Hunderman navigates tough commercial market

June 14, 2010
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How does a guy who attended Calvin College and earned a degree in religion and theology end up in commercial real estate? Derek Hunderman, the managing partner of Colliers International, has an answer to that question.

"You know, the joke is when all else fails you, too, can become a Realtor," he said with a laugh. "Literally, it's something that I didn't seek out and kind of fell into."

While he attended Calvin, Hunderman thought his career path would take him into the field of youth ministry, but that didn't turn out to be his calling. "After doing it some I realized it was just not my gift," he said.

Roughly a dozen years later, Hunderman holds down a key position at one of the area's most notable and powerful commercial real estate firms. Remarkably, he became managing partner 17 months ago when he was only 34 years old.

When asked to name the biggest break he had in his successful career, Hunderman said he couldn't pin it down to a single event. Instead, he said there has been a theme running through his professional life that has helped him get to where he is today. "There have been times in my career when somebody saw potential in me and gave me an opportunity to exercise that," he said.

"Whether that was Rod Bulhous at GR Spring and Stamping years ago who put me into a leadership role at a very young age when he saw some potential. Or it was Duke Suwyn here who, more recently, put me into a brokerage role initially and then into a leadership role," he said.

After graduating from Calvin, Hunderman went to work at GR Spring & Stamping as a 24-year-old Hilo driver. But it wasn't long before Bolhous saw Hunderman's potential and quickly made him a supervisor in an assembly department. Then Bolhous promoted him again, this time to a quality manager.

"It was (a good place to work) and I learned a ton. Some of the skills I apply even today I learned as a quality manager back at GR Spring and Stamping, on the need for some processes and controls and check points. It's been great," he said.

Name: Derek Hunderman
Company: Colliers International (formerly Grubb & Ellis/Paramount Commerce)
Title: Managing partner
Age: 35
Birthplace: Holland
Residence: Ada Township
Family: Andrea, wife, and three children
Business/community organizations: Worldwide Christian Schools, Redeemer OPC, West Michigan Commercial Alliance of Realtors, Michigan Association of Realtors, National Association of Realtors, and Certified Commercial Investment Member.
Biggest career break: Being mentored first by Rod Bolhous and then by Duke Suwyn.

Suwyn, CEO of Colliers International, brought Hunderman into the firm seven years ago as an industrial advisor. Four years later, he promoted Hunderman to vice president of the industrial group. Then in early 2009, he and the other partners named him the firm's managing partner.

"I attend church with Duke Suwyn. I knew him for about two years before I started my employment here. He was the one who introduced me to the idea of commercial real estate. I didn't even really understand what it was prior to meeting Duke and never saw it as a career path prior to that," said Hunderman.

"It's still relationships. I look back on my career and certain relationships have put me in a venue to succeed and I've been very blessed by that," he added.

Suwyn noted that soon after Hunderman took over as managing partner, one of the company's most important positions, the bottom began to fall out of the commercial real estate business following the collapses in the residential real estate industry and then in the financial market.

"These are the types of events that will 'test the mettle' of every individual, in particular those in a leadership role. I was extremely impressed with the way Derek confidently and calmly addressed the situation, listened to the advice of his executive team and worked to mutually identify a plan to not only survive, but to thrive in the downturn. Then he implemented the plan and carried it through. There were many tough decisions and I can tell you that there were many tears shed as we had to make some very tough decisions," said Suwyn.

But despite the difficult scenario that Hunderman found himself in at the very start of his brand new position, Suwyn felt that he has benefitted from the tough mettle testing he went through and will continue to benefit from that experience throughout his career. Suwyn knew the type of person that Hunderman was before Derek went to work at Colliers International from the relationship they forged at their church.

"I have known Derek and his family for quite a few years. I am impressed with his demeanor, the way he handles people, the way he approaches situations and the professionalism he takes to his position. This is a unique management position where you work with 30-plus independent contractors as brokers, but also manage a staff of the brokerage firm as well as the entire property management organization. It takes a unique skill set to work with those different types of groups," said Suwyn.

"Derek has done a great job of understanding both and identifying the resources they need and working to provide them with those resources in a timely manner."

Prior to joining Colliers International as an industrial broker, Hunderman spent five years working in manufacturing at GR Spring & Stamping, Gill Industries and Lopez Industries. Having that background made it easier for him to transfer his talents from manufacturing to industrial brokerage work.

"The synergy that I got between the former manufacturing environment that I worked in directly and the industrial real estate was that I understood the needs of the industrial user and I spoke their language. So I think that made me effective in that role," he said.

"Now what I'm seeing is when I was in the manufacturing role, I was often in a leadership or supervisory capacity, and now in my new role here I'm exercising some more skills."

Hunderman spent roughly six years making sales calls for the firm back when it was known as Grubb & Ellis/Paramount Commerce and he was involved in some of the area's biggest industrial deals during that time. Hunderman, Suwyn and John Kuiper, a vice president at the firm, closed more than their share of noteworthy transactions when the trio worked as a team and those deals stand out as his favorites.

"We reconfigured the former Bosch facility and sold half of it off to X-Rite. Those are once-in-a-career type of opportunities and they're fun. They're just fun to be a part of. You learn so much in the process and (Franklin Partners LLC principle) Don Shoemaker, he's just one of those guys who is fun to work with and we had a lot of fun," he said of one of the multiple deals the firm did with Shoemaker.

Hunderman still goes on some sales calls when he feels he can help a broker. "It may sound a little cheesy but I honestly like seeing others succeed and to have the opportunity to set them up for success invigorates me," he said about what he likes best of being the firm's managing partner. "So whether that's our clients finding success, whether that's our agents finding success or our employees, that's what gets me going."

Something else that gets him going is his family. Derek has been married to Andrea for nearly 13 years. They live in Ada Township with their three children; 8-year-old Emma, 6-year-old Reece and Jack, who is 4 years old. All three attend Ada Christian School and keep their parents very busy, especially Andrea. "She works every day and I introduced her recently to somebody as the CEO of our house," he said. "She runs the show."

Andrea is from the state of Washington and her family owns a vineyard and a winery there. "It's a fun family to be a part of from a sideline perspective. I'm not engaged in the business, but it's fun to be a part of," he said.

They met at Calvin where Andrea earned her degree in education. After graduating, she taught science to middle schoolers in the Kentwood system for five years until Emma was born. Derek said they were engaged for 13 long months before they got married.

In his spare time, Hunderman said he tries to be an outdoorsman. He likes to hunt and fish and is now having more fun doing that as Reece and Jack are tagging along with him. The boys are playing ball this summer, while Emma takes piano lessons.

Hunderman is involved with the national, state and local commercial real estate associations. He also sits on the boards for Worldwide Christian Schools and Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he and Suwyn worship.

Hunderman felt the recent change in affiliation from Grubb & Ellis to Colliers International has put the firm in a better position to be more effective from an operational standpoint. He said the switch will give the company access to data that it wasn't able to have before and that data will let brokers advise their clients in a manner they couldn't do before. "It's technology driven and it's going to improve how our clients relate, interact and find success with us," he said.

As far as the commercial real estate market is concerned, Hunderman said activity hasn't returned to the pre-2007 level yet and still has a ways to go before it can get back there. But he thinks the worst may be over, at least here, if the market's most recent signs don't suddenly vanish.

"I wouldn't say we're over the hump, but I would say we have hit bottom. I don't think it's going to get any worse and we're seeing some great signs of recovery. So we're bouncing along the bottom is kind of how I feel right now. We're not skyrocketing away from it. We're not plummeting further down. And we're seeing some fantastic activity. The catch is, can it maintain? Will it hold? But so far so good, and we're pretty optimistic," he said.

Hunderman isn't only optimistic about the market, as he feels the same about his immediate future and that of the new Colliers International.

"I think the future is pretty exciting. I see an economic recovery coming and I think the transition to Colliers is incredibly exciting. We're in the infancy stage with that and once we start to get some traction with that change I think there is going to be a lot of excitement internally and externally around that," he said.

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