Mergers can be a real pain in the asset, no matter how well planned. Each firm comes complete with an unmatched set of baggage: its own history, its own philosophy, its own players with different working styles and personalities. If both companies are family-operated, harmony can be all the more evasive.

But Chicago's Podolsky Northstar Realty Partners LLC is doing fine, nearly two years after Podolsky and Associates L.P. merged with Corporate Realty Advisors Inc. The resulting company boasts 11 principals, including two brothers from each company.

"Podolsky Northstar Realty Partners is a conglomeration of 11 partners with diverse backgrounds," says managing partner Randy D. Podolsky. "The merging of two businesses really started with founding fathers Irv Goode and Milton Podolsky."

The Goode and Podolsky forefathers began their separate ventures into the realm of Chicago's commercial real estate nearly 40 years ago, before the advent of UPREIT transactions and frequent flier miles. By 1986, Milton's sons Randy and Steven H. Podolsky had taken over leadership of Podolsky and Associates Ltd., which specialized in property management and industrial brokerage and leasing. John G. Musgjerd and Richard G. Levy became the first nonfamily partners in 1992, helping to form Podolsky and Associates L.P.

In 1987, Irv's sons Steven and Mark had joined him in forming Corporate Realty Advisors Inc. with Lynn Kunde Reich. CRA focused primarily on industrial and investment brokerage.

The 1996 merger produced Podolsky Northstar, a regional company on the verge of national prominence, a private firm that stays competitive in an atmosphere increasingly populated by public corporations and REITs. Adding three new partners helped broaden the investment property brokerage capabilities of the company.

"We probably went from a very small niche player in investment property to a nationally recognized representative for acquisition and disposition of investment property to the tune of over $300 million or more a year," Randy Podolsky says. "We've doubled our general brokerage from about $350 million to over $700 million a year."

Podolsky Northstar's investment brokerage team of Mark B. Goode, John R. Homsher, Garry S. Weiss and Roy L. Splansky has worked together for years, beginning at CRA. "We work with corporations, we work with entrepreneurial investors, and we do a lot of our business on the institutional level," says Weiss. "There's tremendous amounts of institutional capital and strong institutional appetite out there."

While working with clients in less familiar markets outside Chicago, Podolsky Northstar sometimes works with local companies if the partners see a need to bring local market knowledge to the table. "In Indianapolis, we represented Equity Office on the sale of two buildings that were not part of what they wanted to put into their REIT," says Splansky. "We teamed with F.C. Tucker there, where we had a very good relationship with the disposition person at Equity Office and we had done significant business with F.C. Tucker."

The team's approach appears to be working: it brokered $339 million in transactions in 1997, totaling 8.3 million sq. ft. in 123 buildings in Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, Indiana, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia. Industrial property makes up approximately 60% of Podolsky Northstar's investment brokerage transactions, office property about 40%. In the mid-1980s, industrial property comprised 80% of the firm's investment brokerage transactions.

Podolsky Northstar is geared more toward giving repeat clients what they need, wherever they need it, than toward capturing any particular geographical market. "If Ace Hardware came to us and said 'We need to sell a building in Hartford, Conn., of 450,000 sq. ft.,' what we end up doing is cooperating with a local area broker in that market to show the building," says Steven Goode, whose group specializes in industrial brokerage. "What ends up happening is that we end up servicing the client's needs around the country."

Steven Podolsky sees his build-to-suit division as one more means to the end of client satisfaction. "We represent our clients wherever their real estate needs are," he says. "Oftentimes, the direction that leads us to is build-to-suit."

Certification in professional organizations allows the partners to extend their reach beyond metropolitan Chicago. "Eleven of us are SIORs, seven are CCIMs and five of those hold dual SIOR/CCIMs. There's only 250 of those in the country," Steven Podolsky says. "From those organizations, we have the ability to do deals anywhere in the United States, anywhere in North America."

Chicago's bullish office market has kept Musgjerd busy running the company's office brokerage division. "Our services include representing tenants, representing building owners, office development, the sale or acquisition of office buildings for use by tenants," Musgjerd says. "Our tenant representation and building representation groups really form the majority of our business."

The company plans to expand its development operations in the future, a decade after Podolsky & Associates developed its first large Class-A office project, Westbrook Corporate Center in Westchester, Ill. Recently sold to Boston-based Beacon Properties Corp. through an UPREIT transaction, Westbrook consists of five 10-story office buildings and boasts the nation's first speculative rooftop daycare center. Podolsky Northstar has also developed Rosemont/Chicago Industrial Park, O'Hare International Industrial Plaza in Schiller Park, Tower Industrial Park in Alsip and Triton Industrial Center in Elk Grove Village.

Ensuring client loyalty sometimes involves more than cutting multimillion-dollar deals. "We want you to come back to us and we'll help you. Is the landlord charging you properly?" says Musgjerd. "We share information with our clients. Not always do we make a buck off of it."

Don't expect Podolsky Northstar to go public or open a string of satellite offices. "I think the uniqueness of our shop is that we have no desire to become part of a national chain, no desire to become part of a national public firm," says Randy Podolsky.

Musgjerd agrees: "We wouldn't open an office in Atlanta, for example, but we do know that if we have a client who needs to find office space in Atlanta, we know where to go to team with a local firm."

Because of the firm's ability to provide its commercial clients with third-party services, the principals at Podolsky Northstar are not too worried about weathering any potential downturns in the real estate market. "The business is cyclical," Splansky says. "We try to be right on top of the next big wave. "

Being on top of the next big wave seems to work for Podolsky Northstar. The merger of two family-run regional companies has made the resulting firm stronger, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

"We want to stay independent, be entrepreneurial and think entrepreneurially," says Steven Goode. "If you see opportunities and you can react to those opportunities that are presented to you, I don't know if there's anything more that a company can give an individual."