Book excerpt: The Life of Bill Knapp
Friday, August 09, 2013 7:00 AM
Simpson College professor William Friedricks’ “The Real Deal: The Life of Bill Knapp” hits bookstores Aug. 9. The biography chronicles the personal history of Knapp and provides readers with an inside look at the growth and development of Greater Des Moines over the past
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80 years. We hope you enjoy this excerpt from the book, which analyzes Knapp’s love affair with making big deals, and in particular, looks at the three big deals that helped launch the career of one of Iowa’s most tenacious real-estate tycoons.
– Chris Conetzkey, editor of the Business Record
Excerpt From the Book
Bill loved making deals and took them very seriously. His ability to size up situations and make quick decisions often gave him an edge in such transactions, and he cut deals with friends as often as he did with business associates. From the mid-1950s to 1960, Bill negotiated some important deals that set his future in motion.
Not surprisingly, the first big deal involved John Grubb. He was developing his first subdivision, and since Iowa Realty had been successful in selling many of his homes, Grubb asked Bill to handle the home and lot sales in Zelda Acres, a West Des Moines development directly south of Resthaven Cemetery, named after his wife. Before the sale, Grubb had arranged for Elmer Miller and Des Moines Savings and Loan to offer GI loans for these homes with no down payment. Although this had been done in other parts of the country, it had not been the practice in Des Moines. With such ?nancing available, Bill ran a half-page advertisement in the Des Moines Register initially offering the sixty-eight three bedroom, brick homes for $17,000 to $21,000. Soldiers and veterans could qualify for a low, fixed-rated GI loan with no down payment. The splashy ad was followed by a two-day open house, held on a Saturday and Sunday in early April 1958. With balloons decorating the completed show homes, a carnival atmosphere prevailed, and a number of Iowa Realty agents, including Jim Cooper, Roger Cleven, Pat Greene, and Roy Riley, sold nineteen homes over the weekend. A couple more open houses followed, and by late June, all the development’s homes that had been completed or were under construction had been sold, and all but a handful of the subdivision’s homes yet to be built had been presold as well.
The success of Zelda Acres boosted John Grubb’s esteem as a builder, enhanced Bill’s reputation as a Realtor, and encouraged the friends to work together. In February 1959, Grubb announced the development of a new subdivision northeast of downtown Des Moines called Sheridan Park, north of Sheridan Avenue between East Thirty-eighth Street and East Forty-second Street. Much larger than anything he had done previously, the plans ultimately called for 550 modest homes throughout the 160-acre project. Again, Bill handled the sales as the ?rst plats opened that summer and, much like Zelda Acres, the deal proved lucrative for both Grubb and Iowa Realty.
Deals like these added to Iowa Realty’s inventory of homes available, which by 1959 totaled over 200 and was, according to company advertising, “the largest selection of homes [offered by a realty ?rm] in Des Moines.” That same year, Iowa Realty began calling itself “Iowa’s Largest Realtor.” It is not clear whether this claim was based on sales volume, which the ?rm boasted was record breaking, on its large number of listings, or the size of its sales force, which numbered 25 by 1959. Unfortunately, because sales records for the period no longer exist, the statement is difficult to substantiate. Among those in the business, there was some debate at the time whether or not Iowa Realty had surpassed Chamberlain, Kirk & Cline as the largest in the city. Nonetheless, Iowa Realty’s rapid growth was impressive, and clearly, it was the ?rm on the rise. Equally important, the company had transformed the industry by aggressively marketing new construction, establishing deals with local banks to guarantee the availability of ?nancing for its customers, and using bold, new designs in its newspaper advertising.
Building Iowa Realty to a leading position in its market was a major achievement, but Bill kept pressing, and two other deals pointed him in a brand new direction; one involved a partner, a long-term commitment, and land development, while in the other, Bill acted alone, bought property, and quickly turned around and sold it at a profit.
In January 1959, Bill bought Stuart Hills, a thirty-acre parcel immediately west of the new forty-seven-acre Merle Hay Plaza, which was scheduled to open in August and would be Iowa’s largest shopping center. It was a sizeable purchase; Bill paid $160,000 for the land, but it is likely he was already in discussions with John Grubb about jointly developing this property. These talks led to the establishment of Allied Development, a ?fty-?fty partnership designed to hold prime real estate owned by the two businessmen. A month later, Bill transferred Stuart Hills to Allied Development. The valuable land was bounded by Douglas Avenue to the south, Sixty-sixth Street to the west, Aurora Avenue to the north, and Sixty-fourth Street to the east. In some ways, this was a natural move, for owning land to be developed offered many more opportunities than merely brokering sales, and this would be the area where Bill would soon excel. Likewise, partnering with Grubb brought in a friend Bill trusted who had expertise that he lacked.
Shortly after the creation of Allied Development, Bill became involved in a deal with Don Benton, a builder who was in the midst of developing Karen Acres, a subdivision in Urbandale, north and west of downtown. By March 1960, his ?nances were tight, and while laying water mains and grading streets, he ran out of money. Benton approached Bill about buying some lots so he could ?nish the subdivision preparations. Bill saw an opportunity and jumped at the chance, buying twenty-three lots, most of which were along Benton Avenue. But unlike the Stuart Hills acquisition or the creation of Allied Development, which involved planning and holding of property, Bill turned around and sold these lots almost immediately. Three were bought by Jerry Grubb, John’s brother, the following month, and in May, John Grubb bought the rest. The quick deal netted Bill a tidy profit.
The two deals marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. From 1952 to the end of the decade, Bill’s singular focus was expanding sales at Iowa Realty. In just seven years, he transformed the small real estate ?rm into an innovative operation that was arguably the city’s largest. No one who knew Bill would have been surprised. Rival Realtor Joe Kirk, Sr. remembered Bill as “an aggressive businessman who saw opportunities others didn’t and acted on them.” Accountant Robert Timmins agreed but thought Bill’s drive was the key: “He was the most ambitious guy I knew, and he kept pushing; he was never satisfied.” Indeed, as the 1950s closed, Bill Knapp could look back over a decade of accomplishment, yet he was far from content. Successful though he was, the shadow of his hard life on the Depression-era farm still haunted him. “I wasn’t comfortable back then,” he recalled. “I still felt that I was one or two steps away from losing it all.”
With Iowa Realty running at full throttle, Bill moved into land development and then property management with the same intensity that had propelled him to build the brokerage business. His passion for work and his drive to make things happen only grew over time and, in fact, came to dominate his life.
Even as he spent time away from the office with family and friends and even when he vacationed, business was constantly on his mind. He was always thinking about negotiating the next deal, buying the next property, or developing the next piece of land. He just could not turn it off; Bill Knapp was now the quintessential dealmaker, and there were always deals needing to be closed.