While he didn’t set out to do so, Brad Bruinsma ultimately followed in the footsteps of his father, Gordon, when settling on a career path. Photo by Mike Nichols
Every business story essentially boils down to two great forces: money and people.
For Brad Bruinsma, the general manager of NAI Wisinski of West Michigan, his story is no exception. A man who has made his career by being an expert on both subjects, Bruinsma spent approximately 14 years in banking before finally turning to the industry that he felt was his destiny: commercial real estate.
Both fields share a number of similarities, he said, but it took more than a decade of work before he was ready to fully make the jump.
“You’re dealing with a lot of the same people, business owners, CFOs, the decision makers of a company. When it comes down to it, it’s about relationship management,” he said.
“In banking, you’re managing a relationship with a client in regard to their lending and banking needs. With commercial real estate, it’s the same thing, but with real estate.”
The banking and real estate industries run deep in Bruinsma’s genes. He was born in Grand Rapids and attended Grand Rapids Christian High School, from which he graduated in 1995. In a somewhat strange twist of fate, his career followed a similar trail as his father, Gordon.
“My dad was in banking originally and then went into commercial real estate. I kind of followed the same path as he did,” Bruinsma said. “As I was getting more interested in business, I was able to follow him a little bit.”
A skilled athlete, Bruinsma received a scholarship to play basketball at Trinity Christian College, located in a southwestern suburb of Chicago. After spending a few seasons as a shooting guard, he gave up basketball and focused on school, graduating in 1999 with a degree in accounting.
Straight out of college, he got a job working at Old Kent Bank in downtown Chicago. For a young man from a religious upbringing, the looming business world of Chicago was an education unto itself.
“I was on the fourth floor of the Sears Tower. Growing up in Grand Rapids and going to a Christian high school and then at Trinity … it’s somewhat sheltered. It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” he said.
“I was in Chicago at Old Kent for two years. Just before we moved back, they started the conversion to Fifth Third (Bank). I transferred to Fifth Third in Grand Rapids and worked in the commercial lending department.
“The biggest thing I learned there was time management and multi-tasking. As an analyst, I was supporting 15 different lenders. And the only way you stay on top of your work is to prioritize what needs to be done.”
By 2003, Bruinsma was contemplating what he wanted to do with his life. He began to realize banking wasn’t what he wanted to do forever. He decided to get out of banking for a year and started working as the director of development for The Granger Group, a Grand Rapids-based commercial real estate development company.
“At the time, I thought that was the career I wanted to get into. I really enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me at that particular company,” he said.
“I knew I enjoyed commercial real estate. I knew long term that was what I wanted to do, but professionally, I wasn’t ready for it. I got back into banking and spent the next eight years at Founders Bank and Trust.”
Bruinsma’s time at Founders became the most important stretch in his career. At his peak, he was managing about $35 million. It also was at Founders he not only honed his talents but also received meaningful mentorship from two men who would become great friends of his: Greg Conway, who was chief lending officer, and Dave Kinsman, who was head of the commercial lending group.
Those two men “really helped me learn to be successful in commercial lending,” Bruinsma said, adding their friendship helped him develop skills he has used for the rest of his career.
The biggest lesson he learned from Conway was how to manage relationships, walking that fine line of serving the customer and looking out for the bank’s best interests. From Kinsman, he learned confidence.
“I’m someone who likes to please everybody, but in that job, you can’t please everybody,” he said.
“Dave just instilled confidence in me. He was the guy who believed in me from Day 1. He was an advocate for me with senior management at the bank, but I think it was really the confidence thing.”
In 2013, Bruinsma again was wrestling with staying in banking. He took a job with West Michigan Community Bank but quickly realized that a fresh start with a new banking institution wasn’t the fix he needed. He needed to get out of the industry.
“I was getting into my mid-30s, and I’ve had this conversation with many people my age. They hit this point in their 30s, where it’s, ‘OK, I’ve got about 30 years of work left. Do I want to continue doing this for the rest of my working career?’” he said. “I came to the decision that banking was not what I wanted to be doing in my 50s and 60s.”
In his mind, Bruinsma started going back to those experiences of growing up watching his father work in real estate and remembering his own brief yet positive foray into it.
When NAI Wisinski approached him with a job in 2014, he wasn’t sure he was fully qualified, but a few meetings later, he was on board. He’s now in a position that utilizes all of the skills he has developed throughout his other positions, he said.
It also was a good time to jump into the commercial real estate industry, which currently is exceptionally active, he said. In West Michigan, the demand far outweighs the supply right now, and that creates significant opportunities.
He summarized his current job in one word: “awesome.”
“The best thing about this company is the people who work here. We have some of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever worked with in my life here,” he said. “Each day shapes me professionally, but it shapes me as a person, too.”
As he looked back on a career built on money and people, Bruinsma said the common theme to his success is relationships. Technology and its constant connectivity has been both a blessing and a curse, but it’s the ability to build relationships that brought him this far.
“Communication is one of the key things. It seems so simple, but responding to someone in a timely fashion (is so important). I pride myself on getting back to people right away,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing for me is just taking time to invest in relationships with people, whether it’s internal — people you work with — or people on the outside, their clients, referral sources, people who can send you more business. I view myself as somebody who likes to bring people together.”