Standing along Pine Street in St. Louis, watching a pop-up bike lane in action, I struck up a conversation with a 64-year-old MetroBus...
For the past three years, Otto Maly’s focus has been to increase Maly Commercial Realty’s commercial development market share in Columbia. His strategy? Assemble a team of real estate professionals with individual expertise and relationships that span the Columbia and national markets.
That cross-section of experience has been the linchpin of the company’s gains in a healthy, growing market.
Maly himself has been in the real estate business since 1982, joining the Kroenke Group in 1985 and setting out on his own with Maly Commercial in 1993. He is the center of the team of professionals, which includes Mel Zelenak, Gina Rende, and, most recently, former city manager and COO of Riback Supply Co. Bill Watkins.
Watkins, who joined the company in July, brings a wealth of experience working with city officials (as a former official himself). In his new role, Watkins will work in sales and use his contacts at the city level to help the team.
“When I grow up, I’ll finally figure out what I want to do, but this seems promising,” Watkins says.
Maly and Watkins built a relationship first during the early 70s, and later during Watkins’ tenure as city manager from 2005 to 2010. Maly credits his positive working relationship with the city to municipal staff, like Watkins, because while the political leanings (whether pro- or anti-development, specifically) of Columbia City Council might change, those staff relationships remain steady.
“You adapt and you learn how to make your business grow in [any] environment,” Maly says.
Rende joined the company more than two years ago and brings a background and contacts in title insurance and residential lending. Zelenak has been with the company for 11 years and started as an intern. He grew up around multi-family developments and has experience in student housing.
That diversity of background allows the team to tap each member’s unique skills, Rende says. She and Zelenak represent different perspectives and a younger skill set. Maly and Watkins bring the longtime relationships in the community. Though he has no plans to retire, Maly does plan to spend more time in California, with two children studying there for the next few years. Watkins will help fill the experience gap.
For Watkins, the appeal to join Maly Commercial was more than just the caliber of the team.
“One of the things I always liked about Otto is that if Otto said he would get something done, you could take that to the bank,” Watkins says. “Not all developers are that way. He has a lot of integrity. I wanted to be associated with a group that shared that kind of value.”
The Maly Commercial team has the skills to help with every step of the process, further cementing Maly’s own dependable reputation.
“I wholeheartedly believe that, with the team that we have assembled right now, you’re going to have a very tough time locally or regionally finding a more comprehensive set of skills,” Zelenak says.
The firm’s strengths lie in retail and land development, but they do work in office, multi-family, warehouse, and all commercial realty areas. It’s a commitment Maly made when he saw a need in ’82 for a local brokerage house that solely dealt in commercial real estate.
Over his career, Maly has worked on projects in more than 25 states.
“I’ve developed the majority of retail in the market,” Maly says. “I’ve developed outside of the market, extensive land tracts of retail, multi-family, office, in major metros all over the country.”
Those national relationships often help Maly Commercial get the first call when a new tenant is moving to town. If they already have a relationship, Maly Commercial understands their development needs.
Maly Commercial has developed 125 Lowe’s sites nationwide, and major retail centers locally include Grindstone Plaza, anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and Fairview Marketplace, in west Columbia, also anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Maly estimates Maly Commercial is one of the top three shopping center developers in the state.
Maly is optimistic about the continued growth of the Columbia market, and he credits the influx of capital from students to helping to keep the city — specifically downtown — healthy. Downtown is as strong as he’s ever seen it, he says. There aren’t many empty storefronts.
“In every sector of our market right now in Columbia,” Zelenak says, “we are below national levels for vacancy, whether that’s retail, office, anything.”
Although the Macy’s property is still vacant (and continues to be leased by Macy’s), Maly says the space will be filled eventually. Maly Commercial has a new tenant going in on the east side of town: Academy Sports + Outdoors is an outdoor lifestyle retailer and will open in 2017 on Trimble Road, behind HyVee. This 63,000-square-foot location will be the company’s seventh in Missouri and will bring about 100 jobs to the area.
There’s also a new big box store tenant going in the south of town that is still in due diligence.
“The south side of Columbia continues to grow, and I think that there are opportunities up north,” Maly says. “The east side is as strong as ever. West side: there’s no space out here. If Red Robin wanted to come to town, or if Ross Dress for Less came to town, there’s no space.”
Projects like the upcoming Columbia Regional Airport terminal construction will be critical to continued market growth, Maly says.
Technology has increased the velocity of Maly Commercial’s business, from instantaneous aerial shots of land on Google Maps to Docusign applications that ensure deals can be struck in a matter of weeks with any client, anywhere.
“My drive is that I love helping people,” Rende says. “I pride myself on customer service.”
If you look at the community and the economy as an interconnected web, and not just at individual opinions on business development, Zelenak says, and it’s obvious that things are getting done in Columbia. And things are getting done because of the people working the deals every single day.
“Columbia is a relationship-driven town,” Watkins says. “That’s how things get done. That’s based on trust, and it’s this kind of integrity that spills over and allows you to increase market share.”