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Quicken Loans a $100 billion mortgage business, the third-largest home lender in the country, behind Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase -- Mortgage Daily

WHEN Dan Gilbert was in the fourth grade, he bought candy at wholesale from the father of a friend and sold it at retail prices to classmates. It was the start of a nearly obsessive quest to create enterprises and earn profits. He estimates that he's either invested in or started 70 companies in his career. One early and ill-fated venture was running a short-lived bookmaking operation with some friends while a freshman at Michigan State University. It ended when he was arrested by an undercover agent. He served probation, the charges were dropped and there was no conviction.

"We were college teenagers," he said.

Subsequent ventures were more mundane, and far more successful. He later earned a real estate agent's license and, while at Wayne State University Law School, worked part time at a Century 21 office. At some point, he realized that the serious money was in selling mortgages, not homes. So he and two partners, including his younger brother, Gary, went into the mortgage-origination business together. Mr. Gilbert and his partners took out ads in those once-ubiquitous free magazines that listed houses for sale, something that none of his competitors did.

"From the very beginning we could make the phones ring," Mr. Gilbert said, "even if we didn't know what to do once they rang."

The company, called Rock Financial because it sounded sturdy, would eventually become Internet-based, selling mortgages in all 50 states. It was acquired by Intuit for $532 million in 1999, says Mr. Gilbert, and renamed Quicken Loans. Three years later, after the dot-com bubble burst, the company was sold to a group of investors led by Mr. Gilbert for a sum he put at roughly $55 million.

This year, Quicken Loans will do $100 billion worth of mortgage business, says Mr. Gilbert, making it the third-largest home lender in the country, behind Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, according to Mortgage Daily.

Quicken Loans now employs nearly 2,500 mortgage bankers. One morning last month, 300 of them were working on the third floor of the Chase Tower, and a swing through the office was like a visit to a frat party at a telemarketing firm. There were many men and some women with headsets, talking to customers and staring at computer screens -- nothing novel there. But a karaoke machine sat in an aisle. Guys threw footballs to one another; one employee shot at colleagues with a Nerf gun. Basketball pennants were draped from the ceiling, as part of a March Madness theme.

"You should have been here last week," said one broker, Nerf gun in hand. "The theme was spring break. I was wearing shorts, a hat, sunglasses."

Mr. Gilbert espouses a philosophy of instilling fun in the workplace, one piece of an elaborate corporate culture that he has fine-tuned over the years, and describes, every few months, in a surprisingly entertaining, seven-hour monologue to new employees. One of more than a dozen core principles described in "Isms in Action," as the lecture is titled, is summed up as "Obsessed with finding a better way."


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