December 11, 2003
By JANET PARKER
Firm: Opus Northwest LLC
Position: President and CEO
John Solberg learned early in life that good and bad are relative terms. Now the president and CEO of Opus Northwest LLC, Solberg grew up in the rugged climate of North Dakota.
"In the cold months, we plugged in the engine block of the ‘64 Dodge to keep it warm enough to start in the morning," Solberg recalls. "With snow swirling and the wind whipping, we'd scrape ice from the windows, start up the car and hope it heated up enough to thaw us before we got where we were going. Living in Grand Forks, winter (temperatures) were usually 20 to 30 degrees below (those in) Minnesota."
His family would sit around the TV at the ranch and think "Wouldn't it be great if only we could live in someplace warm like Minneapolis."
Living out a childhood dream, Solberg now resides in the relatively tropical paradise of Minneapolis, where he heads up one of five regional centers of operation for 50-year-old parent company Opus Group. He is in charge of markets from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, overseeing more than $1.2 billion worth of projects in Puget Sound alone.
For Solberg, a love of real estate is genetic. "My father was an architect," Solberg says. "I was fascinated by a career where you could not only create but were physically able to see the end-product of your work."
Just out of college, Solberg was cutting his teeth on construction in Alaska when he answered an ad by John Graham who was starting up a development company in Seattle. "And that's were it really all got started for me," Solberg recalls.
Solberg says the Opus Center at Union Station, a local showcase project of his present company, embodies much of what he enjoys about his work. "It was complex from a physical perspective -- building over a bus and rail tunnel," he begins. "The ownership was complicated. There were condominium rights versus land rights, the entitlement issues of a large, downtown project. It was a lot of fun, and it was successful."
While enjoying his successes, Solberg is dealing with the constraints of a down-turned economy, like all in the real estate industry. But, here again, good and bad are relative conditions. While few areas of the country are reporting warm and sunny skies over their real estate market, Solberg explains there are some variations within the markets under his purview.
"The Midwest is seeing some activity increase in the industrial segment and there remains good demand for condominiums. In Kansas City there are some new build-to-suit offices going up."
Unfortunately, compared to the rest, Puget Sound in some respects looks like winter in North Dakota. Explaining the contrast, Solberg says, "There was more high-tech in Seattle than in the rest of my regions, which I think accounts for its lagging behind. And, unless you're talking very precise product niches, I see Seattle as being weaker in a number of segments -- such as condos -- than around the rest of the country."
That is not to say that Puget Sound is frozen real estate tundra. "Like most everywhere else," Solberg notes, retail is good in Seattle, and we're currently working on two or three such projects here."
The company is also in various construction phases of a mixed-use development in Bremerton known as Harborside, a 160,000-square-foot office building for King County on Capitol Hill and a 200-unit apartment complex on Seattle's Queen Anne. As to recent acquisitions, Solberg notes Opus Northwest's joint purchase with Puget Western of 54 acres of Quadrant property at Snoqualmie Ridge. "We have that slated for future office development," Solberg says, "and another 20 acres we just acquired in Fife for future industrial development."
The key to a stronger real estate industry will be job growth, Solberg says. "We're all looking for the leading indicators that might point to that growth. Who's hiring? What's going to be the next big thing? There's not a lot of consensus as to what's going to spur that growth, but at least corporate profits are tending to look up."
Nonetheless, Solberg believes it's going to be a long haul. "I think people who are saying ‘Things are going to be better only six months from now' are making those statements because they're tired of talking downturn. Recovery will happen, and we're starting to see some of it in the Midwest. It's just going to take longer in Puget Sound."
Solberg and wife, Lisa, have two children: a 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. When not at work, he enjoys time with his family, running, water and snow skiing, and serving on the boards of a number of charitable companies. "My kids and I also like to fish. We even make our own poles," Solberg says. One can envision him ice fishing in the moderate winters of Minnesota.
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