John Allen has long been a big name in the Minnesota commercial real estate community. Not only did he thrive as a broker with Coldwell Banker, he also founded his own firm, starting Industrial Equities in 1983. That development and investment firm, one that focuses on industrial real estate, is thriving today, with a portfolio of more than 3 million square feet of industrial space.
But this isn’t Allen’s only success story. His residential land development company, Windsor Development, has been a major player in the Minnesota real estate scene, too. Windsor has completed almost 2,000 residential lots in communities throughout Minnesota, Arizona and Florida.
It’s little surprise, then, that Allen, president and chief executive officer of Industrial Equities, was awarded the Gary Holmes Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2020 Minnesota Real Estate Awards held Oct. 1 by Minnesota Real Estate Journal at the Depot in downtown Minneapolis.
Allen was one of 37 award winners during the event. And his acceptance speech was one of the evening’s highlights.
Those who’ve followed Allen’s career? They aren’t shocked at the long-term success Allen has enjoyed in commercial real estate. Take Bill McHale, executive vice president of development with Ryan Companies. During a taped introduction during the awards ceremony, McHale said that Allen always had a knack for closing deals. And that’s a skill that’s never left this real estate veteran, he said.
“John always came in with this big energy,” McHale said. “He was smart and decisive. He was imposing, but he was not threatening. He had a real likeability to him. He really was a natural salesperson.”
Paul Magers, a former news anchor and reporter, met Allen when they were both students at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul. He and Allen quickly became friends, and it didn’t take long for Magers to discover Allen’s entrepreneurial nature.
During the awards ceremony, Magers told the story of the frigid winter day when Allen rushed up to him and asked for an emergency loan of $50. What did Allen want the money for? He wanted to buy a new starter for his car. Allen knew that the Twin Cities’ temperatures were only going to drop in the winter months. He also knew that his roommates, who, at the time, were as broke as he was, had junker cars that wouldn’t handle these cold temps.
Allen installed his new starter and when the temperatures plummeted his car started right up. Other’s vehicles? They weren’t so fortunate. Allen made a quick haul charging his roommates $10 for rides to work or campus. As Magers said, Allen paid for that $50 starter several times over.
“John has the determination of a pit bull on a chuck roast,” Magers said. “He’s not going to let go. It’s his energy. It’s his drive. He is unbelievable. He has more determination than any human being I’ve ever met.”
That determination, along with a shrewd understanding of the market, has propelled Allen to a booming career in commercial real estate. He spent 14 years at Coldwell Banker Commercial Real Estate Services, consistently ranking as a top-five producer from 1981 to 1995. During this time, he arranged more than 10 million square feet of sales and lease transactions.
Allen’s peers respected his drive. He was a multiple winner of the Colbert Coldwell Award before he left the company in 1995 as a senior vice president.
Of course, Allen, like many thriving CRE pros, didn’t always envision a career in real estate. He did attend law school, after all. But as he moved through law school, he found that the idea of practicing law didn’t excite him. He decided to look for other opportunities.
At the time, Allen was a bouncer at Sergeant Preston’s, a bar and restaurant in Minneapolis. He noticed that the customers who always seemed to be having the most fun, those who dressed the nicest and drove the newest cars happened to be in real estate.
“They were winning the fun game,” Allen said during a phone interview with Minnesota Real Estate Journal.
And during his third year of law school, Allen came across a copy of Corporate Report, a business magazine in Minnesota. The magazine had a story about Coldwell Banker arriving in Minneapolis. The cover shot featured six of the pros from Coldwell kicking their feet in the air and looking extremely successful. And when Allen read the story? He was hooked.
“I read that magazine and I kept it,” Allen said. “I knew I wanted to do what those guys did. That was a career that I wanted to get into.”
Allen had two interviews after graduating from law school. He was offered a job at a corporate law office that came with two weeks of vacation, health insurance and a fixed, solid salary. He also interviewed with Coldwell Banker. That job offer came with no insurance and no set salary.
“There was no decision to make,” Allen said. “I took the job at CB.”
And he’s never regretted it.
“This has been a wonderful career on multiple levels,” Allen said. “It has been interesting. It’s been fun. And you do positive things. You increase the tax base. You create opportunities for businesses to get space to grow their companies. There is not another enterprise or area of commerce that has more of a waterfall impact on jobs. Look at all the people who are in business because of real estate. You have architects, finance professionals, attorneys, engineers, construction people. The impact you have in this business only adds to the fun of it. You are creating things. You are making things happen.”’
What are some of these positives? Allen points to the redevelopments he’s worked on that have boosted the fortunes of struggling communities. He pointed to new facilities that employ people and enhance a community’s tax base. Then there’s the remediation work that goes into preparing sites for new industrial facilities.
While Allen has enjoyed a long and successful career, this doesn’t mean he was immediately confident that he’d made the right decision when he turned down that steady legal job. During his early days in the business, Allen didn’t let go of his bouncer job. He also worked weekends sealing driveways as a way to bolster his income during those early months.
Success, though, came quickly for Allen. After working as a commercial broker for about 16 months, he had saved enough money to purchase his first commercial property. He had been cold-calling potential clients in Minneapolis when he connected with one who owned an office building. The owner wanted to sell the property as quickly as he could. Allen, sensing an opportunity, bought the building himself.
Allen held onto the property for about 10 months, then flipped it to a car dealership that was next door and wanted the space to expand its business. Allen flew to Chicago with his proceeds and bought his second property.
“Then I was off to the races,” he said. “I was buying smaller industrial properties that needed to be repositioned or cleaned up or leased up. For those first deals, we put in a lot of work. We put our shoulders into them. We painted them. Cleaned them and leased them.”
That approach worked. By 1995, Allen had acquired a portfolio of about 1 million square feet. That was when he left Coldwell Banker and began focusing more on the development and investment of institutional-grade properties.
Allen certainly created his own success. But he says he also benefitted from working at a company as professional as Coldwell Banker during the early days of his career. And after leaving Coldwell, Allen made sure to surround himself with talented commercial real estate professionals. This included skilled architects, financial professionals and lawyers.
Allen also understood his market. He had a knack for buying and selling properties at the right time.
Finally? Allen prided himself on being honest and keeping his word.
“We always paid our mortgages on time or early,” he said. “We never defaulted on a single mortgage or loan. Therefore, we got preferential treatment from banks and lenders. That allowed us to take risks when others were unable to do so. If real estate is about anything, it’s about risk management. That’s something I’ve learned over the last 40 years. It’s a risk-management business. Looking back, it’s clear that we managed risk well.”
Succeeding in a field as competitive as commercial real estate takes a different type of mindset and personality. Allen possesses the confidence necessary to succeed. He also studied the market and focused on one asset class, industrial, becoming an expert in it.
“Unless you are a machine, successful multitasking just doesn’t work,” Allen said. “I took my confidence, focused on one type of real estate and bet on myself. I’m also laser focused when I’m involved in a deal. I want to know everything there is to know about a property. I can tell you what we are paying the guy who empties out the dumpsters each week. We always have the data and information we need to complete our next project with confidence. You need to be that focused. This business is about taking the right kind of risks at the right time with the right people. You increase the odds of that happening by knowing all the data.”