Inside Track, Construction, and Real Estate

Inside Track: Steimle-App harnesses empathy

Executive vice president of real estate development for Rockford Construction leverages strength to see issues from different viewpoints.

December 13, 2019
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Monica Steimle-App
Monica Steimle-App joined Rockford Construction as director of property management in 2017. Courtesy Rockford Construction

Monica Steimle-App once wouldn’t have considered empathy a strength, but being able to look at a project through the eyes of developers, builders, managers and other stakeholders has allowed her to help create lasting growth for Grand Rapids.

The executive vice president of real estate development for Rockford Construction has over 18 years of real estate and development experience, building a vast knowledge of the industry, as well as building healthy community relations.

Steimle-App said she was inspired growing up by her father’s approach to work. She noticed his philosophy involved treating work as a part of his identity and a goal he was constantly moving toward.

“For me, that was important,” she said. “I never just wanted a job. I never just wanted to punch in and punch out. It’s very important to me, if I’m going to spend the time to do something, for me to be able to figure out how to make a career a part of my lifestyle and my home.”

Beginning in her real estate career, Steimle-App served as a commercial property manager handling office leasing and management. While still building her knowledge in the industry, she was deliberate in projecting her voice around the leadership table.

“Mostly, I just felt like I had something to say,” she said. “Early on, I realized … the importance of our industry and the impact we have, specifically on the growing community we have here in Grand Rapids.”

She also had to work to refute the stereotype of women traditionally being in administrative roles. She recalled a conversation she had early in her career where she had to explain to a male colleague that her strength was not in the support role.

 

MONICA STEIMLE-APP
Organization:
Rockford Construction
Position: Executive vice president, real estate development
Age: 41
Birthplace: Holland
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Richard App; kids, Zach (13), Eli (10), Zoey (9)
Business/Community Involvement: Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, board chair; Hispanic Center of West Michigan, board member; Grand Rapids Housing Commission, commissioner; Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Advisory Board, board member; Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Goal 2 Alliance, board member
Biggest Career Break: Moving to Grand Rapids in 2009 to work for Hayman Company. She was tasked with hiring a team, selecting vendors and finishing units at Icon on Bond.

 

“I remember coming into a new role, and it was with a very small company,” Steimle-App said. “Things started shifting. I was expected to take notes in a meeting, or I was expected to create appointments or do things in a support role, which to be honest, I’m not the most organized person on the planet.”

Besides support not being her strong suit, Steimle-App said she didn’t want to be put in the bubble of women traditionally being in the support role.

“People who are in support roles I think are fantastic at being able to stay organized and keep others organized,” she said. “I am not that person.”

Steimle-App said she has noticed more women are at the discussion table as opposed to in years prior, although obstacles like equal pay still remain. She said it would take an ongoing effort on the part of the community to overcome these issues.

Being in the development industry gave Steimle-App connections that could help her ignite these growth opportunities. The connections she developed through her growing career gave her a sense of building communities that she previously wasn’t aware of, she said.

“I was doing stuff at one time when I was in community relations a lot,” Steimle-App said. “I just liked speaking on behalf of our industry and helping businesses get better connected in the community, but I also like understanding the direct impact you can have when you positively make some intentional connections is a great way to do business.”

With building communities as a big-picture focus, Steimle-App then gravitated toward more specific issues of affordable housing, transportation, sustainability and development of local businesses. Building community connections has a much more lasting impact for economic growth, she said.

“I wanted to be sure we were having the right conversations around those topics so we could build specifically for that,” Steimle-App said. “I found a way to be able to have those conversations was specifically in board rooms … building my knowledge but also educating others on those topics, as well.”

In property management, for example, Steimle-App said she believes it’s important to have residents connected to their community.

At Rockford Construction, she created the Rock Perks program, which gives special discounts and offers at local businesses throughout Grand Rapids to residents of Rockford Property Management properties.

Commercial participants include HopCat, Uccello’s Ristorante, YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, John Ball Zoo, the NOMAD Gallery by Richard App and more.

“I feel like we’re helping the businesses and also the residents, so together, they’re helping to support each other,” she said.

Steimle-App joined Rockford Construction as director of property management in 2017 and was promoted to vice president of property management after six months with the company. She was promoted to her current role in April 2019.

Having the knowledge about how real estate and construction come together allows her to come in on the front end of a project and know how to make it sustainable once it’s complete, she said.

In bringing together all the pieces on a project, Steimle-App’s natural strengths come into play. At one point in her career, she took the strengths-finder test, but the results initially upset her, she said.

“I remember that my No. 1 strength was empathy,” she said. “I was devastated! What’s so great about empathy? How are people ever going to take me seriously if they just think, ‘How is that strength going to help me in the future?’”

But Steimle-App started reading more about empathic leaders and learned to embrace it. With the strength she previously viewed as a “weak strength,” she discovered the ability to see situations from multiple viewpoints, industries and sources.

“What I learned was it was really helping me in working as a developer and working alongside the city, with community organizations, stakeholders, other businesses … taking a lot of these viewpoints and really being able to speak on behalf of our industry … and bring us all together for a collective purpose.”

Because of her good fortune in connecting with business advisers and mentors, Steimle-App said she is passionate about helping others reach their full potential, whatever it may be.

“I found the value of working alongside somebody and having somebody help me, so I want to do that as well,” she said. “So, for people on my team, or wherever I’m involved, I like to find out what it is that they’re looking to achieve or what they’d like to be a part of and help guide their path … I try to do the same with my kids also.”

Compared to other communities Steimle-App has visited, Grand Rapids is a fairly easy place for one to be involved and establish connections. The city still has a small-community feel, while being very forward-thinking, she said.

“Somebody asked me very early on, ‘Why don’t you do what you do in Chicago?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think I could do what I do in a larger city,’” Steimle-App said. “Here, I’ve just loved being able to create those long-lasting partnerships and genuine connections that help us all do business better. I value the size of that.”

Recently, Rockford Construction and other stakeholders broke ground on the Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building, the next phase of Michigan State University’s Grand Rapids Innovation Park. The project brought together a host of partners, including Rockford, Walsh Construction/Walsh Investors, Murphy Development Group, MSU and SmithGroup.

“That was one of those ways where understanding where all of it comes together is the product of what we call ‘One Rockford,’ meaning development, building and managing,” Steimle-App said. “So, having a piece in all of that is really fantastic and a great opportunity.”

Rockford will manage the Doug Meijer Building once it is complete in late 2021.

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