Callander Comes Full Circle

March 1, 2007
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Thanks to time, hard work and fate, Ellie Callander last year bought the commercial real estate company owned by the man who provided her first break in the business two decades ago.

“All his brokers now work for me,” said Callander, owner of one of West Michigan’s biggest commercial firms, Prudential Callander Commercial, which has 50 brokers and employees.

Callander, whose main market runs from Battle Creek to west of Kalamazoo and north of Grand Rapids, opened a Grand Rapids office in January. That’s also when she took over the reins as chair of the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

Michigan’s economic sea change as domestic auto manufacturers contract is all part of the cycle in commercial real estate, Callander said.

“It is just a cyclic thing where sometimes there’s too much supply and not enough demand, and rates go down because there’s so much to choose from,” she said. “Then things tighten up again, (rental) rates start to escalate, purchasing rates, listings, the cost of acquiring property.

“Right now, I would say we are in an improved cycle where the demand is picking up and the supply is getting a little tighter, and that will start the cycle again.”

With the West Michigan economy stuck in neutral, Callander said companies are more interested in leasing and banks are reluctant to finance commercial space built on speculation. Everyone is worried about bringing in enough money to pay the rent or make loan payments, she added.

“If a developer has a tenant in hand or at least 50 percent of the facility pre-leased, typically, if they’re credit-worthy, they’re going to be able to get their financing. But lenders are less likely to loan money on speculation, and investors are less likely to take that risk,” Callander said.

“Michigan’s economic climate, the fact that we’re having difficulty in Lansing with the budget, the fact that the automotive industry is down — all of these do affect us.”

The loss of automotive suppliers means some very large spaces — up to 500,000 square feet — are vacant and probably won’t attract a similar tenant, she said.

“Industrial has probably been the hardest hit sector, and secondarily, office. It is improving, especially the office market. And retail seems to be doing quite well,” she said.

Callander and her husband, attorney Doug Callander, who is a partner in Kreis, Enderle, Callander and Hudgins, have two children: Matt, 29, runs the property management division of his mother’s firm; Leigh, 26, is a lawyer in Chicago.

A Detroit area native and University of Michigan graduate, Callander taught in dental hygiene programs at the University of Detroit and Kalamazoo Valley Community College for about eight years. In 1986, when she and her husband did “some very minimal investing” in commercial real estate, “I was intrigued by it, so I decided that I was going to educate myself and I decided to approach the broker with whom I was working to say I’m interested in a job. And that’s how my career started. I was the first woman he had ever hired.”

Callander said she had no expectations of running her own firm when she started out.

“It’s like anything; you just take one step at a time and you keep going,” she said.

“Maybe I was tenacious because I had a lot of people questioning my intention, my reasoning, my ability, and I just kept going. Whatever the motivation was, I’m glad I had it. And it’s been fun along the way. It’s been a great journey.”

Since Callander opened a firm in 1993, there have been several permutations of partners and affiliations. In 2001, Callander sold her firm to Signature Associates of Detroit. In 2006, she took the company back, then purchased the commercial side of the local Prudential affiliate from Grand Rapids-based businessman Steve Fase, who continues to own and operate Prudential’s residential side.

The new arrangement allows Callander to run her company while taking advantage of Prudential’s reach across the nation and globe, she said.

“My move to Prudential consolidated our firm and our second-closest competitor in the marketplace, brought us all under one umbrella, so that really helped us to capture the market,” she said.

While more women have joined the commercial real estate ranks since Callander first showed a building during the Reagan Administration, the Commercial Real Estate Women Network reports that women are less likely to hold top positions and generally make less than their male counterpoints. A 2005 CREW study found that the percentage of women in commercial real estate grew from 32 percent to 36 percent over five years. But of those with 20 years or more in the industry, 44 percent of men hold the title of president, CEO or CFO. Only 23 percent of women held those titles.

CREW, which has about 6,000 members — 63 percent of them in top jobs — reported that their median income is more than $100,000 per year.

Callander said that good business is gender-blind.

“The world has changed how they view women in business, and my level of confidence over the years has grown, so you really get to a point where it really makes no difference,” she said.

“Women inherently, I think, are great at multi-tasking. They’re definitely more detailed. They tend to be very committed, very devoted to their job, to their client, and that comes through. And once they learn the skills, I think there’s no stopping them.

“It isn’t to say that the men aren’t as capable; it’s just that I think women try harder because they know they have to.”

Callander has served on state and local boards and has taught commercial real estate across the country. This year, Callander said she expects to spend a lot of time in her new role as chair of the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce. She’s especially excited to make connections with other West Michigan chambers.

“I’m very excited about this,” Callander said. “It helps us link on a regional basis, gives us the opportunity to work with other chambers. It’s an important way to give back to my community.” CQX

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