Generations of builders

By TC Brown
Photos by Will Shilling

Building as a family affair is by no means a rarity in central Ohio. The area boasts several families in which commercial real estate is now carried on by second generations, and in some cases, third generations. Those organizations include the Robert Weiler Company, Pizzuti Companies, The Daimler Group, Virginia Homes and the Hadler Companies, among others. Some of these organizations' founders envisioned a legacy for their families; in other instances, family participation simply evolved. 

The Robert Weiler Company

The Robert Weiler Company
10 N. High St., Suite 401
Columbus 43215

Employees: 21
Signature projects: Polaris development, Columbus Commons
In 1995 built first FHA subdivison in central Ohio in Whitehall 

At the ripe old age of three, Robert J. Weiler spent many an hour clambering in and through the partially constructed houses being built by his father, A. Robert “Bob” Weiler.

Weiler remembers his dad loading him and his older brother, Alan, into the car on weekends for an expedition to the east side of Columbus, where his father was building homes or showing the completed for-sale properties in Bexley and Eastmoor.

“Alan and I would be going into the houses that were just under construction, climbing up the stairs and going into the homes that were open on Sunday,” Weiler says. “I got a flavor of that and thought from there on this was something I’d be interested in doing. It seemed like a fun thing, building houses and selling them.”

Witnessing the enjoyment of his father triggered the urge for his son, now chairman of the board of the Robert Weiler Company, to enter the business in 1957. His brother joined him on the insurance side of the company.

“It wasn’t like debating between going into real estate and anything else,” Weiler says from the small corner, Scarlet-and-Gray-adorned Buckeye Room in the Weiler company offices, overlooking Broad and High streets. “It was a natural thing, and it was a family business.”

And as that business blossomed over the years, a third-generation Weiler jumped aboard in 1985, when Robert J. “Skip” Weiler joined the company as a real estate salesman. He is now president of the company, which has 21 employees.

Building as a family affair is by no means a rarity in central Ohio. The area boasts several families in which commercial real estate development is now carried on by second generations, and in some cases like the Weilers, third generations.

Those organizations include Pizzuti Companies, The Daimler Group, Virginia Homes and the Hadler Companies, among others. Some of these organizations’ founders envisioned a legacy for their families; in other instances, family participation simply evolved.

The Weiler patriarch started the real estate business, also acquiring an interest in the insurance firm that became Archer-Meek-Weiler Agency Inc. Huntington Bancshares Inc. purchased the insurance side on its 99th birthday in 2008.

“I really think dad was happy to be able to keep it in the family and have Alan and I join,” Robert Weiler says. “He started the company with his own name. Alan knew he was going to be working with his father, too.”

Joining an established real estate development firm brings advantages that include a large circle of friends and business acquaintances, and a considerable amount of institutional knowledge.

The third generation Weiler, Skip, says his parents did not push him into the business. During summers he cut grass in subdivisions that he later discovered were owned by his dad and his partners.

After college graduation he traveled for six months. One day he arrived at the office in a white shirt, tie and three-piece suit, prompting his father into a double take.

“My parents always told me to follow my dreams and never hinted at anything,” Skip Weiler says. He discovered his passion for real estate sales while taking classes but had concerns about measuring up to the reputations of his father and grandfather. A close friend offered superior advice.

“He said don’t look at it as filling your dad’s shoes, look at it as standing on his shoulders,” Skip remembers. “I realized he was right, and I could take advantage of my dad and have him help me. The two of us could do more than I could do on my own.”

Notable projects for both include development of Polaris, the largest and most successful for the company, and the Highpoint on Columbus Commons.

The Pizzuti Companies

The Pizzuti Companies
Two Miranova Place, Suite 220
Columbus 43215

Employees: 48
Signature projects: The Joseph (under construction) in Short North, Miranova condos and office building
Built more than 11 million square feet of business development 

Family and the family name has definitely taken center stage with the Pizzuti Companies, which is hip deep in what it considers a signature project, the Joseph. This development under construction in the Short North includes the Le Meridien Columbus, a boutique hotel, an art gallery, a 60,000-square-foot office and retail building and a parking garage.

The project is named for patriarch Joseph Pizzuti, a factory worker who “dabbled on the side” in student housing in Kent, Ohio. His grandson, Joel, president of Pizzuti Companies, said he and his father, Ronald, the company’s chairman and CEO, came up with the idea of using his grandfather’s name while sipping martinis.

“We were speaking about how important this was to the family and that we needed a strong, powerful name . . . and how my grandfather introduced real estate to my father,” Joel says. “We considered a lot of different names, but a lot of it seemed trite, and every time we said ‘Joseph,’ it felt right.”

Ronald Pizzuti and his wife Ann created the Pizzuti Companies in 1976, working out of a trailer with a desktop copier and a pickup truck. They started with foreclosure listings and graduated to building twin single apartments and buying and restoring buildings downtown. Today, the company employs 48 people, including son Joel, who got the building bug early on.

“My favorite toy was Legos,” Joel remembers. “The family business has always been an everyday part of our lives, and I thought that is something I would like to try.”

But that passion waned as Joel grew older, and although he and his father were close, he set his career sights on professional sports, working for a couple of years for the Columbus Crew. When he was 25, a major apparel company offered Joel a job out of town, but at the same time, his father wanted to grow his company and asked him to come aboard.

“It was an exciting time, and I knew I could learn from him and the folks with him and get a head start on my career, and the job sounded incredibly cool,” Joel says. “If I didn’t like it or was not good at it, I could get it out of my system and know I tried it and we could both move forward.

“I love what I do today, and I think I would have regretted it had I not joined my father,” he adds.

And his dad is happy to have him aboard, calling him a hard working, creative visionary with good values. High compliments, indeed, but that doesn’t mean Dad foregoes passing on his own wisdom.

“Joel gets ‘Ronisms’ every week; little things that are important to me, I try to pass on,” Ronald says. “He pays heed to some and ignores others. We are respectful of each other, and the vast majority of the time we are on the same wavelength.”

Growing up, Joel and his two sisters were tuned in to the family business and both the girls were involved in aspects of it, but they have moved on.

“This is a very hands-on business, from the time it gets conceived until the last nail and certification of occupancy, and then it is leased, sold and sometimes held. It’s a long process of four to five years from conception to final stage,” Ronald says. “In our case, our daughters went on and had babies.”

But the Pizzutis and other local developers believe that women will begin taking the reins in the future. It’s already occurred in some areas of the country: for instance, Penny Pritzker, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, founded PSP Capital Partners and Pritzker Realty Group in Chicago; and Lizanne Galbreath Megrue is the managing partner of Galbreath and Company, with Ohio roots, in New York City.

The Pizzutis gather once a year to discuss business, but no rules exist prohibiting such dialogue at other times, though one family member tries to impose limits.

“My mother tries to implement rules about not talking business during family time, but that doesn’t usually work out very well,” the younger Pizzuti says. “We are a family business, and the family is pretty well intertwined.”

The Daimler Group

The Daimler Group
1533 Lake Shore Dr. 
Columbus 43204

Employees: 39
Signature projects: Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center, Flying Horse Farms in Mt. Gilead
Build Polaris' first office park and first major corporate headquarters — Mettler Toledo.  

Another local real estate development group entwined with family is not obvious by its name – The Daimler Group. Co-founder and chairman Robert C. White leads the company he helped start in 1983. His sons, Robert C. White Jr., company president, joined in 1997, followed by younger brother, Tom M. White, project manager, in 2001.

White and his partners Conrad Wisinger, now CEO, and Glen Rowe, now vice president, along with numerous investors decided to focus on team concept over family name, White says from his expansive office overlooking Hidden Lake.

The founders put a lot of thought into the name, White says.

“Daimler Benz makes Mercedes Benz. We liked the sound of that so we took it off the windshield of a car. We are small enough we didn’t think they would have a problem with us, but we don’t do much work in Germany,” White says, laughing.

Humor is a big part of this family’s workday. For instance, during the interview for this story, the senior White bestowed the title “vice president” on his youngest son after feigning surprise that he was only a project manager. While the family is close, White and his sons embrace the wider concept of the entire company as family over the idea that it simply belongs to them.

“We typically don’t classify ourselves as a family business, all of our employees are part of the Daimler family,” Bob Jr. says. “All of our employees get an opportunity to invest in the real estate we create so they have skin in the game. Some of that is tied to motivation . . . and also to give employees an opportunity to help create wealth for their families.”

As the boys grew up, they knew very little about the family’s business, and there were no long-range plans to turn the company into a legacy.

Nonetheless, both young men, avid baseball players in college, labored on company construction projects in the summers of their high school and college years. Their inclusion was more slow evolution than methodical plan, but their father did impart the value of hard work, Bob Jr. says.

“In high school I went to work on construction sites doing manual labor, which was a great experience to start at that level of our business,” Bob Jr. says. “We understood what it takes for a building to come together and the management of a very complex process.”

Like his older brother, Tom worked on construction sites. After college he moved into the company’s leasing department and obtained a real estate license. But a couple of months later the 9/11 terrorists attacks severely impacted the real estate market, so he switched to construction, which he now manages.

“These guys work a lot more hand-in-hand together on a daily basis than I do with either one of them,” Tom says, acknowledging his dad and brother at the table. “By the time I’m involved the project is ready to roll.”

The entrepreneurial and risk-taking nature of real estate development is a driving force into attracting family into the business, the Whites and other developers believe. For success, the job requires many workable partnerships focused on land acquisition, design, construction management, negotiations with municipalities, lenders and attorneys and setting up leases with tenants, Bob Jr. says.

“Our business takes an incredible team effort because you are exposed to so many different things,” he says. “A younger person may think this business is exciting, challenging and unique every single day, and maybe that’s why younger generations get excited about doing it.”

Asked if it is good to work together every day, the senior White says jokingly, “Most of the time.” It’s clear after even a short exposure to this family, they enjoy each other’s company immensely.

“It’s a unique opportunity that not a lot of people have. A lot of families are scattered across the country in different professions,” Tom says. “I get to see these two every day, but I should probably call my mother a little more often.”

Disagreements are rare, but when they happen it’s a bit stressful, says Bob Jr. But there’s another side to that coin. “If there are disagreements, it’s a little tougher to voice those, but you get a great sense of pride when you work side by side everyday.”

Projects important to the company are the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center and the Flying Horse Farms camp in Morrow County for kids with serious illnesses.

Virginia Homes

Virginia Homes
10104 Brewster Lane, Suite 100
Powell 43065

Employees: 10
Signature projects: Wedgewood Golf and Country Club, Wellington Reserve 
Built more than 15,000 homes in central Ohio 

Virginia Homes is another local real estate development company whose name camouflages the generations behind the curtain. Warren Wittmann started the company in 1953, naming it after his wife.

Charles J. Ruma, who began working for the company in 1969 after moving to Columbus from Philadelphia, bought and took over Virginia Homes in 1975. His oldest son, David, came on board in 1989 and his youngest son, Charles, entered the business in 1995.

“When each of my children got out of college, I offered them an opportunity to come to work for me. It was their choice,” says the elder Ruma, now president and CEO of Davidson Phillips Inc. “I didn’t put any pressure on them to join, but I was pleased they did.”

Both went through a training program after joining the company. David, a former co-owner of Virginia Homes and current owner of DCR Commercial Development, had been mulling over an offer to train in bank management, but opted for real estate instead.

“This would be a meaningful learning process and it would be ten times better working in business close to the guy who ran it than it would be to jump into a management training program and work my way up,” David says. “It’s a lot of fun, but extremely hard. But if you are exposed to someone who can educate you that quickly on it, that’s where we benefitted the most.”

It was a similar experience for the younger Ruma, Virginia Homes owner and president, who examined several career possibilities after he graduated from college in 1993.

“I knew there would be no better opportunity than to go learn from Dad about the business. It would be the best education I could get,” the younger Ruma says. “I didn’t know I’d fall in love with building homes or development, but I knew being around my dad at any level for a period of time would benefit me.”

The elder Ruma’s daughter, Jennifer Bova, has also played a role in the family business, including ownership shares. Her dad believes that more women aren’t in leadership roles now because of the nature of the construction and fieldwork. “It doesn’t mean women can’t do it, and in fact some women are very successful in the residential side,” he says.

The Ruma children are aware of their good fortune, and they also know that outsiders may assume everything is handed to them. “Our dad would give us anything . . . but as an employee, we had to go out and earn it,” David says.

Neither son would argue that benefits exist, but there’s another side to the equation.

“The reality is there is a lot of pressure because of the reputation, because of what your dad has built, you can’t let that fail,” the younger Ruma says. “There’s always that extra drive for me and David to keep things moving forward in a positive manner. This pressure is an interesting dynamic that goes along with the family business.”

That stress could easily lead to a family fracas in any situation, especially in the pressure-filled atmosphere of real estate development.

“We saw some families in the business where they just butt heads,” David says. “The best thing about this situation is that we have a father who never let that be a part of the formula. His No. 1 priority has always been family.”

Indeed, their father divided up the business into separate entities to avoid sibling rivalry. His advice has been simple: be sure that your brother and sister are better off than you.

“If you can maintain that one common trait and make sure the others are as well off as you, then you are going to have a successful relationship in the family business,” he says. The Wedgewood Golf and Country Club is one of the family’s memorable projects.

The Hadler Companies

The Hadler Companies
2000 W. Henderson Rd., Suite 500
Columbus 43220

Employees: 29
Signature projects:
Columbus Square Bowling Palace, Redevelopment of Westerville Square Shopping Center
Owns/manages two million square feet of retail space in shopping centers in Ohio and Wisonsin 

A common theme for most of these firms was that the younger generation heed Dad’s advice and looked up to him as a great role model, and it is no different for the Hadler Companies.

Not unlike his peer Robert Weiler, William N. “George” Hadler, CEO of the Hadler Companies, remembers that when he was a child, his father, a workaholic, drove him to various properties he had purchased. William H. Hadler had started the Hadler Realty Company in 1947.

“I saw a totally different element of my dad. He made it sound like fun, but he told me if I wanted to do this I would have to work hard,” Hadler says. “He was the man behind the desk and people wanted to come in and do business with him. I liked the idea that one day that would be me.”

He didn’t wait long. By age 13, the younger Hadler began as an office boy, graduating over the years to construction, property management and real estate listings after he got his license.

While the company specializes in shopping center development and leasing, one of its signature projects is the 64-lane Columbus Square Bowling Palace and redevelopment of the Westerville Shopping Center.

As George Hadler took over more of the business operations, he recruited his son Bill, now vice president of operations, who worked during the summers and joined fulltime in 2006 after college. It wasn’t a tough sell. The variety of the job and family involvement attracted Hadler’s son.

“I always knew I wanted to be part of the family business because it was exciting to hear what my father and grandfather were working on next,” Bill says. He remembers before joining that his father showed him a commission check, earned only after many years of effort.

“At that moment, it was imprinted into my mind that the extra effort pays high dividends in the future,” he says.

George Hadler’s nephew, Brad Koniewich, now a vice president, joined the organization in 2003. As a youngster, he visited job sites and new developments and eventually worked in construction, knowing one day he would join. And while it may be family, there is still a need for open and honest communication, he says.

“There needs to be common values, visions and expectations,” Koniewich says. “All three generations have had a positive impact. We had the guidance of my grandfather, the real estate and construction experience from my uncle and father and a third generation willing to learn how to become successful.”

It was the patriarch’s long-range plan that came to fruition, George Hadler says.

“Dad planned this to be multigenerational, knowing it would be nice to sustain and take care of family for generations to come.”

Planned or not, these successful companies are literally family affairs.

TC Brown is a freelance writer.