. Could we have some PD people attached to autonomy down there? Yeah, potentially. We haven’t put too fine a point on this yet. But, directionally, that’s right. Not just the hardware around AVs, but if you think about all of the businesses that are going be developed ‚ÄĒ a lot of which we haven’t even thought of yet ‚ÄĒ that would probably take place down there as well.
LIVENGOOD: The book depository building, what will become of that?
FORD: I’m not sure. We don’t really know yet what the use is going to be for all of the facilities. We have what we call the brass factory. What’s it called, Alchemy? Is that the real name of it?
LIVENGOOD: Have you bought The Alchemy yet?
FORD: Have we bought it? I don’t know.
LIVENGOOD: You’re going to?
FORD (chuckling): We’re thinking about it. We’re close.
LIVENGOOD: We heard you were.
FORD: We’ve got other facilities down there. We’ve got, what, 1.2 million square feet down there? And we haven’t yet laid out a master plan for who’s going where and what it will all look like. But clearly the intent is we will have a ‚ÄĒ certainly it won’t be a self-contained campus, and that was never going to be the point. But we’ll have a big presence there where our employees can move around to facility to facility and then get back and forth to Dearborn very quickly.
MARTINEZ: This seems to fly in the face of the trend of automakers opening up AV development offices in Silicon Valley. I know you have Palo Alto.
FORD: We do, but it’s interesting, Michael, if you think about AVs and what it entails. Palo Alto was never meant to be an AV development center. ‚Ä¶ That certainly was part of it. But it was meant to get into the heart of Silicon Valley, get to know entrepreneurs there in all aspects of everything that might touch our business. And we’ve done that. We have greenfield labs out there, which we develop ideas for. But the actual testing really needs to be done through city streets. You can do a lot through simulation, but you also have to actually have miles under your belt. And we will be making some announcements as this year goes on about our EV plans. We’ve been a little quiet. And I’ll tell you why ‚ÄĒ we’ve been working really hard on it, but there’s so much hyperbole in the AV space. So many claims being made. And one of the things that’s really important to me is that Ford is a trusted brand. All of the research shows we’re a very trusted brand. And as such, I don’t want to participate in all of the chest-thumping and, you know, sort of, in some ways, wild claims to be made. Because that really would undermine our ability to be a trusted company. So we have been understated, and it’s important that we’re not ready to go public with things until they really are ready for prime time. And you’ll hear more of that as the year goes on. ‚Ä¶ Some of which may be pertinent to the train station, so of which may not be.
MARTINEZ: So potential testing in Corktown?
FORD: Yeah, for sure. I don’t know when.
LIVENGOOD: But you foresee deploying autonomous vehicles from the train station?
FORD: Sure. But don’t get carried away. It’s not like we’re going to wake up one morning and we have a hundred vehicles blasting through the metro area. I think initially these things work well when they’re geo-fenced and lower speeds. So you start to imagine maybe shuttles going back between our Corktown campus and our Dearborn campus. That may be the first step. And then as we gain confidence and experience, we’ll start to branch out from there.
LIVENGOOD: What’s the business case for buying an old derelict building that’s been sitting empty for 30 years?
FORD: Remember, we’re getting lots of incentives that will help, too. But I’ll tell you what the business case is. And I think it’s a pretty strong one. First one of all, we’re in a war for talent. And there will be no place in the country that anybody will be able to work that’s a place like that. That means beautiful Silicon Valley campuses ‚Ä¶ none of them will have something like this. It’s a very important branding thing for Ford. It’s also important in terms of our intent. We wouldn’t have done it if the cost didn’t make sense. We simply wouldn’t have done it. We’re spending no extra money than we already had in our forward budget. In 2016, we laid out a campus transformation plan internally, and we budgeted that for the next 5 years. This fits within that budget. There was no new money we had to add to accommodate this. What could have been one of the derailers? Certainly the condition of the building, but also the business case. If we didn’t get this on the right