As Heller Industrial Park’s vice president, property manager and marketing manager, Fred Kurtz handles the leasing and property management of Heller’s 2.4 million square feet of properties west of the Mississippi. Working closely with industrial brokers in six separate markets, Fred’s attention to detail and customer focus helps clients with easy transitions into the Heller buildings.
Fred recalls the incidents that have taken place before and after the day he was hired in 1989:
EDISON, NEW JERSEY, JANUARY 31, 2013: My father owned a piece of property in South Amboy and he wanted me to get my feet wet and begin to develop. I was working with engineers, draftsmen and utility contractors and realized that everything needed to be watched very closely. They were putting drainage pipes in the ground that were going in up and down, up and down. And, you know, drainage pipes are supposed to go down, not up, so I ran into a lot of complications.
‘I DECIDED TO GO IN TO SEE HIM BY MYSELF’
One day, in 1989, I was reading the paper and I went to the real estate section and saw those gigantic ads. They were literally almost the size of half a newspaper sheet, and I saw the name I. Heller Construction Company that was marketing all of this real estate.
I thought, Wow, look at all this stuff! This guy probably knows what he’s doing. So I decided to go in by myself to see him -- this I. Heller.
‘I WAS HIRED IN A VERY UNIQUE WAY’
I found the address on my map and I drove to the office, knocked on the door and asked to see Mr. Heller.
They asked, "Who are you?"
I told them who I was, and that I did not have an appointment.
Ike Heller saw me anyway, which was very kind. I was very young, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. Here’s this guy who’s got millions of square feet of real estate and I asked to see him. I think my naivety, or whatever you want to call it, helped me there.
‘WHY DON’T YOU WORK FOR ME?’
I walked into the office and he sat me in the conference room. After he asked me about four questions, he disappeared for about half an hour.
I waited for him to come back. And when he came back he said, "You know what. Why don’t you work for me?" Just like that.
Apparently he saw something in me that he really liked and he thought that I should try my hand at working here.
He said, "I don’t know what you’re gonna do." Then he brought a couple of people into the room and he said, "But you’ll work with this guy," and he pointed to Steve Kaufman. "You follow him around for a while and he’ll find something for you to do."
I said, "Okay, that sounds like a good thing. I’ll give it a shot."
Twenty-four years later I’m still here, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.
I was very appreciative of being given the opportunity to work here. Not many guys can walk in and get a job the same day where there is no job to be had.
I quickly found things to do. It was great because if you wanted to get involved with something, they didn’t stop you. If I wanted to get involved with marketing and creating advertising, they let me do it. If I wanted to get involved with showing buildings, they let me do that.
What’s great about working here is they let you go and if you’re good at what you are doing, they promote you to doing that thing.
‘HE WOULD ALWAYS LISTEN’
Mr. Heller was very supportive and he would always listen. It seemed that he had his mind made up no matter what he was talking about, but at the end he would say, "If you can convince me otherwise and maybe I’m wrong, I will listen to you and maybe we will see things differently."
It’s good to know that you have some influence over a strong-minded individual such as Ike.
THE CONFERENCE ROOM
There are a million stories I could tell you about sitting in the conference room with Ike Heller. When we designed ads together, he used to sit over my back.
We had hired a designer named Susan Cody and ultimately I displaced her because I learned the computer program that she used. So now we had an in-house guy doing the ads, which was me.
I can always remember Mr. Heller standing over my shoulder pointing to the screen and telling me, "Move this down! Slide this over! Can you widen it up a little bit? Can you make it bigger – NO! BIGGER! NO! BIGGER!!!
The computer, of course, never reacted fast enough. So after a while, I would say, "Mr. Heller, if you don’t mind, I know what you want. You can go do something else for a little while. I’ll bring your finished artwork to you and we can go from there."
He didn’t like that, but he was smart enough to know that he was crawling up my back too far and that he was pushing me too quickly and the computer too quickly, so it was better that he relax somewhere else. I would give him something to look at as opposed to him trying to manipulate the thing on the machine in an instant.
GOOD TO WORK WITH
Ike was always good to work with and he always listened to your opinion. He is extremely studied. He saw more in people on different levels than I’ve ever witnessed anybody see before. He would think about what your motives are, why you’re doing things in a certain way, and why you should try to do better. His brain worked faster than anybody’s. You never knew what he was thinking, and that kind of kept you on your toes.
ATTITUDE AND PERSEVERANCE
And he yelled. He was a yeller, and he continues to be a yeller. But I’ve got to tell you, it was nice that he gave the company such strong direction. His attitude and perseverance had to be in everyone. And if it wasn’t, it was going to be by the end of the day. You were going to follow his way of doing things, which is the reason for our success.
He has driven us hard. He knows it and each and every one of the people here know it.
But I think we’re all better for it and we are a better company because of that.
That’s what a great leader can do, and that’s what he’s done.
As property manager, I’m responsible for all of Heller’s properties west of the Susquehanna River.
Most of the properties are in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and we have other properties in Houston, more specifically in La Porte, Texas. Then there are various other buildings in Indianapolis, Chicago, Louisville, and in Morton, Illinois that I also handle.
I go out to meet customers and brokers. The whole purpose is just to keep the buildings leased and keep the rent coming in.
As an example, if I have to fly down and meet with a customer, I don’t usually go with anyone. Sometimes if there are building issues, such as if we’ve got a wall panel that’s fractured or paving that needs to be repaired, one of the construction guys will go with me so they can check it and we know we’re doing the right thing.
But it’s always been a stretch trying to make a deal because the company has its requirements. It has to be profitable, and it can’t cost a billion dollars.
Yet the customers have their requirements. They don’t want to pay a lot of money and they need certain things in the buildings. The doors have to work, the lights have to come on and the heat has to work.
There’s a stretch in between. You have to make Heller happy and you have to make the customer happy. You need to find an equilibrium that both sides are satisfied with, so that the customer signs a lease.
‘WE’RE DOING WELL’
We’re doing really well. Every one of our out-of-state properties is fully leased and paying rent.
Economy-wise, Texas has out-performed New Jersey in the last two-and-a-half years, and that’s not even close to normal. It’s usually the other way around. Texas is usually the last one to have good performance records.
Why is that? We think it’s because in Texas if you want to build another warehouse there’s parcel after parcel of land all over the place. You can just keep expanding and leave all the older parcels empty. If you build a new warehouse, everybody wants that. Nobody wants the old stuff so the old stuff stays empty. Then the old stuff gets very cheap and it’s very hard to compete in that kind of a market.
But up here there are really very few places left to build that are close to major highways and that’s the difference. There are not many new properties coming up and there’s not a lot of vacancy and the prices stay high. However, down there it’s usually very soft.
Ike has always said that "they’re not making any more land," so our job, both here and in New Jersey is to maintain the buildings rather than to sell them.
We try not to sell a thing. In fact, we’ve been buying back the buildings in New Jersey that we sold in the past.
IKE HELLER’S FAVORITE WORDS
If there’s anybody’s picture that should be next to the word ‘persistence’ in the dictionary, it’s Mr. Heller’s. He would go to any length to accomplish his objectives, short of doing anything illegal.
When I was not here, the story is that he relocated a couple of miles of railroad for BF Goodrich.
Another word that personifies him is "focus," and I don’t think you can have one without the other. I remember that we were looking at putting a fuel depot for trucks here in the Edison Industrial Park and there were a group of guys who were involved with it in the beginning.
They finally agreed that we couldn’t buy the fuel cheap enough to make it worthwhile, and that was sort of the end of the story.
But it came up two more times. Ike didn’t want to let it die. He didn’t like the answers from those guys so he got me involved to see if I could find another answer. If you had a gas station here in the park, you would have to sell the gas at the same price or cheaper than they were selling it out on the street. If you weren’t going to sell it cheaper, then why would they come to you? It would be pointless.
We figured out that we would have to sell millions of gallons a year before we could compete with the guy down the street – which was never going to happen. But he didn’t like the first answer he got so he came to me and had me research it again to see if I could come up with a different answer -- which I couldn’t.
After it died the second time he kept asking about it until he finally let it go.
To Ike’s credit, he wanted to find more ways of separating Heller Industrial Parks from the rest of the world. He wanted to make us a better place to lease, which is the right thing to do.
It’s funny because he knew when he was getting under your skin. He wanted to make you squirm – and if you weren’t squirming he didn’t think you were working hard enough. He would literally walk through the office and if you were smiling, that meant you were in trouble.
He was passionate about getting the answers that he wanted to hear. It was a strong impression.
I started in 1989 and they said that before me it was even worse. He used to make all the partners sit around and watch him sign checks until two o’clock in the morning, so that if you had a question about a job that was being done with regard to construction or something we advertised or someone we were hiring – whatever the question was, before he paid the bills he wanted to hear the answers to all the questions. If he had a question he wanted that person responsible to answer the question right there. He signed all the checks personally and they watched him.
‘ENGINEERING WHILE HE DROVE’
Ike drove a 1972 red Chevy Nova, and when he got behind the wheel he would be thinking so hard about business and construction methods he was using on some roof somewhere, that I think he had it in his head that he was engineering it while he drove.
He would be rubbing up against curbs, and I remember almost getting killed a few times with him in the car. He would stop the car on the Turnpike and he’d look at a sign while tires were squealing -- and I would tell him, "Ike, you’ve got to keep moving."
He was that focused. It was unbelievable.
And that’s why everybody always wanted to drive him, although I think he liked to get behind the wheel.
I have to go back to where I came from. I came from a set of parents who are very hard workers, and that’s all I knew. So I was never, ever lazy. But I always had a problem with drifting a little bit and maybe I would get caught up with something I wanted to do as opposed to things that had to be done.
However, Mr. Heller made sure that I was focused on what I was supposed to be
doing and I think that really helped me.
Everybody in this company – I don’t care who they are – from top to bottom – everyone had a fear of him because of his yelling. I think that’s what kept people focused on their tasks. They knew they had a list of things to do and if they didn’t do it, they were going to hear about it.
And that’s good. You know what? Everybody needs a smack in the rear end once in a while to get going. I think we all do, and I think that’s a good trait. There’s no one to replace that, because now there are politically correct rules you have to follow. If you yell at me now I can say that you’re harassing me. It’s a different world now.
The testament to his success is that this place is running as well as it does when he’s away. It’s a well-oiled machine. It runs very smoothly because of what he’s instilled in everyone and I hope that the management here can continue to instill that to the new people who are coming in now and again. Only time will tell.
A GIVING GUY
Ike had a bell in the other office. Whenever a lease was signed he was going to send someone out to ring the bell. It was something to celebrate, at least for a moment. I don’t think it ever happened, but that’s what he wanted to do. I remember that story very clearly.
At one point, he wanted to put a small children’s railroad around the child care center and around the park a little bit so that he would have a train to take the kids for a ride.
We used to have a trolley that took people on tours through the parkway. I remember when he took the whole company down to South Brunswick to tour his property there and to show us how we build buildings, because to him it was always important that everyone understood this.
He is a giving guy. I feel that Ike thinks of all of us as his extended family, because if someone is in trouble, he goes to bat for them. Not everybody is like that.