Stephen W. Baird '85
Reinventing a fifth-generation family business
By Sara Langen
In the Chicago real estate market, Baird & Warner is more than just a household name.
The 156-year-old company is one of the oldest family-owned and locally operated real estate firms in the city. But as a child, Stephen W. Baird '85 was unaware of the iconic status of his family's business.
"My dad is very humble; he purposely never talked much about the business," says Baird, who today serves as president and CEO of the company. "It wasn't until after college that I learned more about it."
Like his father and grandfather, Baird didn't immediately join the company after graduating from college. He first worked as an assistant coach of the men's swimming team at his alma mater, Harvard University, and then managed the flagship store of Eastern Mountain Sports in Boston. In 1980, Baird returned to Chicago and talked with his father about his interest in joining the family business.
"My dad and I sat down and mapped out a plan for me to work for a year or two in different areas of the company and learn the business," says Baird, who simultaneously enrolled in the Kellogg School's Part-Time MBA Program to gain further exposure to the business world.
When he finally took the helm of Baird & Warner in 1991, Baird was hit with an unexpected challenge: The company was over-leveraged in commercial real estate and, as a result, was struggling.
"We were losing money," he remembers. "We were a significant entity in commercial and residential sales, brokerage, management and finance, but it didn't make sense for us to be in all those businesses. We needed to focus."
Going against the company's foundation in commercial real estate, Baird decided to expand the firm's residential business. It was a bold strategy that proved to be successful for Baird & Warner — until the housing crisis hit in 2008. Suddenly, the company was in "free fall," he says.
To cope, Baird aggressively streamlined operations. "We completely rebuilt our business," he says, explaining that he merged several offices. But those hard decisions have paid off.
"Even though we are doing business today at 30 percent less than our peak, we are profitable," says Baird, noting that the firm currently maintains 2,000 employees. "And we're much healthier as a business than we've been in seven or eight years."
And, true to its origins, Baird & Warner is still very much a family business.
"My dad is 95 and he still comes in [to the office] four days a week," Baird says. "I joke that I can't retire because my dad's still working."