The man behind the Michigan Central Station deal is saying goodbye.
Dave Dubensky, 58, played a key role in the secret acquisition of the train depot and its evolution from an abandoned site that signified Detroit’s downfall to a grand restoration that has come to represent rebirth.
“Bill Ford had the vision for creating a hub of innovation at the train station, and we executed,” Dubensky told the Free Press on Thursday. “Every time I walk into the train station, it literally takes my breath away. It feels like I’m taken back in time — 60, 70, 80 years. You can feel the history.
“I am honored to be a part of such a pivotal and meaningful project for the community and our region. Michigan Central will help lay the foundation for the future of mobility and the next evolution of the automotive industry.”
His five years at the helm of Ford Land have been dramatic, and it ends this month.
“We focused on modernizing everywhere and elevating experiences for any employee that walks through any door of any Ford building around the world,” Dubensky said.
He is known for having pushed for change at what was once a very low-profile subsidiary of the automaker, implementing a plan to transform company property in Michigan, throughout the U.S. and around the world. Ford Land manages a total of 240 million square feet of real estate — comparable to 4,200 football fields — which includes 1.2 million square feet of commercial space.
While Ford Land has always been influential, its role over the last several years has been transformational in creating environments intended to retain and attract the talent required to compete in a cutthroat business.
His big projects have included not just historical buildings in Corktown but also transforming Ford’s Research & Engineering Center in Dearborn as well as facilities in Europe, South America and Mexico.
Ford has taken great pride in turning Dearborn into what it calls a walkable and interconnected campus.
“Ford Land provides all real estate functions for Ford, including acquisition of properties and development of properties to managing and running properties and divesting and remediating anything. We’re responsible for the whole life cycle,” Dubensky said.
He oversees a multibillion-dollar budget, part of Ford operations overall.
In recent times, attitudes about the strategic use of real estate — which includes all manufacturing facilities, office space and land — have changed.
“Over the last five years, we’ve been focusing on integrating and consolidating our operations around the world,” he said. “We’re moving from smaller facilities to larger facilities, bringing people together, to optimize the way people work.”
New work model
The pandemic has had a big impact on Ford Land.
“It’s really accelerated everything we’ve been thinking about,” Dubensky said. “We’ve always thought people can work more effectively from home, that we can offer people more flexibility. There’s no stigma associated with that anymore.”
Ford already was on a path to consolidate facilities in southeast Michigan, as well as globally, before COVID-19 shut everything down, he said. And recent events have fast-tracked the plans.
“Our new hybrid work model that starts in March will provide employees with much more flexibility,” Dubensky said. “But, quite frankly, I’m not sure as we talk today, I understand completely what impact that will have on our ability to accelerate our consolidation plans. We’ll have to wait until March to get some experience and see how people use workspace in the future.”
He added, “It’s ultimately up to the people leaders and the employees to figure out what the work patterns look like.”
Land sold already
Ford Land began the year putting four properties on the selling block and 35 sites under review in the Dearborn area.
Then, in May, the Free Press confirmed the sale of Rotunda Fields, its 26.62-acre site at Rotunda Drive and Schaefer Road, a longtime popular site for community ballgames. That sale was followed by a deal in Canada that once included 240,000 square feet of building space on 635 acres, a site reportedly being eyed by e-commerce behemoth Amazon as a possible sorting and distribution center. The Ford facilities had been demolished prior to sale.
What, exactly, is left to be sold?
“We don’t actually know,” Dubensky said. “We have a planning phase on what the workplace looks like in the future,” he said. “We’re not going to actually know which facilities are going to be used and how many we’ll need. I do think the pandemic accelerates our plans to integrate and consolidate.”
For now, Ford has accommodated off-site and on-site work place choices of its employees while it continues to evaluate need. And everything has been reconfigured for more shared spaces.
Ford has developed a better understanding of how the workplace can be used to attract and retain employees, said Dubensky, who joined the company after earning his Master of Business degree at Michigan State University.
“We couldn’t continue with the facilities we had,” Dubensky said. “We were – redoing Dearborn. That evolved into Corktown. Quite frankly, modernization of all our campuses around the world. We’ve really changed as a company. And it’s been really cool.”
Next year, a major project in El Cristo, Mexico, opens up with the consolidation of facilities outside of Mexico City. Some 4,500 nonmanufacturing employees work there.
And of course, Ford Land will lead construction of the new high-tech campuses in Tennessee and Kentucky touted as home to next-generation electric vehicles and batteries required to power them — at Blue Oval City in west Tennessee and Blue Oval Park in central Kentucky.
“The job market is different out there today. The better the facilities, the more flexibility we offer,” Dubensky said. “Corktown is not done. Dearborn is not done. We’ve got Tennessee and Kentucky. I could wait another five years and leave. But I felt like it was the right time. I’m leaving all the projects in a really good place.”
On Jan. 1, Jim Dobleske will assume global responsibility for Ford Land’s real estate, engineering and construction, energy and sustainability, global design, facility management services, workplace experience, and corporate services. He will report to Kiersten Robinson, chief people and employee experience officer.
He comes from CBRE, which stands for Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis, the largest commercial real estate company in the world, where he worked as global president of project management.
“This is a case of going from strength to strength in the leadership of Ford Land,” Robinson said in a news release. “Dave and his team have been vital to Ford’s success around the globe, and Jim’s experience will help deliver and sustain best-in-class real estate, workplace experiences and facilities.”
Dobleske, 51, who also spent 17 years at JLL real estate, is actually returning to Ford. He worked in project management for 11 years through 2002.
“I am excited to be rejoining the Ford team and leveraging my experience to contribute to bringing the Ford+ plan fully to life,” Dobleske said in a November news release. He has been unavailable to talk with the Free Press since his hiring a month ago.
Dobleske began at Ford on Nov. 15, working closely with Dubensky.
Dubensky doesn’t expect these final days to be his last devoted to the city he loves.
While his 30-year career with Ford included international assignments in Mexico, Japan and India, spanning finance, strategy, analytics, automotive credit operations and audit roles — Dubensky is a native son.
He grew up the son of a Ford human resources employee.
“I hadn’t seen the world. I was a local boy,” Dubensky said. “I think of who I was when I started. And I learned the Japanese management system. When you arrive in a new country, a new culture, you sit back and just listen and learn. You wait and see where you might be able to add value. You can’t impose your views on teams there, you wait until there’s mutual respect and the team invites you in. For three months, I listened. I didn’t offer opinions or thoughts. And then, one day, a respected executive called me into his office and asked for my perspective, asked me to lead.”
As he reflects on his past, Dubensky says he is intrigued by what the future may hold. He has no plans to leave his home in Birmingham.
“I’m going to take some time off and think about this next chapter of my life,” he said Thursday. “I grew up in this area and I want to continue doing meaningful work for the city of Detroit in the future. You’ll see me again.”