Inside Track: Contemplation leads to career change
Following 9/11, Jeff Karger opts to spend less time traveling and begins not-so-obvious path toward real estate job.
Jeff Karger had several days of contemplation in San Francisco following 9/11, and it changed the course of his career.
At the time, Karger was a technical sales manager for PTC, a software company used by many large corporations to design their products. Karger’s position sent him across the country to meet with companies, but 9/11 gave him time to walk around San Francisco, pondering his future.
“It was a horrific event and changed many people’s lives, or at least their perspectives, and I didn’t want to make a career on a plane anymore,” Karger said. “It wasn’t just 9/11, because I wanted to come back to GR to be part of a community.”
As he returned to Grand Rapids, he had his mind set on changing careers. His then-girlfriend and now wife, Kori, was living on Sam Cummings’ property. Cummings agreed to sit down with Karger and talk about the real estate industry.
Real estate was not an obvious choice for the young professional. Prior to college and following the realization the National Basketball Association was not calling for his talents, Karger said he envisioned himself as a nondescript business executive.
“I never had a specific career path, other than go get a good education and take off,” he said.
He received his mechanical engineering degree from Western Michigan University in 1997 and wound up in software but not behind a desk. He also reflects on his father’s career as a purchaser with Louis Padnos Iron & Metal in Benton Harbor and said the “tough negotiator” mentality he held wasn’t for him.
The discussion with Cummings set forth a new trajectory for Karger. With no room in his firm, Second Story Properties, Cummings sent Karger to Stan Wisinski.
Karger began his real estate career in April 2002 with S.J. Wisinski & Co. and has spent the past 14 years specializing in the office sector, securing “hundreds and hundreds of deals” worth millions of dollars. He’s now the senior vice president of brokerage at JLL’s recently launched Grand Rapids office.
He spent more than six years with the Wisinski-led firm, eventually becoming vice president and director of office services. He said the first several years, especially the initial year, are the largest barrier of entry for a real estate professional — not the weeklong course to become a licensed professional.
It was important for him to start at a large firm, as he could learn from senior brokers, “picking up their scraps,” and getting face time with their networks. The experience was invaluable, and an experience he suggests for aspiring young professionals looking at real estate as a prospective career.
“It was good for me to go to a larger firm,” Karger said. “Someone like Stan, he spent a lot of time and effort on marketing and advertising. So, just being at a larger firm, you get institutional knowledge, but there were leads that come in that you work with other people on.”
His focus on the office side of real estate came from his first major deal with Northpointe Bank on East Beltline Avenue. He said it’s important to have a focus on a sector, as being a generalist in real estate is becoming more difficult. A specialization also is why early-career real estate is difficult, as he said real estate is far more than an 8-to-5 job, requiring a lot of studying to ensure a working knowledge of the industry when talking to clients.
Karger’s early-career discussion with Cummings came full circle, when Cummings, Dan DeVos and Scott Wierda launched CWD Real Estate Investments in 2008. A few months later, Cummings and Wierda hired him to supervise the office portfolio.
“Little did I know that they would buy so many of the projects in downtown,” he said. “It kept me busy for a long period of time.”
Working as the office advisor for CWD showed Karger the important aspect of the landlord side of business.
“I learned so much from CWD, it’s a great group of entrepreneurs,” Karger said. “When you think about brokerage from the landlord side, understanding the risk and the capital outlay really helped keep my career moving forward.”
Cummings said his friendship with Karger remains strong and his position at JLL is perfectly suited for him.
“He knows the market like nobody else,” Cummings said. “We’ve had a number of discussions with him since he started at JLL and we’re really excited for him. He has tremendous capacity in that organization, and it’s a good platform for him to grow.
“I enjoyed working with him when he was an office away, and I’ll enjoy working with him a block-and-a-half away.”
As he supervised office operations at two companies, first at a brokerage then a landlord, Karger said he’s seen a lot change in the downtown Grand Rapids office market. Much of the change has been with office clients wanting now to be downtown, as with changing worker demographics, it’s becoming easier to recruit and retain talent with a downtown presence.
He credits the change largely to the philanthropic efforts in Grand Rapids to better the downtown area and not just with monetary property upgrades but also the infrastructure and institutional attractions in the area. Karger said it’s important to note not all philanthropic endeavors have to have an immediate payoff, and the progress Grand Rapids has made occurred during the past 30 years.
Despite the growth in popularity of downtown office space, Karger noted there’s still a lot of space available downtown. Companies are using space more efficiently, and therefore, less of it. Karger also is wary of building too much new office space downtown, as there still is plenty of space to lease. Many of Arena Place tenants were a shuffle from other downtown buildings, and the same likely is true for the potential 150 Ottawa project, if it is built, which is where law firm Warner Norcross & Judd would locate when its lease is up at the Fifth Third Center, Karger said.
“When companies move, it creates a vacuum behind them,” he said. “It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing that CWD has an opportunity to reposition many of those products to buildings more attractive to lure people in. Moving tenants doesn’t fill up space, you need positive absorption.”
Karger’s working knowledge of the Grand Rapids office real estate market led to his hiring at JLL. At CWD, Karger often worked with JLL agents coming in from out of town to make a deal with one of its large clients. JLL completed more than $138 billion in deals last year.
The opening of the Grand Rapids office helped expand the Michigan and Midwest presence, said JLL Market Leader and Managing Director JC Pelusi, at the time of the office launch.
“[JLL] saw an opportunity because they were coming in from Chicago and Detroit trying to do deals without local representation,” Karger said. “It’s hard to do business here with an Ann Arbor business card, and honestly, Grand Rapids is a tight-knit community, and I firmly believe you need to be involved here to do business here.”