Kellogg alumnus and Guthrie Center Advisor John M.Crocker, Jr. ’79 is President and CEO of Opus North Corporation. Opus North, headquartered in Rosemont, IL, has offices in Milwaukee, Columbus, Detroit, and Indianapolis, with combined annual revenue of nearly $200 million and annual development volume exceeding two million square feet. Jack was kind enough to invite the Real Return into his corner office to discuss recent events at Opus and his post-Kellogg ride to the top.
How did you get into real estate? How did you find yourself at Opus?
I liked the built environment. After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture and a Master’s Degree in City Planning, I didn’t see myself working in a municipal city planning office and thought about how I could transition my interest into a career that would be both rewarding and enjoyable. I applied to business schools and chose to attend Kellogg. When I graduated in 1979, the development community really wasn’t hiring MBAs and, for the most part, wasn’t hiring inexperienced people. I began my career as a construction loan officer at Citibank, where I worked directly with the principals of firms. I was able to see how deals came together, how the senior people in the real estate community really behaved, and what was vital to them. It was a great stepping stone into development. After a short stint with Rauenhorst (now Opus), I became a junior partner at a smaller, more entrepreneurial firm— Walsh Higgins (now Higgins Development Partners). Four years later, I returned to Opus to run their development activities in the Chicago market. Later, I was asked to become the President of Opus National. It was a small entity doing deals for national customers with multiple building requirements that crossed the regional boundaries of the Opus companies. Then, in 1998, I became the President of Opus North.
What do you find most appealing about development?
Having an idea about what a piece of property should become and then taking all the steps to realize that vision. Then seeing it and continuing to be able to drive by it. You remember the deal—the ups, the downs, and the people. That’s very satisfying. The deal making and certain transactions that I have put together are far more satisfying than running a company. Far more.
How is Opus responding to current market conditions?
We remain positioned in the office and industrial segments and continue to do spec and build-to-suit industrial projects. We have solid office positions for when that market recovers. However, we are also moving heavily into residential and retail development to further diversify our product types. The last time the office market went down we became large power center developers. We later reduced retail as a percentage of our total volume, but are now revving that retail back up with an increased focus on lifestyle centers. Opus has done a major lifestyle center in Minneapolis, The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes, and has others underway throughout the country. We haven’t done a lifestyle center at Opus North yet, but we are negotiating to control some land for one. Similarly to adding retail the last time the office market went down, we are adding residential this time. Opus North owns land in Vernon Hills and we have been tackling a challenging entitlement process, but hope to build mid-rise condominiums and town homes. The hard push into residential is probably the biggest change.
Opus is a family-owned, full-service real estate company. How does that favor the company?
I think it’s a good model. Opus considered becoming a REIT, but the family wanted to run the business. We didn’t want to have to produce quarterly results for Wall Street. We think real estate and real estate decision-making are longer term. At least on the development side, earnings can be far lumpier than Wall Street really would like. I think the decision suits us well.
Do you think the industry today views inexperienced MBAs similar to when you graduated?
I think the entire real estate industry is far more acknowledging of the capabilities of an MBA, particularly from the top business schools.