Nancy Bush’s personal attention revives office tower
It won’t be a difficult job,” real-estate developer/broker George Bockl assured his new executive manager in early 1994. “Just collect rents, lease suites and keep an eye on things – you know, manage the building.”
For the veteran builder and renovator of residential and commercial properties in the Milwaukee area, this was the third time around for his pet namesake – the Bockl Building at 2040 W. Wisconsin Ave.
In 1957, Bockl built the seven-story, 180,000-square-foot “modern” office building, then sold it in 1964, only to reclaim it 13 years later. The same scenario repeated itself in 1979 in yet another ill-fated land contract deal, this time with Hatch Farms Ltd. of Chicago.
By 1994, Bockl sensed the building was in default. It pained him to see his prized project deteriorate further. So, he did what he had to do – he bought it back yet again.
Then he hired Nancy Bush as his executive manager. Her first reaction was shock.
“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed on her first visit. “It was filthy – the carpeting, the common areas, bathrooms, elevators, the lobby – all of it. There was graffiti. In some hallways, fluorescent tubes were burned out.”
There were many unpaid bills from disgruntled repairmen and creditors. Utilities were in arrears. The delivery of heating fuel was sporadic, or nonexistent. Worse, the parking structure was in danger of collapsing. What a mess.
Undaunted, Bush set to work. Occupancy at the time hovered around 40%.
Not to worry. Armed with a notepad and a cheery disposition, she resolutely made the rounds, visiting all the remaining tenants in a week’s time.
Not a moment too soon. She tried charm, she wooed them. No dice. Most were either angry or bitter; others had stopped paying rent. She suspected a few wanted to strangle her.
“I knew I had to gain back their confidence and respect,” Bush recalls.
She made modest promises and took a deep breath. And then the renaissance began. To date, almost $2 million dollars have been spent upgrading 2040 W. Wisconsin Ave., restoring it to its original splendor when it was the only modern, centrally air-conditioned office building in town.
Overnight, Bush became “Ms. Fix-it,” a Gal Friday, decorator, leasing agent, mediator extraordinaire and eternal house sergeant supervising over a dozen building staff who worked in maintenance, security and cleaning. It was instant, on-the-job training, a sink-or-swim proposition – and she pulled it off.
On occasion, Bush pitched in herself, painting in a pinch, unplugging a clogged sink or toilet, or mopping up after floods. She even helped clean the dock area and fill in parking lot potholes. (The staff calls her “Hazel” – as in the comic strip maid.)
“I never ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do,” she offers.
Today she is knowledgeable about maintenance and has learned a bit about heating and cooling systems. Moreover, she can handle any emergency, defuse any situation.
Bush never lost a tenant during all the turmoil. Incredibly, a year later she had turned things around – aided, by a generous and sentimental owner. Occupancy has now more than doubled.
The tenants in the Bockl Building are a mix of commercial and medical arts specialists. It houses some 48 doctors and physicians, many from Third World countries and most of them US-trained. It has five medical labs, a half-dozen social service agencies, three counseling centers, a pharmacy, two salons – hair and nails – an optical shop and nine or so attorneys, to name a few. There are also a few start-up businesses and various entrepreneurs.
To more than 350 people each day it is “the office.” Another thousand clients daily troop through it for various appointments or medical treatments. It offers moderate rentals, valet parking and 24-hour security – weekends too, among other amenities. The challenge now is to balance the variety of tenants and services.
Nancy Bush grew up in Milwaukee and attended the old Spencerian College business school (now part of Concordia University), earning an associate arts degree and majoring in a business and medical assistant program. She also attended UW-Madison for two years.
At one point she wanted in the worst way to be an X-ray technician, working for doctors. It didn’t pan out.
In the early 1960s, she was a corporate secretary at The Milwaukee Journal. For a while, she even served as secretary to Robert Uihlein Jr., president of Jos. E. Schlitz Brewing. Then came a remarkable 26-year, all-encompassing stint with Manpower Inc. – along with two successive owners of MBTI , the business school division.
Initially she taught secretarial skills, then corporately administered and managed. She also developed educational programs; in 1969 she set up a business school in San Juan, P.R. for Manpower. It was seen as a potentially advantageous entry into the lucrative South American temporary help market.
Looking back, she considers herself “quite lucky” in her somewhat disparate but extraordinary career. As for the ubiquitous glass ceiling, she says it was never a factor, not even at Manpower.
“It’s up to the individual. If you want to sacrifice and work hard, you too can make it,” she says.
There are not many individual female commercial leasing managers today – mostly it’s handled by large firms or management teams. And few offer such a unique, hands-on schedule.
George Bockl calls her a savior for “saving” his building at 20th and Wisconsin. In the past Bockl & Co. ads have touted its “caring management.” With Nancy Bush running things, perhaps the word “nurturing” is a better fit or description.
For relaxation, Bush tends a flower garden and cooks. She also sits on the boards of the MACC Fund and the Avenues West Association. She is also involved in a dozen other groups, including a City Charter Schools task force and a favorite, the Milwaukee Police Department Auxiliary.
May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee
Nancy Bush’s personal attention revives office tower