Unless Jaebadiah Gardner decides one day to return to Grand Rapids, the West Michigan real estate community might remember him as the fish it let get away.
Originally a West Coaster with roots both in Los Angeles and Seattle, Gardner came to West Michigan for a degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids, which he received last month. At 30, he is already the founder and CEO of his own real estate company, Gardner Global Inc.
Gardner’s humble origins from a low-income family forced him to seek his fortune in a city where the real estate business might not only boom for him but also offer him a chance to give back. He picked Grand Rapids.
“I founded the company (in March 2009) in Seattle before I even came out,” he said. “I made my decision to go to law school in a city where getting into real estate was in my financial reach. I don’t come from money or a place where I can just ask my family (for it). … Right now, I could buy a bunch of investments, but I’m much more interested in collaborating with people trying to do something good in the community.”
While still in law school, Gardner expanded the business with his schoolmate, Jonathan Herpy. The two friends pooled their financial aid to purchase and renovate a two-level duplex on Worden Street, Gardner said.
Although both shared fond memories of Grand Rapids, the real estate market was a hard community to break into for non-locals, they said.
“It was an intense, expensive learning curve,” Gardner said. “You come to a city and you want to (succeed), but you don’t know the Realtors or contractors, so you have to build relationships … and you get burned a lot.”
The technology and art industries receive more incentives than real estate, Herpy said, adding most of their investors were from out-of-state.
“There’s a lot of money there, but it’s a smaller town so it tends to be insular,” Herpy said. “I don’t blame them for that at all because … they’re wary of what comes in and you have to prove yourself as one of them first, which is fine. But it’s tough.”
Grand Rapids is a generally homogenous, Dutch city, Gardner said, making it hard for a non-traditional outsider like himself to break into the market. Gardner, an African-Mexican American, said the city needs to look at certain social/racial issues, particularly among minority entrepreneurs.
“There’s a whole demographic of people you’re not addressing, especially in real estate. Tap into those communities,” he said. “Be more aggressive with mentoring young people. Take them out to lunch; get them networked with other folks their age to show you’re grooming them. Get in the trenches instead of blaming our generation for being on social media. … Our work ethic is there, it’s just different.”
The young men turned to the consulting services of Baker Holtz for help. Ryan Holtz, part owner and CPA, worked with them and said he was impressed with their vision and drive, but admitted they faced many challenges.
“West Michigan is a very tight community and sometimes it’s hard to break in and sell your vision,” Holtz said. “I think we do a nice job of accepting and mentoring young leaders, but with (Gardner) it was a little bit of a perfect storm. He was coming in at the tail end of the recession, and at that point, things hadn’t started to turn around yet.”
Gardner now runs his company out of Seattle, where he has three properties and is preparing for his first multi-million-dollar deal. He said he hopes to one day expand his business back to Grand Rapids.
“I spent three years of my life there,” he said. “And (Cooley) was instrumental. … They really provided a serious business foundation for me.”
Herpy, now working as an attorney in Chicago, was bought out by Gardner in December as the two were preparing to go their separate ways after school.
He compared Grand Rapids to Denver in the 1980s, calling it “a small town with fabulous infrastructure.” Denver, considered to be one of the economically healthiest communities in the U.S., he said, is beginning to expand because it already had the foundation of infrastructure.
That same principle is true for Grand Rapids, Herpy said.
“What people don’t understand is you have to start with infrastructure in a community,” he said. “You have to build incrementally in very small pieces. … This kind of stuff doesn’t happen overnight. You might not feel it till 10 years down the road. Grand Rapids is going be great, but you just have to wait.”