BizTimes: Irgens has built a base for success
By Corrinne Hess, BizTimes staff writer
Last spring, as developer Mark Irgens was putting the finishing touches on 833 East, downtown Milwaukee’s first new office tower in more than a decade, he heard BMO Harris Bank was issuing a request for proposal for its own new downtown office tower.
Irgens knew at least five other developers were going after the project, so he decided to take a risk.
Irgens put forward a proposal that solved two problems for BMO. He would develop a new, 25-story office tower adjacent to BMO’s existing building in downtown Milwaukee and then repurpose the former M&I Bank headquarters building at 770 N. Water St.
The idea won Irgens Partners LLC the business, and further secured Irgens’ place as one of the most dominant players in the southeastern Wisconsin commercial real estate market.
From The ASQ Center in downtown Milwaukee to GE Healthcare’s offices in Wauwatosa, the 72 projects Irgens and his team have developed since he started the company in 1998 are some of the most recognizable in the area.
“When I started the company, I think my goal was much less,” Irgens said recently, sitting in his fourth floor conference room in 833 East. “I had a much more myopic view of the world. But as we continued to succeed, I was able to see a much bigger picture, so I was able to learn along the way and see more opportunities.”
Irgens, who recently turned 62, grew up in Wauwatosa. He was an accounting major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s, but when an advanced accounting course stumped him, he dropped the class and needed to replace the five credits.
That is how he met one of UW’s legendary professors, Jim Graaskamp, who was teaching an introduction to real estate and urban land economics class.
“He was an influencer in my life,” Irgens said. “He was a dynamic speaker and very enthusiastic. He got sick when he was in college and became paralyzed, but made the best of it. There is a whole generation of people who were trained under him who have become entrepreneurs.”
Irgens spent the first five years of his career as an appraiser and then a commercial loan officer at a bank.
By then it was the early 1980s, and the high interest rates and bankruptcies Irgens saw his clients experiencing became part of a continuing education that stuck with him when he started his own company.
Irgens convinced Appleton-based Oscar J. Boldt Construction Co. to start a development arm and hire him to lead it, which he did for 15 years before purchasing the assets and more than 35 employees with three partners in 1998, when the Boldt family decided to exit development.
The group invested about $65,000 of their own money and borrowed “a bunch of money” to start Irgens Development Partners LLC (now Irgens Partners LLC).
“We were very leveraged, so from that standpoint, it was motivating for us to work hard,” Irgens said.
One of Irgens’ first projects was with fellow developer William Orenstein.
The two partnered to redevelop the former Gimbels building into The ASQ Center in downtown Milwaukee. The project was completed in 2001.
“Folks like (Orenstein) and the Boldt (chief financial officer) and president were true gentlemen and really good people to work with, and that is how we like to do our business,” Irgens said. Orenstein died in January 2016.
Irgens himself is a gentleman. And reserved.
He believes in always being prepared, protecting his reputation and making sure every project has two ways out.
During an interview, Irgens quietly refers to himself as “secretly hard driving.”
“There are a lot of moving parts (in real estate) and it is hard to get them all lined up to get a project to work,” Irgens said. “The architecture needs to fit the financial model. We want to build grand projects, believe me, but we base our success on our stakeholders’ success.”
Driving around southeastern Wisconsin, Irgens doesn’t have to look far to see his work. He said the biggest thrill is when the buildings are just coming out of the ground.
“I usually drive past projects that are under development to see how they are doing,” Irgens said. “Most of the intellectual work has been done prior to putting a shovel into the ground. But when I’m actually seeing a building coming up and starting to take shape, I find that really satisfying.”
When asked his favorite project, Irgens doesn’t name a building. Instead, he says it is the business he has grown over the past 19 years.
“We have been very fortunate,” Irgens said. “The way I look at is, we didn’t have any grand plan to be the largest office developer (in the area); our plan was really to do the best we could at every individual development and choose the best location. The location and the quality of real estate is really important because then you can weather the ups and downs much better.”
Irgens’ current partners are Jaclynn Walsh, Duane Nolde and David Arnold.
Walsh has been a co-owner since the beginning. In 2014, she was promoted to president and chief operating officer of the company.
Irgens views the company he and his partners started nearly 25 years ago as a first-generation organization that will continue on when he decides he doesn’t want to work as much as he does now – although, with several projects in the pipeline, he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“We are trying to build a base, as opposed to growing as fast as we can,” Irgens said. “So it has been fairly gradual. We don’t try to get out in front of our skis too much.”
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