September 25, 2014 | By Ann Grauvogl | Back to news

Forty years have passed, yet Mark Irgens, a successful Milwaukee real estate developer, clearly remembers walking into his first day of “Introduction to Real Estate and Urban Land Economics.” The University of Wisconsin-Madison accounting major who had no idea what to expect. The man onstage in the large Commerce Hall lecture room sat in a wheelchair; his booming voice filled the auditorium.

In the course of that semester, Professor James A. Graaskamp’s enthusiasm, strength amid living with polio, and ability to communicate the essence of real estate development changed the course of Irgens’ education.

“He introduced me to real estate and what it meant as a career opportunity,” said Irgens (BBA ’77), founder, president and chief executive officer of Irgens, the real estate company that bears his name and has built more than 200 buildings. “He was able to get me to be excited about doing something … so I became a real estate major. Real estate gave me the enthusiasm and the goal to create my own buildings and a career.”

This year, Irgens and his wife, Susan (’78 MS EDU), said thank you for their educations with a $2 million gift to endow the executive director’s position at the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate.

“Education is a huge difference-maker in people’s lives,” said Irgens, whose broad office windows reveal a panorama of buildings—1.2 million square feet in all—his real estate firm built in the Milwaukee County Research Park. “Education is a huge difference-maker in people’s lives,” Irgens said. “With a good education, you can become anything. Making a gift to something that made such a big change in our lives was a natural choice.”

Ensuring the future of the Wisconsin real estate tradition

The Graaskamp Center and UW-Madison occupy a special place in the real estate industry and inspired many of today’s great real estate professionals, said Executive Director Michael Brennan, also managing principal of Brennan Investment Group in Chicago.

“The center is strong today and will be strong tomorrow because of the support of industry leaders throughout the country,” he said. “With his gift, Mark is saying the university started something great, and I want to be sure it continues.”

The directorship funding allows Brennan to recruit top advisory board members to inspire students and provide more opportunities for productive interactions between students, academics, and professionals. The gift advances the center’s educational mission, and education opens students’ eyes to the power of what’s possible.

“That’s the best we can do. Everyone who supports education creates a sustaining resource,” Brennan said. “This is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Mark and Susan Irgens’ generosity provides stability and gives the center a clear strategic advantage by ensuring funds are available to retain and recruit talented executives for the leadership position, Academic Director and Associate Professor Morris Davis said. Gifts that endow chairs and professorships have the added benefit of giving talented academics the time and resources to think and develop what might be the next world-changing idea.

By supporting the Graaskamp Center, the gift contributes to the strength of the Wisconsin Real Estate program, which aims to be a global leader in real estate education and was ranked No. 1 in the country for 2014 by U.S. News and World Report.

Discovering a passion to develop real estate

Arriving at UW-Madison in the early ’70s, Irgens looked for an education that would give him a usable skill. He was a sophomore when he encountered Graaskamp, a pillar of the Wisconsin Tradition in Real Estate and Urban Land Economics who, with several graduate students, founded the Center for Real Estate that now bears his name. Irgens remembers a professor who was adept at translating classroom learning to real life situations, a task master who expected excellence, and a Real Estate Club leader who introduced students to all aspects of development in and outside of Madison.

“To me, his first priority was to teach, to help the students succeed and to lead them in the right direction,” Irgens said.

Through Graaskamp’s contacts, Irgens landed an internship that led to his first job as an analyst with a Milwaukee appraisal company. In his next post, as a commercial loan officer facing the early 1980s record high interest rates, Irgens helped finance an office project for Boldt Construction from Appleton, Wis. Liking what he saw, he approached Boldt about opening a real estate development branch.

“I didn’t know it would work,” said Irgens, who was 27 at the time. “I was interested in building and developing buildings, and I didn’t have any money. These folks were very nice people. They were very successful, interested in real estate development and didn’t have a formal program. I had a finance background and was interested in building buildings, so we found there was a common interest.”

On April 1, 1998, Irgens and three colleagues purchased the development company’s assets and real estate, hired 45 employees, and renamed the venture Irgens Development Partners. By tapping capital markets and raising outside equity, in five years the new firm matched the volume of the previous 15 years.

“Often times success is luck,” Irgens said. “Starting our own company in 1998, and for the next 10 years, was an incredibly good time to be in our business.”

The company has successfully completed hundreds of health care and commercial projects totaling more than $2 billion in real estate value with 7 million square feet under management. Irgens expanded to suburban Chicago in 2002 and Phoenix in 2006. Growth continues with a $101 million office development and 66-acre mixed-use park in Milwaukee and a 30-acre office park in Chandler, Ariz., underway. In January 2014, Irgens purchased a Phoenix-based property management firm.

Applying Graaskamp’s lessons

Graaskamp’s wisdom continues to resonate, particularly the argument that development is an exercise in risk management involves interrelated components, from financial and market analysis to government relations.

“Real estate development is an in-the-trenches, duke-it-out type job,” Irgens said, “but if you have the sophistication and skills that you learn at the business school and through the Graaskamp Center, it helps you perform at a far higher level.”

How Irgens applied his education is evident in his favorite projects. Redeveloping the historic Gimbels building in downtown Milwaukee involved tax increment financing, historic tax credits, and private dollars. Opened in 2001, the $59 million hotel, offices and retail space catalyzed downtown development and will soon include Irgens’ headquarters. With $89 million of complex funding, the GE Healthcare Research Park project was among Milwaukee’s largest at the time. The 875 East Wisconsin office project was 98 percent occupied when it opened and tripled investors’ return on equity when it sold in 2006.

Yet, this isn’t where Irgens expected to end up.

“At one point, I would’ve been happy owning a handful of buildings that were 20,000 square feet a piece,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of really good people over the years. As we’re successful on one project we go to the next, and we always try to do something a little better than the last time.”

Investing in Wisconsin

The gift to the Graaskamp Center was an opportunity to invest in Wisconsin and a university that’s becoming a family tradition. Irgens’ daughter, Kristen, received her law degree from UW-Madison in May 2013; his son, Tom, an asset manager at Irgens, is in the Wisconsin Evening MBA program.

“I received a public education all the way through, and I don’t think I fully paid for it,” Irgens said. “It’s important to protect, reinforce and even enhance these institutions that create value and give people a start.”

The James A.Graaskamp Center for Real Estate serves as a link between faculty, students, alumni, the professional community, government agencies, and the general public. It administers the Real Estate MBA program and encourages networking for top industry leaders through its executive Board of Advisors.