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The month before it was slated to be completed, the basement of the BMO Tower flooded, setting the finish date back by several months.
Developer Mark Irgens, chief executive officer and manager of Milwaukee-based Irgens Partners LLC, was on his way to Phoenix when the incident happened, and learned the bad news once he was off the plane.
It turned out the flooding incident was not the only major obstacle the new downtown Milwaukee glass office building had to overcome. And when construction did reach the finish line, the 25-story tower opened in April, during a global pandemic that dragged down a booming economy and cooled a red-hot real estate market.
But as uncertain as 2020 has been, Irgens has faced uncertain times before. Throughout his career, he’s witnessed previous recessions each decade starting in the early 1980s through the Great Recession. They were all different, “but what they did do is throw you curve balls,” Irgens said.
That’s the perspective he has leaned on during the current downturn.
“If you look at the end of March all the way through April, we didn’t really know what was happening with the pandemic and all our occupiers were stressed and calling us up, (saying) the sky was falling,” he said. “And being in these past experiences, I’ve seen a great deal of folks thinking the sky is falling and the end is at hand. What you have to do is look at it and realize, no, it’s not the end. We’re all going to figure it out.”
For his perseverance and vision, Irgens is BizTimes Milwaukee’s Best in Business 2020 CEO of the Year.
Despite the pandemic and anemic leasing activity, the BMO Tower managed to nab two more tenants in 2020, including another office user in Milwaukee-based Kahler Slater and a retail user in Thiensville-based Fiddleheads Coffee Roasters.
But the BMO Tower is only one component of Irgens’ big year.
His firm broke ground on Golf Parkway Corporate Center, which consists of two new office buildings at The Corridor mixed-use development project in Brookfield. A 45,000-square-foot building will be occupied by Brookfield-based Hydrite Chemical Co., and the majority of a 186,000-square-foot building will be taken up by Seattle-based Milliman Inc.
Irgens Partners also landed two tenants for its new single-story, 37,200-square-foot office building in Mequon. Elm Grove-based Annex Wealth Management and Boston-based Gordon Bros. moved their Mequon offices there.
Glenn Roby, executive vice president of Kahler Slater, said two of Irgens’ strongest qualities are his tenacity and creativity.
Irgens’ 833 East Michigan office development in downtown Milwaukee, completed in 2016, is emblematic of his tenacity. Roby said the way in which Irgens worked through issues on that project — from attracting users to reaching a development agreement with U.S. Bank — inspired investors and future tenants alike.
“You know that Mark was going to make this work, he was so laser-focused on it,” Roby said.
And it was his creative thinking that set his development proposal apart from others BMO Harris Bank received for its new downtown Milwaukee office. Roby said whereas some developers looked for other open parcels, Irgens realized BMO already had the best piece of land downtown; it had just happened to be covered by its parking deck. So, he devised a way to turn that site into the BMO Tower.
“I give Mark a ton of credit for not just reading what was on the paper of that RFP, but really digging in and saying, ‘How could we do something better?’” Roby said.
At 65, Irgens has been thinking about the next chapter of the company. He said the company has for the past 10 years focused on building talent and having the right people, with the BMO Tower project being a “good testament we have recruited these folks for a great future.”