Bravo! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement: Grunau led transformation of downtown Milwaukee

Downtown Milwaukee has changed dramatically in the past 35 years and perhaps nobody has played a bigger role in that transformation than Gary Grunau.

“Gary Grunau has made consistent and regular contributions to the growth of our downtown and to the entire city of Milwaukee,” said Beth Weirick, chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District.

A lifelong Milwaukee-area resident, Grunau has played a major role in several prominent development and civic projects in downtown Milwaukee. His body of work in Milwaukee includes: a major downtown hotel development, redevelopment of a former brewery into an offi ce complex, construction of a corporate headquarters for a Fortune 500 company and leadership on numerous civic projects, including a new convention center and the creation of a downtown riverwalk.

“He’s done a lot of big things. The list is extremely long,” said Bruce Block, a shareholder and real estate practice co-chair with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren S.C.

“He has passion and drive that gets beyond barriers and inspires others to overcome obstacles and bring projects to fruition,” Weirick said.

“Gary is a very big idea guy,” said Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. “To him, these don’t even seem like big ideas, they are just ideas that should happen.”

Grunau is the winner of the 2014 BizTimes Bravo! Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I like to do things, and I like to make things happen,” said Grunau, 75. “I like Milwaukee because it’s the right size where you can create things working in partnership with the public sector and there are certainly a lot of opportunities available. There’s never been very strong public leadership to create projects. It’s always been created by the business people taking the lead.”

After graduating from Cornell University with a mechanical engineering degree in 1962, Grunau joined Grunau Company, a mechanical contracting business started by his grandfather, Paul J. Grunau, in 1920.

Grunau Company became one of the largest mechanical contracting firms in the nation. Its work included jobs for Miller Brewing Co. operations across the country and work at the First Wisconsin Building (now the U.S. Bank Center) in downtown Milwaukee.

In the late 1970s the company was doing work for the Hyatt Regency Hotel construction project in downtown Milwaukee. But the original developer had to back out of the project because of financing problems. To save the project, Grunau stepped in as the developer, creating a new company eventually known as Grunau Project Development, and completed the Hyatt project in 1980.

Grucon was established as the umbrella company for Grunau Company and Grunau Project Development. The company owned the Hyatt until selling it in 2007.

The Hyatt Regency remains a major landmark in downtown Milwaukee today, but Grunau is perhaps best known for his work in revitalizing the former Schlitz Brewery complex in downtown Milwaukee. Grunau and members of the Sampson family bought the property in 1983 and began years of work to transform it into an office complex called Schlitz Park.

In 2007, Grunau and Scott Sampson built a new corporate headquarters for ManpowerGroup at Schlitz Park.

During his career, Grunau also has been involved in the redevelopment of the Boston Store building at the Shops of Grand Avenue in downtown Milwaukee and the redevelopment of a former power plant building into the Time Warner Cable office building downtown.

Grunau also played a leading role in numerous civic projects, including the creation of the downtown Milwaukee Riverwalk and the creation of the Wisconsin Center District to build a new convention center downtown.

Many times, Grunau played a key role in bringing together people of diverse viewpoints to overcome obstacles and accomplish successful civic projects.

“He has a passion for this community, and he’s a high energy guy,” Block said. “He’s just one of those rare creatures. The brain is always thinking. He rarely takes no for an answer. He always thinks there’s a way to solve a problem. A lot of that comes from his engineering background, but a lot of engineers are linear in their thinking and he can think outside of the box. He’s a problem-solver.”

“He’s very tenacious,” Taylor said.

Grucon was sold to Grunau’s son, Paul, in 1999. Grunau Project Development was sold to Providence, R.I.-based construction and development firm Gilbane Inc. in 2002. Then, Gary Grunau worked as senior vice president and north central regional manager for Gilbane, running the company’s north central region until 2009.

While Grunau was at Gilbane, the firm handled several major construction projects in the Milwaukee area, including the $78 million ManpowerGroup headquarters at Schlitz Park, a $320 million expansion of Potawatomi Bingo Casino, the $80 million Medical College of Wisconsin Research Institute and Biomedical Research Center and the $64 million Discovery World project on the lakefront.

After leaving Gilbane, Grunau shifted his focus back to Schlitz Park. The complex had 1.2 million square feet of space and about 400,000 square feet of it was vacant or soon to be vacant.

“We had to reposition it in the market, by making it attractive to today’s workforce,” he said.

Grunau and Sampson decided to invest in upgrades to the common areas of the complex, and add fitness centers and bicycle amenities. The idea was to make Schlitz Park an appealing place to work for young professionals who increasingly prefer to live, work and play in urban areas.

“With massive growth of urban housing and young professionals living in the urban center, we figured the market would be driven by where people want to work,” Grunau said. “We felt that if we can create the place where people want to work, then we can attract the companies.”

Grunau and Sampson then began a three-part, $32 million project to revitalize Schlitz Park. The project is now in its third phase and the complex has attracted several new tenants, including commitments from UMB Fund Services and the Enthusiast Brands division of Reader’s Digest Association Inc.

Schlitz Park has been a major part of Grunau’s career and now he is consumed with the revitalization project for the complex.

“The favorite thing I’ve done has always been the current thing I’m doing,” Grunau said. “(Schlitz Park) has been incredibly exciting.”

In addition to the building projects, Grunau has served on boards for numerous civic and community organizations, including the Spirit of Milwaukee, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District, the City of Milwaukee’s Harbor Commission, Alverno College, Discovery World, the Water Council and the Milwaukee County War Memorial.

During his lifelong career in Milwaukee, Grunau has seen the city transition from an industrial-based to a more diverse economy. Grunau says he is bullish about the future of the city, especially if the community can improve its education system.

“I’m concerned about education,” he said. “We need to feed industry with people who are educated so they continue to grow. There’s our biggest problem. We’ve got everything here, including some great companies that are world renowned. We need to provide them the employees they are looking for. We’ve got a great arts community and great natural resources. We’ve got everything we need to grow and prosper. We just need to get our kids educated. I think a good mix of choice, charter and public schools is what’s needed.”

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