The third day of class on the Harvard University campus in 2005 stands out as a turning point for Stewart Wangard.
In that respect, Wangard is like countless other college students who learn something that permanently alters their career paths. The difference, though, is at that point, Wangard was 13 years into being the CEO and chairman of the Milwaukee-based company that bears his name and had established his place in Wisconsin’s real estate and development industry.
Wangard was attending a one-week, graduate-level course called “How to run a real estate company,” which was designed for company principals. On that third day, he said, he decided to tone down the brokerage side of his business and focus more on development.
“The opportunity was not only what we learned in class,” Wangard said, “but talking it over with other bright people who were in the real estate game.”
The decision marked a departure, in some ways, from a path he had followed since he was a teenager. His mother and father were real estate brokers with a small portfolio of investment properties. His father died when Wangard was 17.
As the oldest brother still at home, Wangard worked with the attorneys to deal with the estate.
“We negotiated to take back the properties one at a time, clean them up,” he said. “And then we liquidated them.”
By the time that was done, Wangard was 18 and got his real estate license. When he was 24, he joined The Boerke Co. and rose through the ranks to shareholder, officer and, at the age of 32 in 1992, CEO.
He credited that rise to strong mentors, good clients and an awareness of the market.
“As a young broker and leasing agent,” Wangard said, “I paid attention to what was happening around me.”
At the same time, though, his ascension to CEO put him in an administrative role, away from what had been his active involvement in business development.
“I wanted to get front and center,” Wangard said, “and work with clients again.”
With that goal in mind, he started Wangard Partners in 1992. But he also had a do-not-compete agreement for a year with Boerke, so Wangard worked with NorthMarq Capital and did asset management and other work outside of southeast Wisconsin, he said.
Over the years Wangard grew his firm, which is an accredited management organization, into one that manages property, invests alone and with others in developments, buys existing real estate and develops its own.
He said one of the best parts is watching a building go up.
“There are parts of this business that I don’t like doing but have to do,” Wangard said, “but there are other parts that are just a blast.”
His decision to focus on development, spurred by that Harvard class, has led him to spend more time with NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, and with the mixed-use council, he said. Ultimately, Wangard said, his week on campus influenced him to adjust his perspective on the industry.
“We’ve gone from trying to do business in the today,” he said, “to trying to focus on where the industry is going.”