Getting Ahead Of The Curve

November 5, 2008
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Despite the economic times, or maybe because of the current fiscal climate, one company feels the commercial real estate industry is evolving — again.

Decades ago, the industry consisted largely of brokerage services that found locations for new or expanding businesses. Later, brokers became developers, property owners and even job creators. Now, three of these brokers, developers and owners have taken the next step by adding the title of real estate investment specialist to their résumés.

“The decision to become part of this new enterprise stemmed from my personal experience in real estate over the years and from the belief that there is an unfilled need in the marketplace for a business that offers the services we do,” said Dan DeVos, who owns and manages two prominent downtown office buildings.

CWD Real Estate Investment
Sam Cummings, Scott Wierda and Dan DeVos, principals
What: A new firm that focuses on having commercial real estate investments as a regular part of a client’s portfolio.
When: Company opened last June.
Where: Office at 15 Ionia Ave. SW.
Why: CWD is the first local firm to offer real estate as an everyday investment.

DeVos made that comment in June when he joined Sam Cummings and Scott Wierda to form CWD Real Estate Investment. The trio claims to have nearly 70 years of cumulative knowledge and involvement in the local industry, not to mention the front-row seats they’ve occupied during those years, observing how the field has marched forward.

Now, they’ve moved from the audience onto the stage, as they have been the first locally to publicly stake out what they see as a new and unexplored territory.

“Our position as longtime owners, investors and developers uniquely equips us to offer our services as fiduciaries for our clients. Based on our expertise and ability to ‘think like owners,’ we can provide invaluable insight into long-term planning for real estate as an integral part of a balanced investment portfolio,” said Cummings, a co-managing partner with Wierda of CWD and an award-winning urban developer.

Investing in real estate has always been a central facet of the commercial industry, but mostly at the big-picture level through Real Estate Investment Trusts, which pool resources from a large number of individuals to finance big projects such as new shopping malls and towering office buildings, and mostly in major metropolitan areas.

The idea, though, behind CWD is to personalize that venture by guiding high-net worth individuals and some corporate clients into real estate investments in a manner that is similar to how personal money managers buy securities for their wealthy clients.

And with the way commodities and stock prices have recently risen and fallen on the market, CWD is betting that commercial real estate will be a more stable buy that can offer their clients a lasting and rewarding return.

Wierda got his start in the industry as a commercial broker who admittedly always wanted to be a developer. He became one when he and Brian DeVries started Jade Pig Ventures, a union that took place when the area’s then-established developers were winding down their careers, clearing the path for new guys like him and DeVries.

Now with CWD, his career has progressed again — but this time before the industry has.

“We both were questioning why we had represented ourselves on property so often versus using the straight brokerage community work, and we felt like there was an opportunity to bring a different level of service than what the current brokers do,” said Wierda of the talks he had with Cummings before the new company was created.

“They do an excellent job on a number of things. But the perspective Sam and I thought was lacking was really thinking like an investor and thinking like a developer in providing that service. I think that was probably the biggest differentiating thing that we bring,” he added.

Wierda said neither he nor Cummings have represented a third party in a deal for a very long time. For Wierda, that timeframe is about a dozen years and goes back before his Jade Pig days, back to the days when he was a vice president for the S.J. Wisinski Co., now the Wisinski Group.

The times and the economy, though, have significantly changed the industry since then and, as most know, change is the mother of invention.

“From the market-timing standpoint, we felt that there was a need in the marketplace to represent a very select group. It really is the kind of private-client group mentality that we’re bringing to CWD and representing very particular investors that feel the need to have their portfolio balanced,” said Wierda.

The clientele CWD is reaching out to has much of their assets invested in equities, while some have a few public shares in a REIT as their sole exposure to real estate. Wierda said if the firm is going to successfully reach those prospective clients, trust will play the biggest role in allowing them to do that. That’s because the relationship CWD hopes to have with its investors will be more of a personal nature than what their select clientele have now.

“With what we’re trying to do, trust is probably the No. 1 thing,” he said. “Stocks can be very impersonal. Getting an exposure into real estate and trusting the individuals that you are with, based on experience, while looking for opportunities, is something that I think we can bring to others.”

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