Jim Gearen has accumulated many memories and memorabilia in his 25 years as a commercial real estate “guru,” as one investor calls him, but his most-prized possession may be a small picture frame in his downtown Minneapolis office.
“Pru’s Last $1, NFC, August 23, 1991,” reads the headline above a cut-up dollar bill that includes part of George Washington’s face.
“I’ve saved it all these years,” Gearen said with a smile. “My first deal in the Twin Cities.”
The deal with Prudential Insurance came when Gearen was all of 29 and with Chicagobased Zeller Realty Corp. Chairman Paul Zeller had decided to expand and told Gearen to check out buildings that would be worth buying in other markets. He settled on Northwestern Financial Center (now Wells Fargo Plaza) in Bloomington.
“As part of the financial structure I needed to post a letter of credit,” Gearen recalled, “and the banker said, ‘If this goes sideways, you could lose everything.’ I said, ‘I’m young. If I lose everything I’ll move back to Chicago and live with my parents. It’s time to take a risk.’ The banker said, ‘You’re right. We’ll back you.’
“Paul and I had a gun to our heads. If we failed, the company could go down. But, we didn’t fail.”
Gearen and his partners renovated the building, filled it, sold it five years later and used the proceeds as investment capital for other Zeller purchases. Today the company owns 1.7 million square feet of office space in Minneapolis and has 3 million square feet under management and leasing in the Twin Cities.
It was a heady start for the 1983 St. Thomas political science graduate, who was promoted to president of Zeller Realty last year. As he looks back on his auspicious beginning, Gearen credits the turn-of-the-century kindness of an early president of St. Thomas to his grandfather and the lessons he learned 80 years later Trustee Profile taking a statistics class that he hated.
Gearen, 51, was born in Chicago, and his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather worked in Cudahy Packing Co. plants. His grandfather expected to follow them, but a parish priest had other ideas for John Gearen and wrote to Father John Dolphin, a seminary classmate and president of St. Thomas from 1899 to 1903.
“I think he (John) has a vocation and I ask you as a favor to foster it,” Father E.W. Fowler wrote. “He is a good boy and is possessed of more than usual talents.”
Dolphin accepted John and provided a scholarship that allowed him to spend two years at St. Thomas. He later worked for Cudahy – not in the slaughterhouse but in the front office – and rose to become secretary-treasurer, the highest-ranking non-family member. He also established a tradition: the Gearens would receive college educations. Sons Philip and Jack graduated from St. Thomas and Jim’s dad (also named Jim) attended St. Thomas for two years and owned his own industrial real estate company in Chicago.
Jim Gearen Jr. showed up for a tour of St. Thomas during a snowstorm in 1979. He fell in love with the campus and enrolled with the idea of becoming a doctor, but he changed his mind after working in a hospital pediatric ward.
“A little girl had been in a fire with severe burns, and her parents never came to see her,” he said. “I would clean her room, and one day she spoke to me as she stood on the edge of her crib. Another little boy was fighting cancer, and one Saturday I came in and asked, ‘Where’s Charlie?’ He had died.
“I had a tough time getting over that. I went to Dr. (Robert) Bland, the pre-med advisor, and said, ‘I can’t do this.’ He was very understanding. He asked what I was thinking of studying and sent me to see Nancy Zingale.”
Zingale taught political science, and Gearen fell in love with the subject. He spent a January Term at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where his cousin was a White House cameraman for CNN, and got a behind-the-scenes look.
The summer before his senior year, Gearen worked for what now is CBRE and got a taste of commercial real estate. His dad felt he needed to take courses in marketing and accounting, and he also had to take a statistics class with Zingale.
“I hated statistics,” he said, “but Nancy and a marketing professor ran a joint class to show us how statistics and marketing can work together. The light bulb went on and I realized how all the data I was collecting at CBRE could help inform better real estate decisions.”
Gearen moved back to Chicago after graduation and worked five years as a real estate broker at Scribner & Co. He considered graduate school and took his dad’s advice to meet Zeller, who had a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
Zeller had other ideas. He was preparing to start his own company and persuaded Gearen to join him. The expansion decision sent Gearen to Minnesota and the Northwestern Financial Center project, and other deals ensued. Zeller grew, buying the World Trade Center in St. Paul and One Financial Plaza in Minneapolis.
“Then one day in 2005 Paul told me, ‘I don’t like where the market is headed. We’re going to sell everything.’ I accused him of getting old and losing his nerve: ‘What’s going on? We spent years building a portfolio and now you want to sell?’ But his name was on the door, and he had good reasons. His wisdom proved prophetic. Our partners saw how we protected their interests and it is paying off in spades as we now expand again.”
In 2006, after selling Zeller’s Minnesota assets, Gearen did buy one Minneapolis building – LaSalle Plaza – and last year purchased the 1.1 million-square-foot Fifth Street Towers. He had had his eye on the two-building complex for some time.
“I like figuring out which buildings are relevant and which ones are underperforming,” he said. “All that statistical analysis I hated learning has paid off. We have built a 20-year quarterly database on every building in Chicago and the Twin Cities, and that information and the ability to discern forward trends has allowed us to better predict investment outcomes than some of our competitors. We are building that same database on other markets that we are expanding into as well.”
Luigi Bernardi, a 1985 St. Thomas alumnus who is president of Aurora Investments, has invested in Zeller projects and implicitly trusts Gearen to do the right thing.
“I call him the office guru,” Bernardi said. “He does his homework and knows the market better than anybody. He’s an expert on negotiating leases and he’s astute in dealing with mortgagers, bankers and lenders. He has a million connections.”
Zeller loves Gearen’s networking skills, “indefatigable energy,” team approach and most importantly, perhaps, how Gearen deals with difficult situations.
“In our business, you have a lot of success after an enormous amount of false starts,” he said. “We do one out of 20 or 25 deals we look at, so there is failure and trial and error. Jim keeps a positive attitude and doesn’t let the projects that don’t come to fruition get in the way.”
Jim Gearen ’83 and St. Thomas
• Joined the Board of Trustees in 2009, chairs the Physical Facilities Committee and is a member of the Academic Affairs, Executive, Institutional Advancement and Investment committees.
• Serves on the Real Estate Advisory Board in the Opus College of Business and was on the search committee that recommended Dr. Julie Sullivan to become the 15th president of St. Thomas.
• Served on the Center for Catholic Studies Advisory Board from 2003 to 2012 (and was chair from 2007 to 2010).
• Is married to Mary Beidler Gearen, an award-winning actress, director and producer and a member of the College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board. They have a daughter, Molly, 15.
• Devotes countless hours of service as his way of repaying an institution that educated his grandfather more than a century ago. “St. Thomas gave so much to our family, and to me. You want to give back and help that next group of immigrants to have a chance to go to college.”
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