Gary Hensch and Mark Buddy describe themselves as having been best friends since they met over four decades ago.
They remained friends through all seven years at Huff Elementary School. Later, they were members of the same graduating class at Grand Rapids Creston High School and, four years after that, they graduated from the Kalamazoo campus of Western Michigan University.
At that point, their paths diverged, Hensch to pursue a career in accounting in this community while Buddy wound up working in environmental clean up on the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies.
They stayed in touch, however, and about five years ago Hensch proposed that Buddy join him in a partnership in property development.
He explains that he had invested in a couple of condominium developments and had made up his mind that he wanted to retire from public accounting and go into condo development full time.
Buddy agreed to move back to Grand Rapids and together they formed the Redstone Group, the firm taking its name from one of Buddy’s favorite geological sites in Colorado. The two are now 46 years old.
Hensch says they have pursued a two-pronged corporate philosophy ever since: first, to plan developments with as much respect as possible for natural terrain and natural vegetation; and second, to have as much fun and be able to enjoy as much humor in the job as possible.
Theirs certainly is not a buttoned-down, three-piece suit office. Except for the formal presentations they make before planning commissions and, say, bankers, Redstone is a Bermuda shorts and sandals kind of office.
According to their marketing director, Joyce Mayo, the informality extends beyond attire. “All employees have opportunities for giving input and sharing ideas,” she said, adding that, “Families are a priority.”
Today the group has nine condominiums in various stages of development, six in Grand Rapids, another in Holland and another getting ready for groundbreaking in Kalamazoo. Typically, the partners say, it takes two to four years to reach the point when Redstone is able to exit from a project.
The way it works is that the condominium itself, as prescribed in state law, takes over a project’s management four months after residents have acquired 75 percent of the units.
“We still retain a position in it until the last unit is sold,” Hensch added.
Hensch and Buddy say their developments vary from middle- to high-end price ranges and that they try to keep the density of homes in their sites as low as possible.
“We try to keep the trees,” Hensch added, “otherwise, you might as well build in a cornfield.”
Developing condos, they said, is a fairly long-term process because the preliminaries — finding and securing the land, permitting, zoning, meeting with neighbors — can require a time investment of one to two years.
“The most difficult part is finding the right land,” Hensch said.
“Once that’s done,” Buddy agreed, “the rest is work — pretty intense work — but the challenge is the land.”
One factor that always surprises them, Hensch said, is the nature of opposition that neighbors sometimes express when they first hear that someone is proposing to build a condominium in their vicinity.
“They get the impression that this is going to hurt their neighborhood: that people in a condo aren’t going to mow their yards, or that they’ll leave unsightly messes.
“At first, they don’t realize that under the terms of the condominium charter, owners can’t do anything like that. And, of course, under the maintenance contract, all the yards are taken care of automatically and professionally.”
What invariably happens, he said, is that once the condos are built and people in the adjoining neighborhoods become empty nesters, they start looking at buying into the condominiums.
“It always happens,” Hensch said. “When the kids move out and they decide they need to downsize so they can enjoy life a bit and have some time to relax, they’ll buy a condo.”
Buddy said that by far the easiest municipality for the firm to deal with is Grand Rapids.
And he said that’s not because of any special virtue on the city’s part, but because its staff is so big and its permitting processes enfold requirements from external agencies such as the Department of Environmental Quality and the like.
“In the smaller cities and in the townships,” he added, “you have to pursue all those other agencies individually, and when you’re dealing with several agencies separately rather than through one office, it just takes longer.”
Buddy told the Business Journal that he found the work with Redstone interesting and challenging from the start.
“But it wasn’t until one Christmas season that it really came together for me,” he said.
“I was driving through one of the neighborhoods and I could see the Christmas trees and the decorations in the windows and people, and it just got me to thinking about people having their children and grandchildren over and, for the first time, it really felt good to be doing this. It felt real.”