Icons in Real Estate

Icons in Real Estate:

One-on-One with Hugh Zimmer


For commercial REALTOR® Hugh Zimmer, CRE, SIOR, real estate is really a family affair. 


Zimmer’s grandfather and father both worked for a North Kansas City development company, his grandfather from 1908-1937 and his father from 1924-1948. His father left the company to start his own business, which is known now as Zimmer Real Estate Services, one of the largest commercial firms in the Midwest, which has been responsible for the development of more than 2,400 acres of business parks and more than 28 million square feet of commercial buildings throughout the region and major markets across the country. Hugh went to work for his father in 1953 and never looked back.


Hugh, his brother Bill and his son David have all been president of what would eventually become the Kansas City Regional Association of REALTORS®. His daughter, Ellen Darling, also works for Zimmer Real Estate Services, and the company “has two other Zimmers coming along (as interns),” Hugh says – so the possibility of a fifth generation of Zimmers in real estate is just around the corner. 


Hugh has been extremely active in promoting the overall growth of both Kansas and Missouri and has played an important role in many of the area’s economic development organizations. He has served on the boards of directors and executive committees of numerous community, civic and professional organizations. In 1998, the governing body of Lenexa, Kansas made him an honorary citizen in recognition of his contributions to the area’s growth and development. He is Past Chairman of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Trustees and is Chairman of the UMKC Chancellor’s Institute for Urban Education National Advisory Board. He is also an advisory director of Commerce Bank of Kansas City, and a Trustee of Midwest Research Institute.


As a recognized leader in the industry locally, regionally and nationally for more than 55 years, Zimmer no doubt stays busy – but we caught up with him in a recent telephone interview, where he talked about the family business and what it’s like to have his name on so many well-known regional projects. 


How and when did you join the real estate business? 


My father was in the real estate business, as was my grandfather, so I grew up across the dinner table from the real estate business. My dad left in 1948 and started his own business, which is the business that continues today. When I was growing up, though, I had no intention of going into the real estate business. My intention at the time was to go to New York and be on Wall Street. Instead of doing that, I went into the service for a couple of years. When I got out, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I decided I could do it very well right here in Kansas City in the real estate business. I came back and asked my dad to give me a job. I went to work for him in 1953 – he died in 1957 and I have continued on since that time. 


What’s it like working in a family business?


There are probably good points and bad points to that. (Hugh laughs.) The experience has changed quite a bit over the years. When I went to work for my dad, he was the sole provider, there was him and a secretary, and then I was the third person. My brother Bill was scheduled by my father to come to work the day after he died, and Bill did that. In those days, it was a very close relationship. Today, we have around 60 employees, and we’re of a size where I may go a week and not see one of my children or employees. 


Another kind of interesting point is that not only have myself, my brother Bill and my son David all served as president of the local real estate board, I served as national president of the Society of Industrial and Office REALTORS® (SIOR) in 1978, and now David is president-elect and will assume the presidency in 2010. There have been only a handful of father/son situations in the SIOR history. We’re quite proud of that. 


What do you love about the real estate business?


I do love the business. I don’t believe I’ve had a day in 56 years that I haven’t gotten up and looked forward to going to work. It’s the challenge. I think it’s the very competitive environment, the opportunity to almost create your own future, the opportunity (particularly in our part of the business) to do something that helps build your community. It’s fun to drive by some of (our projects) once in a while. And while this will be the last of the reasons, financially it’s been a rewarding career. 


Zimmer Real Estate Services has had its name on several high-profile Kansas City projects – including the Sprint World Headquarters and new Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank headquarters. What is it like leaving your mark on the region in this way? 


Ego be damned – it certainly is a rewarding feeling to know you’ve had a hand in some of those things. I think one of those things that has really been a precept of Zimmer from the very start is that we try to involve ourselves in projects that are positive and are good for our community and for our area. I would say to you that there are some projects and opportunities that have come to us that we have chosen not to get into – even though they may have been rewarding financially, for whatever reason, we didn’t feel they were right. That has been an important part of our business profile from the very start. The other very important thing to us is that because our name is out in front and our name is on our company, everything we do has to be done with the highest integrity and with the highest moral values. That is very important to us. 


I think that is again an outgrowth of our belief that we have a responsibility to help our community move forward. I have as a personal commitment devoted a significant part of my time to civic matters and I encourage all of our people to do the same. That’s a way that we can give back to the community that has given much to us. 


Describe the trends in real estate that you’ve seen in your 50+ years in the business.


There’s no question that there are highs and lows. There have been highs and lows in the years I’ve been in the business, and there were highs and lows in the years before. That’s really true of most any business. The thing that I would say and what I say to our people is we always have to be looking at what we think is going to happen tomorrow. We have to look and see what opportunities there will be – and there WILL be opportunities. They may be different from the ones last week, last month or last year, and they may initially come harder, but really, people need skilled advisors in the commercial real estate business more today, when things may be difficult, than they do when everything is going just right. 


There is a great deal of opportunity in the marketplace today for people willing to look for the opportunities. The people thinking about how bad it is, it’s probably pretty bad for them. The market will come back; the low if we’re in right now will see another high within a few years. I don’t know how many years that is, but for the people who work hard and are looking for those opportunities, they will be there. 


Are you a real estate icon or do you know a REALTOR® who’s been/was in the business a long time and would be willing to share their story with us? We’d love to hear from you! Contact Communications Amber Vandegrift at AmberV@kcrar.com or 913-266-5907. Look for more profiles on Icons in Real Estate coming soon.