Max Benedict was drawn back to help with his family’s sign business during the Great Recession, but now has been able to rejoin his mentors and follow his passion at Third Coast Development. Photo by Matt Radick
It was last year’s stress-induced heart palpitations that made the then 30-year-old Max Benedict realize something in his career needed to change.
While sitting in the emergency room, listening to the doctor explain how there was nothing to be done but to reduce his work load, Benedict found himself facing a choice: Either he could continue to essentially run his family’s business full time, or he could return to his real estate dream-job full time.
Performing both tasks full time — which he had been doing for about a sleepless year straight — was, quite literally, breaking his heart.
Many people struggle with long hours and hard work when holding on to one successful career. At 30, Benedict was already juggling two. He often wondered how he ever got himself into that position.
The answer to that question had started years earlier.
Benedict, the heir to entrepreneurial genes, moved with his family to Grand Rapids from Pittsburgh when he was about 2 years old, and spent his foundational years growing up here.
He graduated from Forest Hills Central High School in 2001, and that fall he started attending Michigan State University, where he planned to study engineering.
“When I initially went there, my uncle was an engineer and doing really well, and my brother was at Purdue as an engineer, so I just went in there saying, ‘Well, if I can be an engineer, I can do anything,’ so I thought I’d go do that,” Benedict said.
“I ended up (realizing) there’s a definite ceiling to being an engineer. It starts off at a great level, but if you want to make a lot of money as an engineer, you have to invent something.”
His love of numbers led him to switch to studying finance instead, and he immediately discovered he had a knack and a passion for it.
When he graduated in December 2005 with a degree in finance, he thought he might get into real estate as a mortgage broker.
The real estate field he was about to enter was in its heyday — peaking before the upcoming Great Recession. At the time, everything seemed to be going well and people in real estate were still piling up money, Benedict said. Sure, there were some signs of troubled waters, but he focused on the stories he’d heard about how those in real estate could make seven figures a year while driving around in a Ferrari.
“I was left thinking, ‘Well, the smart ones get the Ferrari, and the not-so-smart ones are the ones that I hear about getting their houses foreclosed on. I’m still the master of my destiny; I can still give it a try,’” he said.
In early 2006, Benedict started his first post-college job as a project manager with Third Coast Development, a Grand Rapids-based commercial real estate development firm.
He took an instant love to the work.
At first, he wasn’t making all that much money, he said, but eventually things improved when he started receiving a cut of the deals made by the firm’s two partners, Brad Rosely and Dave Levitt, who became like parents to him, Benedict said.
Benedict describes Rosely as the firm’s gas and Levitt as the firm’s brakes, creating an equally distributed energy that Benedict was able to balance, playing devil’s advocate to each partner’s strength.
“They’ve taught me almost everything I know. I was trained how to think in school, and I was trained how to work by these guys,” he said.
Benedict’s early days at Third Coast Development were golden, but the chilling wind of economic upheaval soon spoiled his budding career dreams. When the housing market collapsed in 2008, Benedict soon found himself essentially earning almost nothing.
It was with a heavy heart that he left Third Coast in 2010 to take a job as a business analyst for his family’s company, 2/90 Sign Systems, a three-decade old, ESOP company with more than 100 employees that specializes in interior and exterior wayfinding sign systems.
“(Making) 5 percent of nothing is still nothing. I wanted to live out the dream with Brad and Dave as much as I could, but my family business was asking me to come up with a solution for their sign issues,” he said.
“My family is tight-knit, but I never had aspirations to work there. I didn’t want to leave Third Coast; it was almost like coming back with my tail between my legs to the family business.”
Not content to just work for the family business and “collect a check,” Benedict threw himself into the job. In his first year there, he made a correction to the company’s shipping program that essentially paid his salary for every year he was there, he said. He was soon promoted to the position of business operations manager and became trustee of the company’s ESOP.
“Whatever I do, I’m going to do the best I can. I told myself that I wasn’t going to put my life on pause just because the market wasn’t performing as it should,” he said. “I was running full steam. I thought signs were my bread-and-butter future — but then maybe I could invest in real estate on the side.”
In 2011, Benedict called Rosely about a foreclosed property at 755 Michigan St. NE. Together, Benedict, Rosely and Levitt bought and flipped the land. It was a relatively small transaction, but the result was that the real estate bug had bit Benedict once again.
He began picking up jobs with Third Coast Development, working as a type of freelance incentive acquisition consultant.
But his drive to succeed soon became too much for his body to handle.
“I was getting it from every angle. There was a bunch of stuff happening at 2/90, and then all the deadlines (I was) up against for (real estate) and not getting sleep,” he said.
“I’d wake up, go to work, finish that job, then go to work again, then sleep. In this business, you could be working 20 hours a day. … Stress will do weird stuff to you.”
And that’s when Benedict found himself sitting in the ER, at a crossroads in his career and being forced to contemplate his future. Which would he choose: staying with the family business, or following his passion?
“That was when I knew I had to make a decision. It’s got to be one or the other,” he said. “Real estate was coming back, it was my passion, and so I had to go to my family and say I could no longer be a part of the family business.”
By the end of 2013, Benedict returned to Third Coast Development and was soon named a partner. Now he spends his days laser-focused on doing the job he’s passionate about and reunited with the two men who had mentored him. “It feels great,” he said.
“It goes back to knowing what the cap was,” he said. “Just like engineering, I knew I could only make so much money at the sign company. With real estate, I still can’t see the ceiling.”