William A. Alter, real estate developer and chairman and CEO of The Alter Group, died Aug. 8 at his home in Winnetka, Ill. He was 78. Although he battled Alzheimer's for several years, he ultimately succumbed to complications from pneumonia.
Alter was considered by many to be a giant in the real estate industry and was widely respected for his vision, integrity, and intensity. Over five decades, his company evolved from its roots as a residential builder to pioneer build-to-suit office and industrial developments. In recent years, The Alter Group also expanded into healthcare facilities.
“This is a very cyclical business,” Alter told National Real Estate Investor in 2005 for a story highlighting the company’s 50th anniversary. “Over the years, we've tried to read the markets for signals on what is happening and then follow those signals. Often we looked to both coasts to identify trends first, because Chicago moved a bit more slowly.” Opportunistic land purchases were a key to the company’s growth, he said. “I've tried to buy land when costs were low and wait for the growth to come to us.”
For his contribution to the real estate industry, NREI named him one of the most influential people of the 20th Century. The Alter Group currently ranks No. 6 on NREI’s list of Top Office Developers, with 4.1 million sq. ft. completed or under construction in 2007.
A recipient of the Chicago-based Urban Land Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Alter created a company that became one of the top commercial real estate firms in the country with more than $1 billion worth of office, industrial, hotel and healthcare projects nationally.
“My father left an extraordinary legacy that has as much to do with communities and people as real estate," says Michael Alter, president of the Alter Group. “He was a pioneer and an incredible
innovator. His finest business instinct was recognizing the potential of towns and communities throughout the country that seemed poised for
growth.” They ranged from the DuPage County corridor in Chicago to Atlanta's perimeter market.
“Just as importantly, my dad was deeply interested and devoted to mentoring succeeding generations in the real estate industry. His commitment is reflected in the fact that the senior executive team at The Alter Group has been intact for more than 25 years. He always found time for anyone who wanted to learn, whether a colleague, a reporter or a recent college graduate," Alter added.
"In addition to his professional accomplishments, he was equally proud of his family and his significant philanthropic work. The grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, my Dad believed passionately
in the ideals and opportunities of this country. His was a uniquely American story."
A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with an engineering degree, Alter began his real estate career in 1955 as one of Chicago's first to market raw land to residential
Realizing that he could make a greater return by improving the land before he sold it, he became a residential developer in 1959.
His first endeavor, Realty Co. of America, Inc., developed nearly 7,000 homes in suburban Chicago for postwar first-time buyers and their growing families. Alter was dubbed the “sky broker,” because he often used a twin-engine plane to scout land sites for development.
The defining moment of his early career came in Markham, Ill., where he developed Kingston Green, the nation's first residential community for middle-income minority buyers. With Olympian Jesse Owens as his national spokesman, Alter brought the American dream to hundreds of families who previously had been excluded from home ownership.
Recognizing the value of mixed-use developments, Alter was one of the first to negotiate and use Planned Unit Development (PUD) agreements. He showed how varying residential product types — condominiums, townhouses, and single-family homes — could flourish near stores and neighborhood schools.
In the early 1960s, Alter began assembling commercial sites in Chicago's River North neighborhood and in DuPage County, the west suburban region's most dynamic business corridor, along the I-88 East-West Tollway and the I-355 North-South Tollway.
At the same time, Alter became a nationally recognized expert on real estate issues, repeatedly testifying on Capitol Hill and advising Gov. William Stratton of Illinois on metropolitan planning. In the
following years, Alter's projects grew larger and more complex as he worked to transform idle land into thriving communities.
He was one of Chicago's first developers to produce single-story office and service center buildings for local companies that wanted to combine office, warehouse and shipping operations in a single
He helped create the now widely copied concept of the professionally planned industrial park with high-quality construction standards, curving streets, and generous landscaping. It featured support
services within a single business environment at developments like Yorkbrook Park, Oak Creek Center and Woodlake Corporate Park, all in Lombard, Ill.
Alter's experience in developing corporate facilities rose to a new level in the 1970s, when he began focusing on single-source, turnkey development at an upfront guaranteed price. Alter found it necessary to exercise control over both the building's construction and operational costs, and so formed a construction affiliate, Alter Construction Group, and a property-management affiliate, Alter Asset Management.
Building on its broad technical expertise, The Alter Group began developing millions of square feet of speculative office, industrial, and research-and-development parks. During the same time frame, Alter became the Midwest's first developer to promote an alternative project delivery method known as build-to-suit.
One of the first projects the company built under this method was a $35 million office research and development campus for Bell Labs (now Lucent Technologies Inc.) It showed Alter’s flexibility and commitment to corporate clients. Despite an operating engineer's strike and inclement weather, the building was delivered on budget and ahead of schedule.
The Alter Group quickly emerged as an established player in developing turnkey custom-designed corporate facilities. During the 1990s, Alter found an even better way to deliver build-to-suit facilities that satisfied clients' time and budget constraints. Called ReadiDesign, the program was the industry's first super-fast and easy system to deliver quality office space in a fraction of the time normally required to produce build-to-suits.
ReadiDesign features pre-designed, pre-priced office models in which companies can select from an inventory of building shells, exterior finishes and financing structures to fast-track design, approval and delivery.
A critical facet of The Alter Group's aggressive national development program, ReadiDesign models can be developed virtually anywhere in the United States. The Alter Group has built ReadiDesign models for such prominent companies as GE Capital Management Services in Alpharetta, Ga. and Verizon Wireless in Dublin, Ohio.
In 1997, Alter created Alter+Care, an affiliate that provides comprehensive real estate services to the growing healthcare industry. This was in response to the graying of the American population
and the rise of outpatient care — trends that have created an unparalleled need for turnkey development expertise.
Today, Alter+Care is one of the country's top five healthcare developers, according to Modern Healthcare magazine, completing more than $100 million of projects annually.
Active in the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) since 1972, Alter served on its board of directors and participated in its National Wetlands Policy Reform. He became a member of CoreNet Global beginning in 1985, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in 1972. ULI honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. Alter was a guest lecturer for trade associations, universities and financial institutions.
In 1983, Alter was appointed to the Illinois State Commission on Science and Technology, and in 1985 to the Build Illinois Committee. It builds economic stability through business expansion by providing more than $2.3 billion for infrastructure, housing and environmental projects.
Alter was a member of the Executive Committee and Board of Directors of the National Realty Committee, and was a founding director in 1986 of the Illinois Ambassadors, an economic development group that
works with the private sector to encourage companies to relocate in Illinois.
He was honored by the National Conference for Christians and Jews, and had been a Trustee of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy since 1986.
A Chicago native, Alter is survived by his wife, Evelyn. He was the father of Michael Alter, Harvey Alter, Jennie Alter Abt, Jonathan Alter and the late Rhonda Alter; step-father to Nicky Bliwas and Tony Winski; and grandfather of 13.
Tom Silva contributed to this report.