Vetter Denk partners form separate businesses

Made move after evaluation process

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John Vetter and Kelly Denk, the founding partners of Vetter Denk Architects Inc. in Milwaukee, recently formed separate businesses.

The move ends their 33-year partnership (Vetter Denk was formed in 1985). But the two say it is an amicable split and they remain friends who will continue to collaborate with each other.

“The relationship we’ve developed over 33 years, I look at John as more of a brother than a business partner,” Denk said.

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Vetter’s firm, Vetter Architects, remains at the former Vetter Denk office space in Walker’s Point. It will focus on providing design and construction services for unique single family homes, and development projects that make a significant neighborhood impact, even if they are not large projects.

Denk’s firm, Denk & Co. LLC, is based in Milwaukee and provides architecture and real estate consulting.

“I’m helping people realize opportunities with the (real estate) assets that they have, bringing some experience and knowledge base to projects that need it,” Denk said.

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Vetter and Denk made the decision to go in different professional directions after undertaking an evaluation process they initiated with Karl Williams, a strategic planning and transaction facilitator and the chief executive officer of Waterstone Consulting Inc.

“John and Kelly contacted me earlier this year with a request that I facilitate a professional alignment process for them,” Williams said. “They’ve always enjoyed a close personal relationship and wanted to take a close look at their company and make sure their professional roles and visions were aligned.”

The first step was for Vetter and Denk to each do a skills and attributes survey to identify their management characteristics. Then they did interviews with Williams to identify their individual professional interests, goals and visions.

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“After that, the three of us met and reviewed those results together and that’s when the idea (arose) that two separate companies may work better than one,” Williams said. “After John and Kelly made the decision to form two new companies, they asked me to manage the process of reconciling their interests in existing ventures and transitioning to Denk & Co. and Vetter Architects.”

Vetter Denk established itself as a development firm with several projects along North Commerce Street in Milwaukee.

Vetter said he and Denk enjoyed working through the process with Williams to determine their professional future.

“I highly recommend Karl to anyone in a similar situation,” he said.

Williams said he has worked with other business partners in similar situations who want to continue their relationship but also feel a need to go in different directions. There’s a way to separate amicably without a big argument, he said.

“A lot of people just don’t know how to get there,” Williams said. “You can be real creative in the process and it can be productive.”

Vetter and Denk met early in their careers when Vetter was designing and building a home for his brother. Vetter went to Cedarburg Lumber Co. Inc., where Denk was working, to set up a commercial account. Denk was assigned to be Vetter’s account representative. Later, at the job site, Denk pointed out to an embarrassed Vetter that he didn’t have any headers for the window frames.

That story partially demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses Vetter and Denk had at that time.

“We had completely opposite strengths and weaknesses,” Vetter said.

Vetter’s strength was his big picture, grand architectural vision. Denk’s expertise was in the details of how buildings actually came together in construction.

“It was like the poet and the pragmatist,” Vetter said.

The two hit it off immediately. After building the home for his brother, Vetter booked a few more single-family home projects. He asked Denk to leave his job and join him as a partner, and Vetter Denk Architects was born.

A private residence in Elm Grove designed by Vetter Denk.

For the first 15 years of the business, Vetter Denk was strictly an architecture firm focused on custom-designed single-family homes.

Then, around 2000, the company branched out into doing some of its own developments that incorporated the firm’s design philosophy, that excellence in architectural design could improve people’s lives.

Its first major development projects were in the Beerline redevelopment area, an initiative led by the City of Milwaukee, in what is now the North Commerce Street area. Vetter Denk was picked by the city in several RFP competitions to do residential projects in that area, which established the company’s development reputation. The firm also designed the Booth Street staircase and the Milwaukee Rowing Club building along Commerce Street.

The pair said they learned a lot from adding development to the company’s repertoire.

“That experience of working as the architect and the developer rounded out how we feel about architecture,” Denk said. “It made us better architects.”

Vetter Denk made another big splash in downtown Green Bay. A fan of their work from the Green Bay area suggested they consider the city. When they took a look at downtown Green Bay, they saw an area that lacked vibrancy, but was something of a blank slate that presented a unique opportunity to make an impact.

Vetter Denk provided a comprehensive vision to the city for redeveloping the downtown Green Bay waterfront. That vision included the redevelopment of the site of the Port Plaza Mall, which closed in 2006, and the addition of a walkway and housing along the Fox River.

“We proactively put together a collective vision for the Green Bay waterfront and redevelopment of the former mall site,” Vetter said. “(At that time) there was absolutely no one living on the waterfront in downtown Green Bay.”

Vetter Denk developed the Riverfront Lofts condominiums on the Fox River, started the redevelopment of the former Younkers store into the WaterMark building and partnered with Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism on the design of the CityDeck river walk.

The firm’s vision and those projects helped to spark the revival of downtown Green Bay, but there were also some setbacks. The WaterMark project included the Hagemeister Park restaurant, the Children’s Museum of Green Bay and office tenant C.H. Robinson. But the project ran into financing problems, in part from the Great Recession credit crunch, according to Green Bay Press Gazette reports, and the building was sold to another developer.

A private residence in Chenequa designed by Vetter Denk.

Recently, Foxconn Technology Group announced that it plans to buy the WaterMark building and establish an innovation center there.

Other notable Vetter Denk projects included the redevelopment of the former C. Reiss Coal office building in Sheboygan into a residential building.

Vetter and Denk said they are proud of what they accomplished together, look forward to working on more interesting projects in the future, and may collaborate on some.

“When I have an opportunity that fits John’s skillset, I’m definitely calling him up,” Denk said.

The recent surge in apartment development in the downtown Milwaukee area has been great for the city, but many of the projects have a similar architecture style, Vetter said. He says his firm will work on projects at a higher level of design.

“We’re going to focus on self-initiated, high-impact projects,” he said. “Projects that are smaller in nature, which may get overlooked by traditional developers, but can make a serious impact on neighborhoods. We want to provide a refreshing alternative to the marketplace.”

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