Mike George likes to say that his company is in the retail real estate information business. “Our clients buy, sell and lease retail real estate,” said George, principal and president of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.- based Mid-America Real Estate Group. “Clients that buy and sell real estate rely on us for information that helps them make the best business decisions. When clients hire us to manage and lease shopping centers, they want our information-based decisions.”
Founded in 1984 as Mid-America Real Estate Corp. to represent retail tenants, the firm quickly became a resource for retailers expanding into the Chicago metropolitan area. Since then, it has grown into the largest full-service retail real estate organization in the Midwest, providing brokerage services, investment sales, property management and related services.
The company branched out beyond retail tenant representation in 1990. “During meetings with property management people about chain store clients, we found our selves educating them about leasing to retailers,” George said. “An effective leasing agent understands what the owner wants to accomplish and then interprets that into what retailers are prepared to do. What lease terms will this retailer accept? What level of rent increases will that retailer accept?
“We were teaching property managers about basics. Considering that, we thought that we could succeed in the property management business.”
Mid-America Real Estate Corp. formed Mid-America Asset Management and entered the shopping center property management business in 1990. Today, the asset management company and three other companion companies hold a giant share of the Midwest’s retail property management contracts. In Chicago alone, the company manages more properties than the next three competitors combined.
In the early 1990s, institutional real estate investors began calling Mid-America with questions about retail real estate investments in Chicago. “We answered questions about what investors need to learn before making a buying decision,” George said. “We turned that expertise into an investment sales business that has become a large part of our overall business.” Mid-America Real Estate Corp. handles the group’s investment sales work.
New Mid-America offices followed in the early 2000s, thanks to Mid-America’s membership in ChainLinks, a national network of cooperating real estate service firms. When CBRE acquired the ChainLinks representative in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was left without a ChainLinks firm.
“We knew experienced people in Milwaukee interested in moving to a firm that specialized in retail,” George said. “We made them partners and formed Mid-America Wisconsin. The same thing happened in Minneapolis in 2009 and Detroit in 2011, and we formed Mid-America Minnesota and Mid-America Michigan.
“We’ve become the ChainLinks affiliate in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, in addition to Illinois.”
Keys to success
This year is the 30th anniversary of Mid-America Real Estate. Looking back over the years, George points to three factors that have enabled the firm’s long-term success:
It brings in the best people as partners;
It specializes strictly in retail real estate; and
Mid-America partners and employees specialize in specific retail real estate services.
“We have never tried to own all of the company,” said George, explaining his partnership philosophy. “We find the best people in our markets and bring them into the business as managing partners. As a result, the best people in our markets stay with us.”
The company is not involved in office, warehouse or multi-family properties. George’s strategy is to be expert in one narrow property area — retail — and capture a major share of that business, and that has worked.
“Moreover, we specialize internally,” George continued. “Everyone specializes in a single service: selling, leasing, managing and so on. So if you want to find the best people to expand your chain or sell your center, our name pops up quickly because of the great depth of knowledge that comes with specialization.”