John Kuiper firmly behind the wheel

May 21, 2009
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Being president of the Commercial Alliance of Realtors this year may not be such an enviable post as it was during better economic times. The recession, tight credit, and what most in the business community consider an awful Michigan Business Tax might thin the association's ranks in 2009.

But John Kuiper, this year's CAR president, said he is hopeful for a turnaround and sees 2009 as an interesting year to be at the association's helm. As a matter of fact, he felt the year's first few months have shown some appealing promise.

"We've only dropped 3 percent in our membership total since the beginning of the year, which is a very positive thing. We budgeted for a decrease in membership for above that 3 percent, so that's a great positive," said Kuiper, a vice president in the industrial group at Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce.

Kuiper said the financial markets are having a pretty substantial impact on transaction volume in commercial real estate. Sales are down across the country and even slower in Michigan and the rest of the Midwest because financing isn't as readily available or not priced as it was just a few years ago.

"Some people will probably get out of the business and we probably have some potential for consolidation. Like I said, it may be an interesting year because these things start to pop up as options, when historically they'd probably happened. I'm not saying that is going to happen for sure, but I would expect that our membership is going to drop off a little bit more when our second, and semi-annual, billing comes around in the middle of the year," he said.

"We remain optimistic, though, that we're going to hold our own. We've built a very unique association in this market, in that the members have really taken ownership of it. They are very involved," he added.

Kuiper said something like 30 percent of CAR members are involved with committees, a much higher percentage than most commercial real estate associations. But a key to keeping involvement high is to get listings distributed better throughout the region and the state, something CAR is trying to do.

"We continually look at other options. The national association is pushing pretty hard right now for the new platform they've developed, and a lot of people have started utilizing it. We have a technology committee that is evaluating that option. We want to make sure that our information is readily available to someone sitting in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and is looking for a location in Michigan," he said.

"I think we're doing a pretty good job now but we have to continue to explore options."

Kuiper is in his fourth year on the CAR board and in his 11th with GE|PC, almost all as an adviser in the industrial market. He is known as a friendly, yin-and-yang type of guy who doesn't get too high when success comes calling or too low when it knocks on someone else's door.

Since he has been with GE|PC, Kuiper has closed more than $300 million in deals that represent over 12.5 million square feet. He has won an uncanny number of national and local industry awards for an agent who just turned 34. Last year, he was CAR's Realtor of the Year and also won the 2008 Realtors Commercial Alliance award.

Kuiper's interest in real estate literally grew from the ground up. As a fifth grader, his dad got him started moving lawns, and within a year, he had about a dozen clients. By his senior year at Grand Rapids Christian High School, he owned a truck and a trailer and serviced 85 accounts.

"I grew that business by word-of-mouth and by knocking on doors," he said.

Kuiper had his first taste of the commercial field when he landed an internship at The Hinman Co. while a senior at Grand Valley State University. After graduating, he hooked up with Paramount Properties in 1999, the forerunner of today's GE|PC that Bill Bowling and Jack Buchanan started in 1996. Following a short stint in the firm's research department, Kuiper went into industrial sales — his market of choice.

He said GE|PC President and CEO Duke Suwyn, who heads the indy division, took him under his wing and has taught him the ropes.

"I really mentored under Duke. We've become good friends and good business partners and we've done a lot over the years," he said.

Kuiper chose industrial, rather than office or retail, because he has a natural interest in knowing how things are made.

"It's very satisfying for me to go into a manufacturing facility and see someone extruding aluminum, or see somebody recycling garbage, or the presses, the equipment that can make a curbside garbage container. It's absolutely amazing how many things come out of this West Michigan market, and people have no idea that all these things are made here," he said.

Some might say it's absolutely amazing how many big transactions he has been a part of, including the largest single-user land sale in Grand Rapids in the past seven years. Kuiper represented Ashley Capital when the New York firm bought the Steelcase Inc. campus on the city's southeast side a few years back. That deal was for 949,000 square feet.

But Kuiper said his favorite deal might be a 2002 portfolio sale of about 17 buildings that First Industrial, a publicly held REIT, sold to SVN Equities of California. The $50 million transaction turned out to be his on-the-job, post-graduate education.

"To me it was huge. Not because I helped to put the deal together, but because I learned a lot. Duke and I were working on behalf of the seller, First Industrial, and to be able to get inside First Industrial's head, so to speak, and see how they were analyzing the tenants, the property, the potential offers that came in, their criteria for disposition, and how it important it was to have solid leases with consistent terms and conditions," he said.

"It was equally fun to work with the buyer because that was a privately held equity group. We had two different sides and I learned an absolute ton about large transactions through that one deal."

Another one of Kuiper's bigger deals, quite possibly his biggest, came when he married Katie. They met at a youth convention in Colorado while they were high school students.

"Even though we went to the same high school, she was a year younger than me, we didn't really meet until we were in Colorado," said Kuiper, a Kalamazoo native. "She is a phenomenal person and has supported me throughout my career."

Katie and John's children include 5-year-old Benjamin, 3-year-old Annelise, and Katrina Judith, who was born April 28. When CQ spoke with Kuiper before the blessed event, he didn't know if they were going to have a boy or a girl.

"We're looking forward to the surprise. We're happy for anyone healthy," he said. "With the ages of the kids, I spend a lot of time chasing them around. We — as a family and my wife and I — love to travel. We try to take a number of trips each year."

Kuiper praised The Wisinski Group Vice President Stu Kingma and CWD Real Estate Investment Principal Sam Cummings for their work on CAR's behalf in trying to get state lawmakers to adjust the MBT and make it friendlier for small manufacturers, vital to the region's industrial market and the real estate industry itself.

"At the end of the day, it's probably more complicated than the SBT, and the only manufacturing we see that it benefits is the really, really large corporations. It really does not help us at all when you're looking at small business," said Kuiper. "It's too complicated and it increases their tax liability. It's an absolute pain and a big negative when you're looking at the state. I have talked to a number of different potential manufacturers that were looking at Michigan. But once they get in and understand all the ins and outs of the new MBT, their interest level drops dramatically or disappears. That's not a positive, but it's a reality."

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