Entrepreneurial D: We sit down with Greektown and Russell Industrial developer Dennis Kefallinos

Dennis Kefallinos embodies the American Dream. He's not the Hollywood version but the Made in Detroit variety. That becomes obvious immediately upon meeting one of the Motor City's preeminent immigrant entrepreneurs.

The 50-something-year-old man doesn't look the part as much as exude it. He is a slightly stocky, middle-aged man with a thick Greek accent, a patched together English vocabulary, an excitable demeanor with the big hand motions to match and a blue Oxford shirt that is opened about two buttons too many. He looks and acts every bit of his story: that of a 15-year-old Greek immigrant who came to Detroit in the 1960s to find his fortune because his sister lived here. He turned a Cass Corridor hotel room and a job washing dishes into an entrepreneurial empire. He parlayed his first restaurant -- Nikki's Pizza in Greektown -- in the 1980s into a vast array of businesses and real-estate holdings, including Coaches Corner sports bar and the historic building that houses it, the Bouzouki strip club, the Shops in the Kresge Building and a mesh of other buildings big and tall across the city.

"Detroit is a great place to open up a business," Kefallinos says. "It's a good place to start. You need to be able to work 16 hours at a time without a day off. You'll make it happen."

Nowhere in the city is that more evident than in the crown jewel of his business kingdom -- the Russell Industrial Center. The sprawling, Albert Kahn-designed industrial complex overlooking I-75 just north of the I-94 intersection got its start building chassis for the Fisher Body Company in the 1915 and helped manufacture B-29 bombers during World War II. It was on its last legs when Kefallinos bought it in 2003 and decided to primarily market small studio spaces in it toward artists and small businesses. Today, hundreds of small businesses that support even more jobs call it home and more are seemingly added everyday.

"We're going to have 30, 40, 50 appointments this week for people who want to rent in our buildings," Kefallinos says. "Now if 10 people were doing what I am doing, we would have 200 appointments."

The Russell Industrial Center, 1600 Clay Ave, is holding an open house between 6-10 p.m. Saturday (Oct. 2). Kefallinos recently sat down for an interview with Model D's Jon Zemke in his Russell office, where the whirl of energy doesn't necessarily revolve around him as much as he lets it run wherever it wants to go. He spoke about the Russell, Greektown, doing business in the city and why he's so optimistic about it.

Q. Shifting the focus of a building like the Russell Industrial Center from industrial tenants to artists and small businesses is not the normal business decision in Detroit. How did you know this was something with a future?

A. To have someone come in and set up a studio or a shop for the first time and make something happen with it excites me. It excites me when people start making money in my building.

Q. Russell Industrial Center had 10 small businesses and artists as tenants when you bought it. Today it has close to 300. However, you're still waiting for the tenant who wants 100,000 square feet by the railroad tracks. What direction do you see the Russell going?

A. Growing the small tenants is the key to success. When I bought this building in 2003, I did not know it would be shut down that first month, the first week, the first day. But I was so excited to control this huge complex with all of its history that it did not scare me. It will never scare me to where I think, 'What did I get myself into?'

Q. What made it so attractive to you?

A. I have always been fascinated with these buildings and the people who built them. When this complex was built in the early 1900s, it was probably one of the biggest in the world. I bought it without really thinking about what I was going to do with it. I had no plan. But I brought my people over here, cleaned the place up and started looking for tenants.

Q. Unintentionally, you have built one of Michigan's biggest and most successful small business incubators without any outside help. Do you think government-backed incubators can be as successful as the Russell?

A. They could be successful, and they are, if they get funding or grants or help. It's a lot easier to be successful from that point on. What we have here is unique. It reminds me of the beginning of Detroit when people like me and you went to the garage and started making something. People with ideas, I give them the opportunity to come here and set up shop. Some of them have done well here and made a lot of money. Some of them have survived. Some of them, you know. You never know who my next tenant will be. Maybe a multimillionaire within five years? That's what I am looking for. To me it's exciting.

Q. In that way it's a lot like your own story?

A. Exactly. The opportunity is still there for another guy to start out today.

Q. Large numbers of immigrants go on to become entrepreneurs and some people are saying that immigrant entrepreneurs will be a key factor in reviving Detroit.

A. A lot of immigrants come here with a dream to work. They are not afraid to role up their sleeves and work. They alone won't turn it around, but they will make a big dent.

Q. You were one of the first people to build lofts in downtown. What inspired you to do it?

A. When I bought my first building in the 1980s, I didn't know what to do with it. It's not like people were knocking down my door to do something with it. I went to Chicago and I saw its downtown become popular with lofts. I went through some of its loft projects and I figured I could do something like this. At the time I bought a warehouse on West Lafayette, it's now Lafayette Lofts, and the first thing a city electrical inspector told me was, 'What are you going to do with this? What kind of plan do you have because this isn't going to work here.' Here is a city official, a supervisor, telling me my idea isn't going to work. I will never forget that. I kept working on it and building. Finally, I opened the doors, before it was completed, and I couldn't build them fast enough. It was big hit. So many people wanted to move into our building. People were moving in and the varnish on the floors wasn't even dry yet. People love lofts. It's not even so much that they love lofts, but there is a big trend of people who want to live in downtown Detroit.

Q. You own a lot of businesses, ranging from the Russell to restaurants to a strip club. Which of your businesses has the most entrepreneurial employees? Why?

A. Russell. Because the people who come here have a dream. They come from their garage and basement to be here. It's exciting to see someone with a dream come to me. Some of these people make that dream come true. If they have the right dream and are willing to put in the time, work and effort, they'll make it happen. No question.

Jon Zemke is a reporter with Model D and covers entrepreneurial activity across Metro Detroit. His last story was The Young & Entrepreneurial: Austin Black of City Living Detroit

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


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Dennis Kefallinos

Kefallinos visiting his tenants at the Russell Industrial Center

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Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.