CHARLOTTE – Paul Ryan – no, not that Paul Ryan – has large brown eyes, so deep you know they’ve seen good times and bad.
They droop ever so slightly away from th
e bridge of his nose to rest on his generous cheeks, and On the Level would be tempted to call them sad, but this gentle bear of a real estate man is not remotely sad.
He’s just – well, pick your term – philosophical, sanguine, been around. And intends to stay that way.
Ryan is the kind of guy, been through the kinds of things he has, that you just can’t help but enjoy the success he now has with his company, Nestlewood Realty.
And he’s man enough to share credit for it with the friends who helped him get here instead of glorifying himself.
Ryan, not remotely r
elated to the 2012 vice presidential also-ran, was born in Detroit before 1967’s 12th Street riot, and moved, as so many in the Motor City did, to the suburbs.
From age 5, he grew up in Oakland County’s Farmington Hills, and specifically on Nestlewood Street, where he remembers a happy childhood. So much so that he stuck around for some college training at Oakland University and went to work in inner-city Detroit selling flour wholesale to bakeries. As a backup, he picked up a real estate license, but didn’t do anything with it.
As so often happens, Ryan met a girl. They decided to move south – “whoever got a job first,” Ryan said – and in the late ’90s, they did, after she did. He, too, found a job, selling more flour.
That’s where we’ll let Ryan, 51, pick up the narrative, tell you how he hooked up with another entrepreneur, Matt Ewers, owner of Grandfather Homes builders and Mattie Rose Development, and how they together survived the housing bust and now operate robust and growing businesses. Ewers develops and builds; Ryan invests and sells.
We sat at the kitchen table in the ultra-relaxing joint offices of all three companies, in a renovated former dairy processing plant at Hawthorne Lane and Central Avenue – the nexus of Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood.
Ryan wore a button-down, long-sleeve white shirt untucked from well-worn jeans. And he looked at us with those big brown eyes, and spilled.
So. Paul Ryan? Ha. Let’s just say I had no problem getting restaurant reservations for a while there, around the election.
You worked in food manufacturing, for a big company, and then you hopped into real estate. They said, “We’ve got a position for you, but it’s in Columbus, Ohio,”
and rather than go back up to the cold and snow, we decided to stay. That’s when I decided I needed to get into it, at first as a broker with John Kelly Realty in Dilworth, in the early 2000s, at first part time. That’s when I decided to do my own thing, and named the business Nestlewood, after the street I grew up on.
What kind of real estate? It was me and other investors; I guess you would call them silent partners. I had an office in Elizabeth, over on East Seventh, in an older house, and we did a lot of buying older houses and lots, renovation and building, in addition to general brokerage. When the economy went down, I took an office over on 36th Street in NoDa, riding out the storm. When things got slim, I started working with a local bank. They said, “We need you to help sell some of our foreclosed-on properties.” They had a lot of properties, some with homes that were like 70-percent finished. That’s when I hooked up with Matt (Ewers). It was my office manager, Amy Jamison, myself and Matt, riding out the storm.
Riding out the storm. Nice image. You can sit at home and not answer your phone, or you can get out there and just try to make it. You either fell by the wayside or you figured it out. I’m too busy to be depressed. I went to my connection with the local bank – Community One – they weren’t going to give a loan to someone to buy a 70-percent completed house. We told them, “You need to fix these houses to sell them.” We pushed through a lot of properties that way. They owned them; we fixed and moved them.
How many properties, do you think? Between lots and homes, probably a couple of hundred, and Matt did all the upfitting, and that gave him a little bit of his own (money) to get him going on some of his projects. So yeah, we teamed up and hunkered down. When I was over on 36th, Matt was working out of his garage; times were hard. When things started to get better, we were positioned to make our move, to say, “Let’s try to grow this thing.” We thought maybe we could share office space, cut costs, work together. This place was for rent, sitting empty, and we worked out a cheap lease.
Great place. When we moved in here, we didn’t need this much space, but we thought that if we could put these awnings up with our company names on them – well, we knew Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth would be a great place to be. We had one agent, Amy, me and Matt. Now we have seven agents, work stations all over the place; Matt has superintendents in and out.
Survival gave you street cred. If we could come out of what we came out of, people are going to know we have a little integrity, that we’re going to do what we say we’ll do. We work with some other builders, some of them don’t even have a name for their business – they’re just guys. But it’s not quite the same as with Matt. That’s a little more foxhole.
Foxhole? Matt and I dug ourselves out of the hole together. It was not just, “We’re going to work together.” It was more something that binds you. We’re friends. He’s been real positive for my head, and I think I’ve had that kind of influence on him, too.
A symbiotic relationship, in the best sense of the term. I think it is. I mean, it’s one big open room here; there’s got to be a trust. I still have the other general brokerage business, and we “do things our way,” for lack of a better term. I like to think we don’t just have a general brokerage, just selling houses. We have a whole turnkey operation. We can be a constant resource for our clients. We try to be level-headed. You just have to keep things calm and composed. If you do that, and know what you’re doing, it makes the transaction a lot smoother.
Your company and Matt’s companies are growing fast. Matt’s picking up land and building permits right and left. He’s just opened that new infill development, the Arbors at Mattie Rose. And you’re selling the houses. We’re probably going to bring on four more agents in the next two months. We have a sales manager now, Katie Strohschein – she’s the agent who’s been here the whole time with us – and now she handles a lot of the day to day. I’m doing less (field work), and it’s good, standing back and getting the big picture. It’s fun to see it all happen. We sit up here on our balcony sometimes after work and talk about where we were and where we are now, where we want to go with this.
With libations? Sometimes. You can look out over these older neighborhoods, Plaza Midwood, Elizabeth – those neighborhoods the big firms don’t have such a stranglehold on. There are more boutique firms.
So is that what you have going here? A “boutique”? Ha. Yeah, let’s be clear on what kind.
Ha. Look around: You can see by the office – I can work late at night and watch a basketball game; we have a kitchen here – that it’s not the worst place to be.
And now, here you are. It’s been a pretty cool ride. I hate to say it’s a rags-to-riches story because we’re none of us rich. But we made it out alive. When things were bad, a lot of people kind of crept away. People were in hiding. Nobody wants to talk about failure. My phone didn’t ring for a year. When you start to get out of the hole, you start talking to more people. Now we think, “God, we made it out alive.” Through all that, I was lucky to have the people I have – Matt and Amy and Katie.
They say luck is what you make it. And in that sense you are a very lucky man. Yeah. I think I am.