A conversation with Marlin Penner

09/16/2012 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:12 AM

This is Marlin Penner’s 40th year at commercial real estate firm NAI John T. Arnold Associates and his 27th as its president.

It’s the only firm for which Penner, 64, has applied his craft.

Penner grew up on a cattle and grain farm outside Whitewater, one of three sons of a German immigrant. Farming wasn’t how he wanted to make his future, so after graduating from high school he decided to attend Wichita State University. He knew he wanted to get a bachelor’s degree in business administration but said he wasn’t sure when he graduated in 1970 exactly what he wanted to do in business.

“I knew it had to be something in the area of business and I knew it was going to be something in the area of sales,” he said.

After graduation, he went to work at the Coleman Co. for a year. Then he decided to go back to graduate school.

At graduate school Penner met two other men, and together they decided to form a small market research company.

One of their first projects was to do a market feasibility study for long-time Wichita developer Max Cole.

“When I saw what he did, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Penner said. “Just the thrill of being able to create an investment out of a piece of land, or rehabilitate a property to make it work better. I just remember seeing what he was doing, buying land, thinking of uses for it, building buildings on it. That just really appealed to me.”

What was one of your first commercial real estate deals?

“A Taco Tico at the corner of Harry and Rock Road. That was a deal where we did a build-to-suit. We got a doctor to be an investor, got the land, it was several areas that we did. I guess we represented the doctor. … I worked with (Waterfront developer) Johnny (Stevens) on the land. That’s where it started.”

What prompted the affiliation with NAI? How does that affiliation benefit your company?

“I think it was prompted largely by a desire to improve our geographical scope, being able to do business all over the country, all over the world. The global connections were a big part of that.”

When did that affiliation take place?

“About six and a half years ago.”

Was NAI among several affiliations you were considering?

“Actually they sought us out.”

What are a couple of things about the business that have changed significantly during your time in it?

“Clearly the technology. We started writing contracts on the hood of a car with a ballpoint pen and carbon paper. Now, of course, lawyers write them, they’re e-mailed, and no more carbon paper and pens. I think the other thing is the complexity of the business. Forty years ago it was a lot easier to do a real estate transaction. Now, you have environmental issues, compliance issues.”

What would you say is one of your most memorable deals?

“Some of my most memorable deals have been working with foreign companies who are wanting to locate here. Typically they are German, European companies. Just working with them in a different culture and even in some cases a different language. I still speak German because I was raised that way. It has made the negotiations interesting, working outside our normal culture.”

What about it keeps you interested and engaged?

“One is the pleasure of working with successful people. The second part is creative problem solving. Just that creative problem solving is what I love to do.”

At any point during your real estate career did you ever consider doing something different?

“Never.”

How would you characterize the local commercial real estate market?

“I would say that there is a better, more positive attitude in the marketplace. However, there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty, which has caused … larger investors and corporate investors to be very careful with their cash. They are just not as aggressive as they have been, which leads to a tremendous amount of money being parked.”

What are the strong and weak sectors, in your opinion?

“Within every sector there is some action and some inaction. I would say the multifamily market has gained momentum in the past three or four years.”

What keeps you up at night?

“Absolutely nothing. I am completely at peace.”

What is one piece of advice you would give to a rookie commercial real estate agent?

“To focus less on making the deal and more on developing the relationship with the client. The client is going to lead to the next deal and the deal after that … and referrals. The tendency for the rookie is to be pretty hungry sometimes, and they tend to go after the deal and not pay attention as much to building that long-term relationship.”

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