It took Stewart Wangard, one of the most active commercial real estate developers in the Milwaukee area, about 10 minutes to get back to his seat after giving a presentation at this year’s annual Institute of Real Estate Management Forecast Breakfast.
The chief executive officer of Wangard Partners Inc. had just announced he was moving forward with renovating the former Laacke & Joys building in downtown Milwaukee and about a half dozen people in the room lined up to talk to him about the project and others he had discussed that morning.
Several weeks later, at a coffee shop in Walker’s Point, Wangard is approached several times by people who either want to do business with him or just want to say, “Hi.”
Wangard is soft-spoken, but you can tell by both the large portfolio of projects he is working on in the Milwaukee area, and by his deliberate way of speaking, that he holds people to a high standard – especially himself.
With several substantial projects in Milwaukee, Wauwatosa and Oconomowoc, the one-time real estate broker turned developer has become one of the most significant real estate dealmakers in the region.
Word has gotten out that the company is growing and people want to be part of it. In fact, Wangard himself receives three resumes a day; his property manager gets 20.
“By the middle of last year, we realized we needed a lot more bench strength to fulfill all the things we have in the works,” Wangard said. In early 2015, Wangard Partners had about 30 employees, and now it is at 50. “We’re experiencing some growing pains,” he said.
Wangard didn’t set out to go into the real estate business. He had just started his first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1974 when he decided to drop out to help his mother clear up the family business.
His father had just died after a yearlong illness, leaving behind several small apartment buildings on Milwaukee’s East Side that were in receivership.
Wangard, who was 17 years old at the time, convinced the banks to release the properties back to his family one at a time.
“We cleaned them up, leased them and sold them, one-by-one,” Wangard said. “This was in the middle of a horrible recession, so there was not a lot of equity there, but what we were able to do is eliminate the debt and in the end there was a little bit left for my mother.”
The process took two years, during which Wangard got his real estate license.
“Realistically, it took me another three years before I really knew what I was doing,” he said.
By 21, Wangard was Re/Max’s regional director of sales for Wisconsin. After three years, he decided to move on to commercial real estate brokerage The Boerke Co. Inc., where he stayed for 11 years.
After leaving in 1992, Wangard had to honor a non-compete clause, so he joined United Properties, where the majority of his work was related to stabilizing or liquidating foreclosed properties. During a 90-day period, Wangard took back more than 2 million square feet of foreclosed property, including the 1000 North Water Street office building in downtown Milwaukee.
“It was the most mind-expanding experience you can ever imagine,” he said. “What we were looking at was the result of all kinds of bad decisions, as well as the general meltdown of the economy.”
In 1995, Wangard started the company he owns today – although at the time, it was called SM Wangard Inc. and it was a general brokerage. Wangard’s first major development was the 130,000-square-foot High Pointe Office Centre at 1200 N. Mayfair Road in 1998.
Wangard partnered with Multi-Employer Property Trust on the development and the group bought the building from Wangard three years after its completion. In 2007, Wangard, who says he always liked the building, bought it back.
Today, Wangard has five major projects underway in Milwaukee and two in the suburbs (there is a third planned in the suburbs that he wouldn’t talk about, but said would be announced in March).
Rocky Marcoux, commissioner for the Milwaukee Department of City Development, has worked closely with Wangard on the projects in the Park East corridor, as well as Freshwater Plaza in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, which Marcoux called the gateway to the harbor campus.
“He is a high-quality developer who is well known throughout the region not only for the developments he has built but for the developments he manages, including 875 East (Wisconsin Ave.), which is the home to Roundy’s,” Marcoux said. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see him announcing additional deals going forward.”
Wangard is excited about all of the developments along North Water Street, including what Mandel Group is doing with the North End and what Marcus Corp. and Hammes Co. are planning.
Neither Marcus nor Hammes would comment on those plans, but both firms have submitted proposals to purchase and develop a one-third acre parcel of land owned by Milwaukee County in the Park East corridor.
When all of the development in the North Water Street area is done there will be a chain of pocket parks stretching from the Marsupial Bridge at the Holton Street viaduct to the Peck Pavilion on Kilbourn Avenue, Wangard said.
“You’ve got the Peck, you have Red Arrow, there will be a small park where Marcus and Hammes are developing, there will be a park on Block 22 (where Wangard is planning a mixed-use development), Mandel has a small park on the North End, there will be a park on Brady and Water and right next door, we have the Marsupial Bridge,” Wangard said.
“It’s not that we’re all talking to each other, but as we share ideas, we realize that we can do things that create a neighborhood unlike what you have anywhere else.”
Another project Wangard is working on is the 200,000-square-foot expansion of the Milwaukee Electric Tool headquarters at 13135 W. Lisbon Road, Brookfield, which will add 500 jobs. Even though it’s not his own project, Wangard calls it one of the most exciting projects happening in the Milwaukee area.
“It’s very similar to a Google or a Facebook or an Apple; they’ve become a talent magnet for a lot of engineers and they are drawing people from coast to coast,” Wangard said. “It’s nice to see a strong, dynamic employer headquartered here.”
Wangard credits his company’s recent growth to his team – particularly the hiring of three key people: Beth Schumacher, chief financial officer; Chad Venne, executive vice president, property management; and Jen Devitt, corporate counsel.
That said, Wangard is planning to take a “bit of a pause” this year. He is also going to sell at least six properties, including two Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, at least one other retail asset and one smaller industrial asset.
“Part of it is related to scale, part is related to time and part is related to making sure the company is always healthy,” Wangard said. “That is not new. We sold some of our best assets in 2008 and we came into the recession healthy. We want to make sure we are always going to stay healthy.”
Wangard’s Milwaukee projects:
- Freshwater Plaza: The $48 million mixed-use development will include offices, 76 apartments and a Cermak’s Fresh Market grocery store in the city’s Walker’s Point neighborhood.
- Laacke & Joys: Wangard is planning to create 106,000 square feet of office space in the building on five floors and an 8,000-square-foot restaurant in a building next door.
- Brady & Water: An 89-unit apartment complex at 1693 N. Water St.
- Avenir Phase II & III: 146 apartments and 4,700 square feet of retail space will be added to the Avenir development in the Park East corridor. The first phase of the Avenir, a mixed-use building with 104 luxury apartments and 7,045 square feet of ground level retail space, opened in February 2015.
- Park East Block 22: In December, Wangard was selected by county officials, in an RFP process, to purchase and develop Park East Block 22 for $2.4 million. Plans include a $47 million mixed-use residential complex that will contain 250 apartments and 70,000 square feet of retail.
Wangard’s suburban projects:
- The REEF: a 180-unit multifamily housing development at 1215 N. 62nd St., Wauwatosa.
- The Preserve at Prairie Creek: Phase two of The Preserve in Oconomowoc will include 160 units, plus an expanded club house. Phase one, which is 228 units, is already fully leased.