Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm
Ann Pieper Eisenbrown and a partner bought a vacant old industrial building at 233 N. Water St. in Milwaukee for $425,000 in 1997. That was back before the Historic Third Ward became the Third Ward as we know it today. Today, the property, known as The Saddlery Building, has an assessed value of more than $4 million.
Not bad. Not bad, at all.
The ability to identify commercial real estate that will grow in value is a core mission for Pieper, who is president of Pieper Properties in Milwaukee.
The often cutthroat commercial real industry is teeming with sharks. The kind and humble Pieper stands out like a lamb amid her peers.
Even more remarkable than the fact that she is a woman surviving in a good ol’ boys’ game is the fact that Pieper has one other significant obstacle to overcome in her business.
She is deaf.
When asked to explain how she competes, Pieper shrugs.
"I don’t think too much about being a woman or being deaf. I like to think I treat people with respect, and it gets returned to you," Pieper says. "Yes! Karma! That’s it!
"Generally, I just try to try harder than the next person. I also rely on the patience of other people. Sometimes, if somebody talks 60 mph, they have to slow down to 50 mph."
Pieper lost her hearing at the age of 7, when she suffered a bout with spinal meningitis.
She obtained a new cochlear implant two years ago, and she somehow manages to use that device and incredible ability to read lips to have conversations.
The telephone component of her business is a bit more complex.
Until recently, the phone was virtually useless for Pieper. However, a new service provided by www.hiprelay.com, enables Pieper to call a client and have her client’s spoken words translated and relayed in real time to her.
The only disadvantage is that Pieper must initiate the call through the system, rather than merely picking up the phone to answer a call.
"The technology has really advanced. Before, I would type and then an operator would relay what I typed. But the best thing that happened was when I could do my own talking," Pieper says.
Although she’s a deaf woman in a man’s world, Pieper has a savvy and sophisticated knack of seeing commercial real estate diamonds in the rough before others do, as the Saddlery Building, which now houses the Milwaukee Ale House, attests.
"Physically, it had good bones, it’s on the river. It’s that location, location, location thing. We just thought it would pay off, so we took the risk," Pieper says. "When we bought that building, it was empty, and we started renovating it on spec(ulation)."
Today, Pieper Properties owns and manages a portfolio of office, industrial, retail and residential properties.
"If we have any type of formula, it’s that we limit ourselves to the City of Milwaukee and the close suburbs," Pieper says. "We’ll buy a property … Maybe it’s empty. Or it’s outdated physically. Or it’s not being marketed properly. We buy it if we think the location will rebound.
"You have to have a plan, and you have to stick to it, which can be hard sometimes. Sometimes, you want to say yes, but you have to learn to say no. I set up my business so we can subsist on management fees alone, even when the leasing and redevelopment (revenues) fluctuate," Pieper says.
Pieper has come a long way since her father, Richard Pieper Sr., chairman and chief executive officer of PPC Partners Inc. (the parent company of Pieper Electric Inc. in Milwaukee), bought a duplex for his daughter and son, Richard Pieper Jr., to manage.
"My dad thought it would be good if my brother and I learned how to run a duplex. So, it’s his fault," Pieper says with a laugh. "For me, it snowballed when my dad bought another property and I managed it for him. I just enjoyed it."
Her father says Ann displayed strong financial instincts at a young age.
"I knew she loved real estate when I told her we bought a farm in Iowa. She was just ecstatic. We bought it at a low and sold it at a high," Richard Pieper recalls. "This is a very lovely girl, now a woman. She has passion for life. She respects other people. She has faith in the Lord. She has been touched by the Lord, and she touches other people’s lives along the way."
Ann Pieper is optimistic about the future of downtown Milwaukee, and one of the reasons for her optimism is the construction of the Milwaukee Public Market, which essentially will link the Third Ward with the downtown.
"I think so. It’s come a long way in the last 10 years. The big projects. The little projects. Everything adds something," she says. "Mayor (John) Norquist had a good big-picture vision, and Mayor (Tom) Barrett has a good economic development vision, which we need. The Public Market, it’s amazing. It’s going to be wonderful for all of downtown and for Milwaukee in general."
As the city again reinvents itself, Pieper will be looking for new turnaround opportunities in commercial real estate. Along the way, she’ll continue to defy the stereotypes of people with disabilities.
"Some people think people with a disability cannot lead a full, productive life," Pieper says.
With a grin, Pieper says being deaf might even have one advantage.
"I guess I can walk through a job site and get a cat call and not even know it."
Hometown: Whitefish Bay
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, Vanderbilt University; master’s degree in real estate finance, University of Wisconsin in Madison
Title: President of Pieper Properties, which she founded in 1995
Web site: www.pieperproperties.com
Husband: Bob Eisenbrown, who is vice president of the drives business at Rockwell Automation Inc.
Hobbies: "Cooking, drinking wine, traveling and art. And I’m a bookworm."
Best advice she ever received: "Treating people fairly and honestly."
Civic involvement: President of the Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Brookfield; chairwoman of the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission; and member of the Riverworks Business Improvement District board in Milwaukee.
Parents: Richard Pieper, who is chairman and chief executive officer of PPC Partners Inc. (the parent company of Pieper Electric Inc. in Milwaukee), and Sue Pieper.
December 17, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI