Today, Duke Suwyn is president and CEO of Grubb & Ellis/Paramount Properties, one of the region's largest commercial real estate firms.
So how does a Wisconsin farm boy come to head a top-rated commercial real estate brokerage house? Why, by selling farm equipment in Caledonia for the family business, of course.
"The farming industry was great. But we got into the equipment industry at the wrong time and lost a lot of money. I always say that was my college education. I spent 10 years in the agricultural industry selling farm equipment. I lost more money than it cost to go to college and it took me 10 years," he said.
"So, I learned a lot slower, but it was a very good education."
When the time came for Suwyn to sell the building that housed the equipment business, he turned to his friend David Smies, owner of Grand Real Estate. Smies helped him market it, and then offered him a broker's job at Grand. Six years later, Paramount co-founder and owner Bill Bowling hired Suwyn to lead his firm.
"I know how to sell and I know how to work hard," he said of his switch from farm equipment to real estate. "Those two pieces together really made up a huge break for me."
But Suwyn hasn't completely left the farm for the bright lights of industrial real estate, his specialty area, as he remains a partner with a brother in a farm near Caledonia.
As far as his real estate career is concerned, Suwyn said the best thing about it is working with all the professionals he has met in the local business community.
"Being involved in decisions that are important to their company, helping them make the best decision as it relates to real estate, and being in a different deal every day. Every day is different," said Suwyn. "I absolutely enjoy the business community and it's a great industry to be in.
"My niche of industrial is enjoyable because I get in the doors of a lot of manufacturing and distribution companies. I'm just like a kid in a candy store."
If he could, though, Suwyn would change at least one thing about his profession.
"I would like to see the professionalism improve in what I call the Realtor ranks. I think we've made great strides, and I want to continue to see it improve so that we become even more and more of an asset to the companies that are using our services," he said.
But he wouldn't adjust much at Paramount. In fact, Suwyn wants to preserve what he feels is the firm's best quality.
"I think we absolutely have a great culture here that is hard to describe. It's a great culture of putting the client first, and I think we do that through specialization and teaming better than anybody else," he said. "As this company grows, I don't want it to lose the culture that we have today. Now, that is the biggest thing I don't want to change."
When Suwyn isn't selling or directing sales, you'll find him with his family at their home in Ada. He and his wife, Sue, have three daughters and a son and they range in age from 2 to 11. All the Suwyns like what West Michigan lakes have to offer, and they also snow ski together.
"In the winter, we like to take the kids skiing. This year I've had all four kids on skis. Even my two-year-old (Alexis) was on skis this winter," he said.
"My wife's family has a place on the lake here in town so we do a lot of water activities in the summer, and biking. It's pretty much all geared around the family. That's been my love. I'm blessed with a great family."
His second family at Paramount presented their 2002 Real Estate Forecast last week. Even though it's the fourth consecutive year the firm has issued the forecast, this edition marked the first time they presented it live. Suwyn said they did that in order to give those interested in the market a chance to talk with staff members and to get any questions answered.
By the way, that public presentation helped to jumpstart some of the changes Suwyn said others would see coming from a growing Paramount this year.
"Our company has grown beyond what we ever envisioned, expected or imagined — however you want to describe it — and we continue to grow. We're going to push hard this year on continuing our specialization and I think we're going to continue to grow the menu of services we offer to better serve our clients," he said.
"We added a Kalamazoo office real quietly at the end of last year, and we are going to grow and expand that office. We have an affiliation with Focus Properties, Grubb & Ellis Focus, in Holland and we are going to continue to grow and expand that relationship," he added. "Again, we're going to offer more services to our clients in a greater and expanding area."