Mortenson Development’s Jeremy Jacobs: Drawing on his military past to succeed in commercial real estate

jeremy jacobs2by Dan Rafter

Jeremy Jacobs spent five years in the U.S. Army as a captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps., where he served as a prosecutor in the First Cavalry Division. During his military career, Jacobs was deployed to Baghdad, where he met daily with Iraqi civilians to determine how much, if anything, the U.S. Military owed them for damage the military did to them or their property.

Jacobs’ stint in the military provided him with plenty of skills that he relies on now to succeed in commercial real estate. Minneapolis’ Mortenson Development recently hired Jacobs as a development executive. He is now searching for development opportunities in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas.

Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke to Jacobs about his real estate career, the reasons for his success and how serving in the U.S. Army gives him an edge when he’s working out development deals for Mortenson.

A change of plans: I did five years in the Army. The story of how got into commercial real estate starts there. When I was originally deployed in 2008, I thought it would be the first of many deployments for me. I was going to be a 20-year military guy. I loved what I did. Little did I know that when I deployed I would meet my future wife in Iraq. She was also in the military. We met and that started a quick and immediate career shift.

We wanted to get married and start a family. Staying in the military is really hard in terms of being together and being a family. We sat down and wondered what we would do next. I thought back to my time in business and law school. During those days, I developed a real admiration for real estate and real estate development, especially when it came to commercial real estate.

To the Twin Cities: We decided to move to the Twin Cities, where my wife is from. I was quickly put in contact with Ryan Companies. They asked me what I’d like to do. I told them that I’d like to work in commercial real estate. I remember them saying something like, ‘That’s great. But you’re an attorney.’  But they did give me a chance to prove myself. I’m forever grateful to them for that. I worked my way up, worked on some interesting deals. I eventually found a place for myself in the field and started to make some important contributions back to the company for the risk that they took in hiring me on.

Five years after I started at Ryan, I got a call from Mortenson. The company was looking for a new development leader. I got excited about the opportunity and decided to take it. I’ve been with them for three months now, and I really enjoy the work.

jeremy jacobs3Military skills matter: A number of the skills I picked up in the military are crucial to my success today. Some of them, though, are less obvious but still important. In the military, you wake up every morning at 4:30 or 5 and your work day starts. You work until you are done with the job. There is no such thing as a typical 9-to-5 day. I’ve found that commercial real estate is an industry in which you work every day until you are done, for better or worse.

I’ve noticed, too, that the leaders in this industry are those who really know how to communicate. As a leader in the Army, it is as important to communicate with the privates what you are doing as it is to communicate with the generals. When I am working with cities, banks, architects, engineers and planners, the one thing I am really good at is making sure that I communicate with everyone evenly.

The power of honesty: I bring a certain level of transparency to the business. When people work with me, they know that what I say is going to be honored. People don’t often have doubts that what I am saying is true. Not unlike others in the industry, I rely on my reputation. The transparency is key.

Also, I’ve never been afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ That can convey strength. If you admit to people that you don’t know something, you are inspiring the confidence in them that you will find the person who does know. Those two things have paid dividends for me. People trust those who behave like them. Most of the people I interact with would also admit that they don’t know everything.

The adrenaline rush: When I first left the Army, I thought that I’d never find any adrenaline rush quite like being in the military, being deployed. In the military, you wake up every morning and know what your mission and purpose is. The military is a unique environment. There are things about it that no other career can rival. But commercial real estate is its own sort of adrenaline rush. When you are in the thick of a deal, it is exciting. There are so many things happening. It is chaotic. You get the chance to work with so many stakeholders. They all have different angles and expectations on deals. It’s fun to get engaged in every level of that. A successful development is one in which you walk away and every partner says, ‘I would do that again.’ Achieving that? That’s an adrenaline rush, too.

Making a mark: The bigger picture of why I enjoy this business is that commercial real estate gives you a unique opportunity to leave an imprint on a community. The structures that we build become a part of our personal legacy as much as our corporate one. We did something that was interesting, exciting and met the goals of a community. We want the community to embrace our projects. That is the goal of every one of our projects.

Impact work: The last project that I worked on before leaving Ryan was a really cool one. It was the conversion of the historic Plymouth building in downtown Minneapolis. That building was built in the 1900s, and had sat vacant for a couple of decades. We had a concept for redeveloping that building into a hotel. I was working on that deal for probably two years, from beginning to end. A year into the deal, it completely fell apart. Everyone walked away. We were all thinking, ‘Now what?’ Over the course of another year, we revived the deal. We brought another hotel chain back into the deal. We found more stakeholders. By the middle of next year, construction will be complete. That was a rewarding deal. We took an asset that was underutilized and transformed it into a downtown Minneapolis hotel that will flourish. That will be a nice impact to a corner of downtown that needed help, a part of downtown that had one particular building standing out like a sore thumb. Now it will have a really cool, modern Embassy Suites hotel there.

Military work: During my military career I was deployed to Baghdad, specifically Camp Liberty. That camp was part of the first portion of the country that U.S. soldiers seized in 2003. It was an interesting place to be. I was working there shortly before we turned over legal authority from the United States to a sovereign Iraqi government. Part of my day-to-day job was to meet with Iraqi civilians who claimed to some degree that the U.S. government owed them money because of the damage we did to their person and property. For instance, I paid the owner of a hotel that was occupied by U.S. forces for more than two years $300,000 for the fair-market occupancy plus damages. I also paid $5,000 to the owner of a soybean field that we had accidentally burned by setting off a flare and setting the field ablaze. Maybe someone driving a jeep sideswiped a car and took off the rearview mirror. We might owe the civilian $500 to replace the mirror. Where did we cause damage? Who do we owe the money to? If the claims were legitimate, we paid them out.

Free time: My wife and I just had a 3-month-old baby. So that obviously keeps us busy. But when I do have free time, I enjoy crosswords. I’m a big fan of the New York Times Sunday crossword. I’m a former basketball player and I still love that game. So I follow basketball closely. Now that the Vikings are playing well, I watch them every week, too.

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