by Dan Rafter
What makes for a successful real estate development company today? The leaders of Kansas City, Mo.-based VanTrust Real Estate don’t have any secret formulas for success. But they do know why their company is thriving today: The real estate professionals at VanTrust work hard, research their markets and provide top customer service. Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke with Dave Harrison, president of VanTrust; Rich Muller, vice president of Kansas City development; and Bret Sheffield, vice president of development services about the success that VanTrust is enjoying today.
Midwest Real Estate News: This is a big, broad question, but why do you think VanTrust Real Estate is succeeding today, even in a commercial real estate industry that is growing more competitive?
Dave Harrison: Clearly one of the most important components to our success is that we have our own internal capital source available to us. This means that we always have the appropriate amount of capital readily available, internally, to us to allow us to fulfill our business objectives. That is an important advantage. We have great capital matched with great lending relationships matched with the great professionals who work here. Then there’s our culture. We expect people to work hard and smart here. We have a culture here that breeds success.
And there’s one more advantage: We have formed great relationships with the brokerage community in our markets. That helps, too. When you add it all together: the capital we have, the lenders we work with, the relationships we have with the community and the knowledge of our internal folks, it really is a four-legged stool that supports us.
MREN: You mention the culture at VanTrust. What do you look for when adding new commercial real estate professionals to your staff to maintain that culture?
Bret Sheffield: As we’ve grown over the last several years we have added several people. We really try to make the right fit culturally for our company. We want people who will buy in to what we are trying to do. At the same time, we have also targeted specific subject-matter experts in different fields to make sure that we have a strong, balanced team. As we’ve grown, the team members that we’ve brought on have been true professionals.
Rich Muller: Building upon what Bret and David have said, we do have a lot of all-stars in this office. We put a real premium on responsibility and accountability. It’s an internal thing here. It’s a great feeling when you are surrounded by best-in-class people whom you can rely on, people who are all working in the same direction toward a common goal. It’s easy to have fun when you’re working with people like that. We all work hard to do the best job that we can. Having fun along the way is an important piece of that. We are fortunate to work in this environment.
MREN: Do you follow a formula when hiring people?
Harrison: We don’t have a real formalized process. We do have a lot of folks who come to us, and many of the people we consider we know already because of their strong reputations in the marketplace. For every open position that we have, we have prospective hires come to our campus and meet with virtually everyone in our office to make sure it is a good match. There are a lot of real smart people in the world and in our industry. If that was the only gauge, it’d be real simple. But we guard our culture very closely. We make sure that the smart people we hire fit into our culture, too. We are judged on doing the right thing. We are not judged on quarterly distributions. We have to do great real estate and do what’s right. That is our strength. We are given that opportunity and that flexibility because we do have our own source of internal capita.
MREN: When taking on a real estate project or transaction, what do you look for to make sure it is the right real estate move for your company?
Harrison: Any project that we do has to satisfy the employees or tenants that will be in that building. It also has to satisfy the end user or customer. The math has to work. And it has to improve the community in which the project goes. It has to raise the other boats in the harbor, so to say. The community should be better off after a project hits than it was before. We want to be able to take our grandkids to the projects we’ve worked on and be happy to show them what we’ve done.
Sheffield: As David alluded to, if you can take your family by a project and be proud of it, then you know it’s been a successful project. We want to be successful for the contractor and the city, for the design team, too. We want to look at a project and say it was a success for them, too, that everyone who is a part of the project, all the way up and down the line, felt that it was worthwhile and that it was a success.
MREN: Are there any projects you look at that make you particularly proud?
Harrison: There are many. The Village at Mission Farms, a 212-unit luxury apartment complex with retail in Overland Park, Kansas, has been very well-received. It has won a number of awards from our peers. We also have achieved strong rents relative to the market. The Plaza Vista Office Tower, in Kansas City, with that new office space and hotel, is another project that we are very proud of. That was the most challenging project that any of us has ever touched. The end result and the positive impact it has had on the neighborhood and community has been rewarding. The Urban Land Institute and the American Institute of Architects have viewed this as a quality project. It has won important industry awards. That project was a milestone for us. We have just broken ground on the Burns-McDonnell headquarters expansion in Kansas City, too. That will be another significant office building, one that will better serve the employees at Burns-McDonnell, the community and the state.
Muller: There has been such a variety of projects that we have worked on. We are fortunate to have the ability to impact neighborhoods with infill projects. A lot of the work we are doing today is very much urban projects on very challenging sites. These are sites that have laid fallow for reasons of their own for long periods of time. We’ve been able to come in and add as much value to the neighborhood as possible. These projects range from mixed-use to multi-family projects to civic projects. It’s an awful lot of fun to work on so many important projects.