Showing them the ropes

Commercial real estate mentees become mentors

Bill Bonifas, Steve Palec and Ben Anderson.

In 1986, Steve Palec was working as a morning radio host at FM 93 WQFM. His now well-known Sunday morning Rock ‘n’ Roll Roots show on WKLH wouldn’t launch for another year and he was looking for something else to keep him busy during the day.

Palec figured he would give commercial real estate a shot and joined The Polacheck Co., which would later be acquired by CB Richard Ellis Group Inc. And while he wasn’t fresh out of school, Palec had a lot to learn.

Bill Bonifas, Steve Palec and Ben Anderson.
Bill Bonifas, Steve Palec and Ben Anderson.

He met Bill Bonifas, a forward-thinking veteran office real estate broker. Under a three-person team led by Bonifas, Palec and Kevin Armstrong led the firm’s office brokerage team, averaging $200 million in transactions per year.

Palec left CBRE in 2011, joining Cresa Partners as president and managing principal of the firm’s Milwaukee office, and moved from a mentee to a mentor role. He took a special interest in his third hire, Ben Anderson, a 2012 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. And when Palec left his role at Cresa to become a partner at Colliers International in April 2015, he took Anderson with him.

The three brokers recently sat down with BizTimes reporter Corrinne Hess to discuss the business, their changing roles and mentorship in commercial real estate.

BizTimes: Steve, you’ve said before Bill is the reason you chose to go into office brokerage. How did that happen?

Palec: “I spent a day with a retail broker. We drove around, we looked at land sites and we stopped at Wendy’s for lunch. I spent a day with an industrial guy, walked in a dirty building and I was filthy when I got out of it. And then I spent the day with Bill. The day started with a space planning meeting with about five beautiful women from some ad agency. Then someone was in town who wanted to know about the market and they took us to lunch at Fleur de Lis (now Bacchus). After, Bill picked up a commission check. Juxtapose that against Wendy’s and a dirty building and I thought, office is the discipline I want to learn more about.

“My advantage was I was coming from the real world to a field I didn’t know anything about. I knew enough to sit back and observe someone who knew what they were doing. You can learn the science, but the art is something that comes differently. “

BizTimes: Bill, how did you feel about taking Steve under your wing?

Bonifas: “It was very natural and never complicated. I think maybe because of his ego – I guess I’ll say ego.”

Palec: “Yes, ego.”

Bonifas: “OK. But it was a good thing. Because of the radio show, he still had a place in the community and an identity, rather than having to start a whole new career from the bottom. Within a few years, he got a big identity as a real estate broker and his strength is his interpersonal skills, which I’m not as strong at.”

BizTimes: So what are you strong at, Bill?

Bonifas: “I don’t really know. I guess thinking about the next thing and the vision.”

Palec: “I would amplify that. Bill’s biggest strength was always being out ahead and always being willing to say, ‘Let me take that to the next level.’ Bill, I think you had the first cell phone in the office. Over 30 years I have so many times prefaced things with, ‘I have to give Bill credit.’”

BizTimes: Ben, you were hired right out of college. What was that experience like?

Anderson: “I didn’t know a lot about real estate, and I knew less about Milwaukee. I had to piece together a suit from my friends and family and I had an old truck that overheated on the freeway on the way to the interview. When I finally showed up, I was 15 minutes late and sweating profusely.”

BizTimes: What was it about Ben that made you want to interview him and then hire him, Steve?

Palec: “You ever hear that saying, ‘He’s the smartest guy in the room’? Ben was always the most naïve guy in the room. There was something on his resume that caught my eye; it said Eagle Scout. I looked into it and that’s not something you send away for. I realized the tenacity and the dedication that took and thought, ‘Boy, anybody who could get through that is a guy who won’t be outworked.”

BizTimes: Now you’ve been in the real estate business for four years, Ben. What have you learned?

Anderson: “I think the biggest learning lesson I got from Steve is when he fired me from my first deal.”

BizTimes: What?

Anderson: “Well, instead of saying, ‘I don’t have all of your answers,’ I ended up just kind of faking my way through it and got caught. The blame had to fall somewhere and to ensure that we did not appear incredibly incompetent, it fell on me and I was cut from the deal. To this day, I will never have to do it again.”

Palec: “I had never been in charge of anything but the Christmas party. For the first time, I had to discipline someone. I knew I had to do something that would get inside of him. It’s satisfying to hear him say he would never do anything like that again.”

BizTimes: So did the deal end up working out?

Palec: “Oh, yeah.”

BizTimes: And did you end up giving Ben any of the commission?

Palec: “No! (laugh).”

BizTimes: Bill, who were your mentors?

Bonifas: “I was lucky enough early on that Polacheck said, ‘We need you to head up an office group.’ In large part, the developers mentored me. Bob

Polacheck and my main boss, Mark Brickman, were also significant mentors to me. Shel Lozoff, a seasoned broker, taught me how to measure space and do layouts so instead of waiting for the architects, I could get bids from contractors and do deals more quickly.”

BizTimes: Bill, you have the most tenure of the group. I’m guessing other brokers have wanted to be mentored by you.

Bonifas: “Right now, I’m mentoring Matt Cariello. He came into the company not as someone working for me but through our internship program. He told me he wanted to work with me and just started hanging around. The first deal he did on his own, he put me in for half and said he wanted to be in on every deal I did. We have been doing international work together for the last 24 months and it has been really good.”

BizTimes: Networking is obviously a key in your business; do you think mentorship is equally important?

Palec: “There’s no playbook. It’s a very entrepreneurial business. You have to work within an industry. You have to know about other industries and you have to figure out how to pull it all off. That is a lot to ask of a person. You can’t have mentorship as a crutch but you almost can’t make it on your own without some people or person. It’s not a panacea, but it’s a necessity to have people to look at and see how you do things.”

Anderson: “I don’t care where you went to school, it’s not going to prepare you for what we do on a day-to-day basis. They’re not going to tell you what the asking rate is for the Wells Building or what the floor plate is for 250. And you need to know that to live and breathe in this industry. And without having someone to guide you along the way, it’s really easy to get lost in the shuffle.”

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