Al Klairmont is a matchmaker of sorts.
The second-generation CEO and president of Imperial Realty has been putting deals together, matching tenants and properties, problems and solutions, for the last 42-plus years. Those deals are all about business as Klairmont and his team often focus on taking distressed or troubled assets and executing a plan to first stabilize and then add value to them. Almost always, the deals pay off handsomely.
There is another side of Klairmont’s matchmaking capabilities that aren’t measured in increasing cash flows or rates of return. Since the Spring of 2000, Klairmont has been the chief matchmaker and architect for the Mentorship & Career Counseling Program at the Harold E. Eisenberg Foundation. Since the program was launched, Klairmont has matched 1,500 students with what now totals approximately 100 volunteer mentors who are industry leaders, from all disciplines within commercial real estate.
Yet if not for running out of things to say while waiting in a long line for the Grand Opening of the Park District of Highland Park’s Swimming Pool in 1999, the mentor program may never have been established.
The real impetus for mentor program came when Harold Eisenberg, the foundation’s namesake, first met Klairmont.
“He did something no one had ever done before or since,” Klairmont said. “He called me up and suggested we get together simply to talk about real estate.”
There was no deal on the horizon—no lease or joint venture partnership opportunity. Just Al and Harold, 10 years older than Al, to talk about real estate. The men knew of each other. They both lived in Highland Park, Illinois, were real estate developers and very active in the industry and community. But they didn’t really know each other.
It took nearly a year for the meeting to come to fruition.
At that meeting, it struck Klairmont just how much Eisenberg loved to teach and nurture young people—especially his family. He would take them to village board meetings at night, job sites and the office. His gift of teaching didn’t stop there. Eisenberg was an instructor for ICSC.
“He’d travel around the country teaching classes,” Klairmont said. “And I don’t think they paid him much, if anything. He just loved to do it. In his mind, his students were like family.”
That characterization resonated with Klairmont who had often wondered what happens to those people who don’t have someone who can take them and show them the ropes. “A professor can’t really do that. A course can’t do that; and neither will a textbook,” he said.
Based on his meeting with Eisenberg, and his own personal experience, Klairmont concluded, “It can only come from a professional, someone who will treat you like family,” Klairmont said. “I’ve been fortunate myself. My father was my real estate mentor.”
Harold Eisenberg died suddenly, in January 1999, of liver and pancreatic cancers. Klairmont read about his friend Harold’s death. Inspired by Eisenberg’s values, Klairmont came up with the concept and the framework for a mentorship program. It would embrace Eisenberg’s commitment to teaching, inspiring and mentoring young people—as though they were his own family.
But he didn’t tell anyone. Until one day, five months later, when he stood in line waiting for the opening of the new Highland Park Public Pool. In line with him was Eddie Zifkin, a colleague of Al’s and a friend of the Eisenberg family. Zifkin was a founding director of the recently launched Harold E. Eisenberg Foundation. The organization had a two-pronged approach to support Cancer Research and to create a real estate scholarship program.
“The pool was filled to capacity and you had to wait in line a long time. Three people would leave, and three new people would be allowed in, and so on” Klairmont said. “With so much time, we talked about anything and everything until we were running out of things to say. To keep the conversation alive, I shared my idea for the mentor program.”
The idea was shared with Sheila Eisenberg, Harold’s wife. The reception was immediate. Klairmont was invited to the next board meeting of the foundation. The rest is history. In May of 2000, the foundation launched the mentor program. Embracing Eisenberg’s spirit and intent to open doors for young people, students are paired with industry leaders whose interests and experiences are closely aligned.
“They experience a full day in real estate like it really is, one-on-one,” Klairmont said.
Though COVID makes these “day in the life” experiences a little more challenging, the intent is for mentors—real estate brokers, developers, attorneys, finance people, etc.—to share their day as it happens. This includes meetings, site visits, phone calls, conference calls where advice is given, strategies are shared, decisions are made and deals are done.
“We ask the mentors to be completely open, honest and transparent, to go through things step by step so that they students get the education they can’t get anywhere else,” Klairmont said.
The program has approximately 100 mentors, with varying levels of experience in a wide spectrum of real estate roles and specializations. The “application” process begins with mentees identifying in order of priority, the mentors of their choice. Mentees also provide information about interests and aspirations, among other things. After that, Klairmont does his matchmaking work to pair together mentor and mentee.
Klairmont said there really is no other program like it. “There are many other mentoring programs today, and all are beneficial, but none are the same at giving students an honest and open, hands-on representation of the industry.”
For Klairmont and anyone else involved in the program, the rewards are great, and obvious. Most expect that Harold would be impressed, and very proud, too. Afterall, the program was the first of 15 real estate education programs formed to benefit real estate students.
“My heart just melts with pride from the accolades people share about the program which may lead to jobs, but also builds relationships; relationships that are like family,” Klairmont said.
Michael Millar is a Principal with Open Slate Communications who also serves in a voluntary/advisory capacity to The Harold E. Eisenberg Foundation.