John N. Allen has worked with real estate developers, investors and executives around the country, and as much as he respects them and values their perspectives and their role as mentors, he believes his success boils down to one intangible element:

“The best bet,” he said, “is to surround yourself with good people, and bet on yourself.” The president, chief executive officer and sole principal of Industrial Equities L.L.P. makes the comment quietly but not arrogantly, exuding a self-assuredness that has evolved one project at a time over the last three decades.

“I sit down with my children all the time and I always tell them the same thing: have confidence in yourself,” he said. “I studied the real estate business north, south, east and  west until I knew it, and I invest in and choose projects that I understand.

“Bet on yourself and don’t rely on others who might steer you in a different direction. You have to trust your own instincts and your own judgment.”

Allen’s philosophy has allowed him to build Minneapolis-based Industrial Equities into a commercial real estate investment, development and management firm with a portfolio of nearly 3 million square feet. His Windsor Development of Florida, a residential development company, has completed 1,500 lots in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida, and he has developed several hotels.

Projects like those are a long way from Suamico, Wis., north of Green Bay, where Allen grew up the second oldest of six children. He enrolled at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., to major in social science, minor in history and political science, and play outside linebacker in football and center in basketball.

After graduating in 1977, Allen moved to Minnesota and law school at Hamline University. He had no intention of practicing law but he believed a legal background would  better enable him “to think logically and intelligently in understanding the complexities of business and politics.”

A magazine article piqued his interest in the real estate sector, and Coldwell Banker Commercial Real Estate Services hired him – “the first and only job I ever interviewed for” – as an industrial broker in January 1981. His first deal involved an 800-square-foot lease and within two years he was one of the top five producers in the firm’s Edina office.

“John had an overriding resolve to excel and succeed, and I also saw a guy who was very proud of his family,” said Ken Sandstad, the Coldwell Banker executive who hired both Allen and Patrick Ryan ’75, now president and CEO of Ryan Companies and a fellow St. Thomas trustee with Allen. “I have seen many people who say they are highly motivated and driven, but in the end they do not live up to the talk. John always did. The pride in his family stood out for me, too.”

Allen remained with Coldwell Banker until 1995, advancing to become senior vice president and arranging more than 10 million square feet of sales and lease transactions,  and he also struck out on his own in 1983. He founded Industrial Equities because “ultimately, I wanted to develop my own portfolio,” and he has long favored institutional-grade industrial properties with the most up-to-date technology, extensive glass, ample parking and attractive landscaping.

“We are very nimble and engaged,” he said, referring to a “guerilla development” strategy that allows him “to get in, don’t take too big a bite out of the apple, get the deal  done and then move on to the next investment.” It’s important to always manage risk, especially in challenging economic times.

“We also have to remain focused,” he said. “We have resisted the temptation to go in other real estate directions. We did some hotels and residential lots and had really  good runs, but our best thrust is multitenant, institutional-grade industrial projects. We understand the market demands – and what is going to lease.”

Lee Anderson, a fellow St. Thomas trustee who owns more than 30 construction related companies, admires Allen’s ability to assess a project’s potential and move quickly if he deems it a good fit.

“John sees opportunities where others might not,” Anderson said. “He knows how to size up a good deal. He has an engaging personality, and he uses it to his advantage. People like being around John.”

Dee Ann Stinebaugh, a 1988 St. Thomas alumna, has worked for Allen since 1995 and today serves as director of property management at Industrial Equities. She calls her boss “super driven,” with an innate sense as to whether a project will work.

“He has made so many right decisions along the way, and he also has walked away from some deals that could have been bad,” she said. “He has the touch.”

Most Allen projects fly below the public radar, but one that didn’t was his proposal last year to construct a 68,000-square-foot office and warehouse building on the north side of Interstate 94, east of Highway 280 in St. Paul.

The project complied with all city requirements and industrial zoning codes, but the city council voted “no” in response to neighborhood concerns about design and parking. Allen successfully sued the city and expects to open the warehouse this year.

“I’m not litigious by nature,” Allen said, “but in this case I had to protect my investment. This will be a good project for St. Paul, with more new jobs (150) and more taxes for the city.”

Among Allen’s hobbies – and one he shares with Anderson – is restoring wooden boats, which he keeps on property he owns on Gull Lake in northern Minnesota. He has acquired 22 boats; the oldest, Chief Mackinac, is a 1917, 32-foot launch constructed by Consolidated, and the youngest dates to 1955.

“Gull Lake is one of my favorite places to be,” Allen said. “Lee encouraged me to get into antique boats and I have thoroughly enjoyed them. We have a healthy collection and competition.”

Allen’s fondness for Gull Lake led him to purchase the legendary Bar Harbor Supper Club in Lake Shore. The original 1938 restaurant burned down in 1968 and was rebuilt twice before Allen purchased it last year with an eye toward an extensive renovation that would recall its past.

“Bar Harbor’s historic presence appealed to me,” he said. “Three and four generations of families have dined and danced there. After the renovation, an older gentleman told me, ‘I am 92, and I have been coming here every summer since 1938. I thought I would hate what you’ve done, but I love it!’”

Allen jokes that Bar Harbor “never will make my Top 10 deals from a standpoint of profitability,” but he has no regrets. As he examined the project, he chose to move ahead in large measure because he believed it would benefit the community.

And it was, he might have added, another example of betting on himself.

Read more from St. Thomas Magazine.