Developer succeeds through sheer persistence: Cindy Shaffer
By Sean Ryan – Reporter, Milwaukee Business Journal
Feb 20, 2015, 5:00am
Construction of tall apartment buildings in the Mequon Town Center was well underway outside the windows of the American Legion Post as developer Cindy Shaffer sat describing how people thought the project could never happen.
The skepticism was warranted. Mequon hadn't seen a multifamily housing building go up in two decades, and city funding for private projects is rare, as are three-and-a-half story buildings. But Shaffer, in partnership with Milwaukee-based WiRED Properties, made all of those things happen while also building a new home for the local American Legion Post in the development.
"It's a lot of hard work and it's persistence," Shaffer said. "I don't take 'no' for an answer. There's many different ways to skin a cat."
Mequon Town Center, with 28 apartments and significant retail space at Mequon and Cedarburg roads, is set for completion this summer. Shaffer, owner of Shaffer Development LLC, is on to her next challenge, a $17 million redevelopment of a contaminated site called the "lumberyard" in Grafton. The first phase of that project with 59 apartments will begin later this year.
The lumberyard is Shaffer's second major commercial development. She started a real estate career in 2001 after working in the hotel industry and running 30 Molly Maid franchises across the Southeast U.S. Shaffer said real estate always was an interest, dating back to childhood when her parents would take her on tours of houses that they considered buying as investments.
"They both grew up during the Depression and never wanted to go into debt, so they never bought anything," Shaffer said. "My father died when I was 13 and my mother worked to support us, and it always stuck with me that if they had purchased some of those investment properties life might have been different."
Shaffer started her real estate career converting duplex apartments in Cedarburg into condos. At the time, she said, single-family houses were selling for $200,000 and up, while she sold her condos for $150,000.
"I researched the market," Shaffer said. "I look for a niche. When I do anything I do, any kind of businesses that I've done, I look for a niche and look for a demand that is not being filled."
Shaffer rehabbed and sold six duplexes before scaling up to commercial projects. She learned real estate from firsthand experience and from others in the industry.
"I didn't major in real estate; it was more the school of hard knocks," Shaffer said. "I have to say the people in this industry were very helpful to me."
Glenn Stadler, senior vice president of commercial banking for Westbury Bank, West Bend, said Shaffer is always trying to learn and chooses strong collaborators.
"She's just a go-getter, and willing to put in the time to get done what she needs to get done," Stadler said.
Shaffer said she wants to continue to focus on Ozaukee County, developing apartments and maybe wading into industrial projects.
"There's some big guys that came to town and they can't get in here," she said. "They don't want to deal with it. They can go somewhere else and people will roll out the red carpet and say 'come in and build your 200 units.' It's not like that here. There have been extremely high barriers to entry in Ozaukee County."
Shaffer joked that her niche now is "I pick the sites nobody else wants."
The Mequon Town Center site was challenging because she had to assemble multiple properties, including a gas station and neighboring land owned by the local American Legion Post.
Legion members wanted a new building, but wanted to keep their location, she said.
The solution was to demolish the Legion hall, but move the gas station building into its place. The gas station was renovated and expanded into the new hall for the American Legion, which has a commander who calls Shaffer his "sweetheart."
The project demonstrates Shaffer's approach that real estate is a "relationship business." She said the American Legion Post is the project she is most proud of thus far.
"That's really what development is all about, making things better and providing a better place for people," she said. "My philosophy in business is everybody has to do well. Of course I'm trying to make money, but if you make money and the person you are with is making money and doing well, everyone wins."
- Title: Owner
- Company: Shaffer Development LLC, Mequon
- Education: Bachelor's degree in marketing and communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Family: Three children — Haley, 24; Emily, 21; Marty, 17
- Resides: Mequon for the last 20 years; grew up in Shorewood, lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Miami before returning to Wisconsin
- Age: 52
- Best decision: "Leaving corporate America and starting my own business"
- Toughest decision: "Leaving corporate America and starting my own business"
- Like best about your job: "The challenge of acquiring properties and working with multiple parties to create a meaningful development. It is like putting together pieces of a puzzle — the sense of accomplishment when it all comes together and the relationships and friendships that are built in the process."
- Most important lesson learned: "To be persistent, hard working, honest and fair. Do your homework, listen and try to provide value to all sides."
- Pastimes: Snow skiing, water skiing, hiking, kayaking and playing the guitar
- Last book you read: "Usually reading two or three, currently: 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings' by Maya Angelou; 'Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In' by Roger Fisher and William Ury; and 'The New Rules of Real Estate' by Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries"
- What's playing on your car radio: "WUWM, Top 20 and I recently started listening to some country."
- First job: "Dishwasher at Columbia Hospital"