01/21/2011 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Quicken Loans Turns Success into a Philosophy

Dan Gilbert has figured a few things out for us. It is possible to be from Detroit and be successful. It is possible to create a workforce that is positive in this economic climate. It is possible to revitalize Detroit's downtown. And it is possible to go against the dominant statistics of an industry. But it is not easy -- it takes strategy and a philosophy that is understood by the full organization.

Top lenders in the mortgage industry currently have the lowest referral rating of any business sector: 11%. That means 89% of mortgage customers are dissatisfied. Put me in that group. But Quicken Loans is doing something obviously different. Quicken Loans sits today with a 94% referral rating. They, and Detroiters by association, seem to have hands on something powerful enough to overcome the dominant themes of an industry that imploded.

I research Detroit creativity and had an opportunity to be included as an "outsider" to Quicken Loan's new employee orientation called "ISMs in Action." I brought a pair of fresh eyes with me to this session just like these 240 new employees -- since we collectively had not been around the Quicken Loans culture. We were like new friends coming to Gilbert's apartment for the first-time. We could see things that he couldn't: little changes that might need to be made. Gilbert knows this phenomenon and tries to harness its energy.

Gilbert and Bill Emerson (CEO of Quicken Loans) lead this all day session and make a perfect duo. They are smart, but not too textbook smart for their own good. They know success, but both question if excel spreadsheets and pie charts are required to detect what works in an organization. This duo is pumped. And unique. And not afraid of putting some serious cash on the line for innovation's sake. They say if you chase pennies, you will find pennies. If you invest in big ideas, skills, innovation, talent, design, marketing, technology: your return will be more than pennies.

These two executives aren't penny pinching. Together, these leaders spoke for ten hours straight and utilized a staff of over 20 to keep things streamlined -- showing the priority and high expectations that are bestowed upon these new recruits. What other company has top executives that are willing to wipe a day off their calendar for the newbies--and also, what other companies have top executives who have that type of energy to command an audience on the edge of their chairs for that length of time? This isn't normal--but neither is having net revenue exceed net expenditures in 2011. The difference is working.

Although 98% of the new 240 Quicken Loans recruits wear black shoes, that seems to be the only similarity. People of all races, sizes, and ages filled the elevator with black loafers, pumps, and high heels as they are beamed up to the 15th floor of the Compuware Building. These 240 new employees are becoming orientated to organizational philosophies that are miles away from mortgages and lending. Quicken Loans team members work in a diverse array of industries from online realty to sports posters to fashion trending to biotechnology. But the beauty is that good core fundamentals don't change from job to job--and leadership traits are the same in all industries.

Taking in Gilbert's and Emerson's presentation, I was sitting by the founder of Xenith concussion resisting helmets, Vincent Ferrara, MD. Ferrara was a former quarterback at Harvard who, after becoming a doctor, had an idea on making a better, more protective helmet which drastically reduces concussions. Quicken Loans likes big ideas and, in turn, Xenith likes Quicken Loans. One more winning relationship pioneered from these fundamental philosophies.

Over the course of a very full day, 18 separate ISMs were covered. The ideas all focused on their biggest commodity--people. Quicken Loans people aren't riveting metal together producing bombers at Willow Run airport--instead their people, over 4,000 of them, are using their heads, becoming leaders, and, in turn, producing success. Quicken Loan's special sauce is their people--and their special ingredients are creativity and innovation.

That is the exact same creativity and innovation that China, Japan, and India wholeheartedly acknowledge that they lack. This trifecta of mass producing mite might be good at streamlining existing processes and selling for 1/10th the American equivalent--but they are a long way away from harnessing this sort of energy. Quicken Loans seizes on the last American virtue: our brain. Thank goodness someone is thinking.