Inside Track, Real Estate, and Small Business & Startups

Inside Track: Pearson finds the road to success isn’t straight, but it’s always scenic

When designs on architecture didn’t pan out, Tony Pearson turned to real estate. Now he is CAR’s Realtor of the Year.

March 4, 2016
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Tony Pearson
In 14 years of running True North Real Estate, Tony Pearson said one of his favorite things about his job is the variety it offers in day-to-day operations. Photo by Michael Buck

Tony Pearson accidentally sold his first house when he was 19 years old.

Between his freshman and sophomore years at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, where he was studying architecture, Pearson worked a summer job for a custom home builder in his hometown of DeWitt.

Working onsite, swinging a hammer and pushing a broom, Pearson was getting a firsthand education in how a home is built. But he never expected the perfect-fit summer job would lead him down a different path than architecture.

“Life’s never a straight road, right?” he laughs.

At the end of an afternoon while cleaning up a job site, Pearson was approached by a couple admiring the newly built structure. Having had a hand in constructing the house, Pearson knew all the ins and outs of the home and offered to show them around.

After the tour, Pearson referred the couple to his boss for further details. As it turned out, the couple went on to purchase the house — and a real estate career was born.

“My boss ended up telling me, ‘You need to be selling these, as well,’” Pearson recalled. “And then he helped me get my real estate license.”

That accidental sale has led to a fruitful 20-year career for Pearson, who recently was named Commercial Alliance of Realtors 2015 Realtor of the Year.

After graduating with his architecture degree from Lawrence Tech, Pearson returned to DeWitt, where his summer job at Motz Homes & Development became full-time employment. He designed, built and sold houses for three years.


True North Real Estate
Position: Principal/Broker
Age: 39
Birthplace: Champaign, Illinois
Residence: Caledonia
Family: Wife, Stephanie; children Colin, 11; Alexa, 9; and Nola, 7.
Business/Community Involvement: Commercial Alliance of Realtors, American Youth Soccer Organization, Junior Achievement of Southwest Michigan.
Biggest Career Break: Moving to Grand Rapids.


In August 2001, Pearson married Stephanie, a Wyoming native. One month later, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, one of Motz Homes’ major clientele bases halted operations in the area.

Pearson decided he would try to put his architecture degree to good use.

The newlyweds moved to the Grand Rapids area where Pearson took a job at True North Architecture. But about six months in, he realized sitting in his office staring at a computer screen eight hours a day was not what he wanted to do for a living.

“I needed to get out and talk to people,” Pearson said. “So I worked with the owner, and together we formed True North Real Estate.”

Pearson now has been the principal and broker of True North Real Estate for about 14 years. He no longer is restricted to spending hours in front of a computer, but he still gets to put his degree to good use almost every day.

“I still like designing,” Pearson said. “I still like laying out spaces, but when it gets to that point, I can hand it over to the architect to finish off. But I can take a little pencil sketch, hand it off to the architect and let him finish it off, get a quick price — and that’s really a great tool to have in the tool belt.”

Pearson shares his office space on Hagen Drive SE with NewCo Design Build, a commercial contractor co-founded by Chris Van Doeselaar, one of Pearson’s former co-workers at True North Architecture. In a twist of fate, Van Doeselaar had drifted toward True North’s construction arm after coming to a similar change of heart about working in architecture.

After Pearson ran into Van Doeselaar following the latter’s departure from True North Construction, he began working out of NewCo’s office space, and both companies have benefitted from a symbiotic relationship.

“We refer work back and forth, we help each other out and he occasionally has clients with real estate questions he sends over,” Pearson said. “We’re separate companies, but there is some kinship there.”

That relationship represents one of the most crucial lessons Pearson said he has learned about doing business in Grand Rapids — the importance of building and maintaining connections.

Pearson’s connections paid off once again when he was nominated by an industry colleague for the Commercial Alliance of Realtor’s Realtor of the Year award.

After starting True North Real Estate, Pearson became a member of CAR, where he was encouraged to get involved with the organization. He served on the marketing and membership committee, which eventually grew into vice chair and chairman positions. That turned into an invitation to serve on the CAR board of directors, where he was asked to be the board treasurer his first year.

“I’ve always been of the mindset that, whatever needs to be done, I’ll help,” Pearson said.

He served as treasurer for three years, and in 2016 was asked to serve as president-elect — a position he will hold until 2017.

It was his dedication to CAR, along with his success in the industry and community service — he teaches Junior Achievement for all three of his children’s classes and has coached youth soccer for about nine years — that led to Pearson’s nomination for the award and eventual win.

“In Grand Rapids — and in real estate, in general — it’s about relationships,” Pearson said. “It takes time to build those relationships, but eventually those relationships just kind of snowball and you might work with someone you worked with 10 years ago and they come back.”

In 14 years of running True North Real Estate, Pearson said one of his favorite things about the job is the variety he is afforded in day-to-day operations. From land purchases to selling businesses and, yes, some designing, Pearson does a little bit of everything almost every day.

“I get to put on a lot of different hats,” he said. “Every client you work for, you kind of put yourself into their shoes because you have to learn what their business is to find out what their needs are to make sure it’s a good fit for the real estate. You get to learn a lot about a lot of different things.”

Learning about a lot of different things is something Pearson hopes to instill in his children, whom he and Stephanie take on road trips rather than fly when they travel — not to save money but because he wants them to experience how different the world can be.

“You only get a certain amount of time with your kids until they turn 18 and they’re gone,” he said. “So I try to maximize that time — whether it’s after-work time or weekends.

“My wife likes to find experiences they can be a part of. We want them to see the world, see that Illinois is flat as can be, or that in Pennsylvania, you get flat, you get mountains — you get different things.”

If there’s one bit of advice he would pass along to those starting in the field of commercial real estate, it’s this: Plan out your finances in advance, since it can take a while for a sales commission to reach your bank account. In fact, Pearson notes he hasn’t had an actual, weekly paycheck since the year he spent working for True North Architecture.

Pearson also would encourage future real estate brokers to respect the importance of building person-to-person connections because they can come in handy at just about any time.

“(Real estate) is about providing services to the clients and making sure their needs are met,” Pearson said. “That’s truly what this business is about.”

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