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Leave a message for Mike Brennan, CEO of Chicago-based First Industrial Realty Trust Inc., and you can be sure he’ll ring you back within two hours. If he fails to do so, $50 comes out of his bankroll and into a nonprofit’s back pocket. That two-hour return call is company policy, he says, and one of the reasons for First Industrial’s success. Brennan, head of one of the most powerful providers of diversified industrial real estate, hasn’t forgotten the art of humility. After all, when the company was formed 11 years ago, it represented a mere $600 million in investment capital. In the past year alone, balance-sheet acquisitions have gone from $368 million to $650 million; sales have soared from $425 million in $700 million; and while the company owned or managed 82 million sf in 2004, it now carries 104 million sf of industrial property in 28 markets. What’s more, last year, the company boasted $75 million in JV buys, adding to what is now a $1.6-billion base of joint-venture successes. One of the most recent partnerships, and certainly one creating the most headlines, was with the mammoth pension fund California State Teachers Retirement System. In March, the duo teamed up to collaborate on a $950-million venture. Then in September, the team joining forces again, this time to acquire the 216-property, 14.4-million-sf portfolio acquired from Indianapolis-based Duke Realty Corp. Is the recent uptick in First Industrial activity a defense against the growing market share of a post-Catellus ProLogis? How does Brennan view the changes in the once dull—now super sexy industrial market? In a recent, exclusive interview, he tells us.

GlobeSt.com: You’ve recently made some pretty large acquisitions with CalSTRS. Can you tell me a little about that relationship?

Brennan: We wanted to expand our investment platform to more effectively source land acquisitions, to develop buildings or buy redundant assets from corporate America. So CalSTRS needs to be viewed in the context of the company’s overall plan. That capital was necessary for us to expand our vision in the industry and penetrate the lucrative corporate market. So we went out to find a like-minded partner, somebody who believed in the opportunities we believe in, who believed in managing the investment the way we had been managing it. CalSTRS was the right partner for us, and it’s been a terrific partnership.

GlobeSt.com: How does competition play a role in your decision-making?

Brennan: This is a competitive business, but we have a number of competitive advantages that we try to emphasize every time we speak to a real estate broker and every time we speak to a corporate customer.

GlobeSt.com: You didn’t feel threatened when you heard the news of ProLogis merging with Catellus?

Brennan: I don’t have too much to say on the ProLogis/Catellus deal except that it confirms the value of having a strong organization, which Catellus did. And it confirms the faith and the good performance of industrial properties in the US. All the REITs put together that own industrial properties own 3%. Corporations own 65%, pension funds own 2%, and private investors own 30%, so while it was a large transaction relative to the market, it was a virtual drop in the bucket.

GlobeSt.com: How has the REIT industry changed since you started?

Brennan: Where do I start? The biggest evolution that I saw was companies transformed from passive property managers to active operating companies that were capable of delivering on a number of different initiatives. So the capabilities of many REITs today, and certainly this is true of us, bear no resemblance to the capabilities that they now have. For instance, we started by doing about 10% of our business in corporate America. Today, about 50% of our investments is with corporate customers. So capital sources have changed. Geography has expanded. Relationships have increased, and the strength of our management team has improved. I’m not even sure they would give me a job at First Industrial today.

GlobeSt.com: When you started in 1994, did you expect to be where you are now?

Brennan: Honestly, no. But I never had any doubt of my vision of the industry or where the industry could go, with the right capital and the right organization. But you just can’t envision going from $600 million in investment to something close to $7 billion when you include our joint ventures. I don’t think anyone really has that in their long-term business plan.

GlobeSt.com: To what do you attribute your success?

Brennan: We owe some of our good fortune to faith, so we acknowledge having some wind at out back with a good economy and corporate America back spending again. The other part of our success is a deliberate effort, first and foremost to recruit and train the top talent in the industry. We also made a concerted effort to expand our geography. The last thing that is vitally important is getting the right sources of capital to finance our acquisitions and help us further penetrate corporate America. So people, geography and capital, and a little wind in our back, were the keys to our success.

GlobeSt.com: It’s clear that adding the right people to your team is important. In the past year, you’ve increased the amount of transaction officers by 38%, and your leasing personnel team has increased 33%. Why now? Are there market factors that have allowed for the increase?

Brennan: That’s an excellent question. The big reason we brought on that many transaction officers and that many leasing people has to do with our penetration in the corporate real estate market. We said now is the time to invest in the people who will help us further penetrate the corporate business.

GlobeSt.com: You’ve continually mentioned your work with corporate clients. Is it accurate to say that First Industrial is focusing primarily on that sector?

Brennan: We’re making a tremendous effort to serve corporate America. There are two big things occurring in that market. Number one is an increased emphasis on the supply chain in order to make them more efficient. The second thing is the recognition that real estate is often significantly undervalued on corporate America’s balance sheet. Both of those forces, together with our own preparedness, are giving us a significant increase in that business. We’re by no means done, but we’re certainly on the right track.

GlobeSt.com: Corporate America is indeed focusing on supply chain management and logistics, and we’re seeing a lot of that going overseas. Is First Industrial looking at extending itself in areas like China and India?

Brennan: Today, First Industrial is focused on the Unites States. There’s an awful lot to do, an awful lot of solutions that can be provided right here. If at some point we feel there’s a significant amount of existing customers that we can help, we would perhaps be open to the idea. But it’s not on the boards for us right now. We have a huge market domestically, and although it’s wonderful to open new markets, we’ve made a tremendous stride domestically and we continue to do that. Generally speaking, we want to invest in markets that are economically diverse, have a large base of property and where there are signs that there will be a scarcity of land in the future.

GlobeSt.com: So where do you see First Industrial 10 years from now?

Brennan: I’d like our corporate customers to say, “They were a real partner; they really helped us.” I would like our investors to say, “We really did well with them.” And I’d like our employees or former employees to say, “We really learned a lot under them, and they were very fair to us.” In terms of growth, I don’t know. It will all take care of itself. If we’re good with customers, good with our employees and good with our investors, then we have a lot to look forward to.

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