It's His Middle Name

When John Wilking was seeking a creative moniker for his property management company, he had to look only as far as his birth certificate

by Rosalyn Graham

John Wilking, president of the Neville Companies, a property management firm in Burlington's Chace Mill, has brought a childhood love of buildings into his adult life.

"I've always loved buildings," says John Wilking, owner of the Neville Companies in the Chace Mill.

He's not kidding. The attraction has its roots in Wilking's childhood, when he spent hours making struc-tures with Lego bricks and Lincoln Logs and drawing designs for the houses in his imagination.

That love has blossomed into an interesting blend of creativity and practical expertise that makes Wilking and his company an invaluable resource for property owners and lessors throughout the state.

He and his staff help clients weigh the pros and cons of buying a building; help building owners solve the sometimes Byzantine maze of maintaining it and turning a profit; and offer practical advice in the upkeep of large office spaces. Wilking's short version of what he provides is, "Hand us your bricks and mortar, and we're able to take the pain out of it for you."

The road from Lego to being the largest third-party property manager in the state of Vermont Wilking defines that as "managing other people's properties rather than your own" had its interesting twists and turns. When he was growing up, north of Chicago, his family attributed his bent for building to heredity: Both his grandfathers were "handy" and one was a carpenter. That natural talent was honed at the private high school he attended where well-known Chicago architect Francis Stanton was brought in to teach the teens about architecture. At St. Lawrence University in upper New York state, Wilking designed a program for himself that focused on the technical end of theater designing and building sets. He assumed that, like many theater majors with a technical aptitude, he would go on to become an architect.

Then reality or fate, or his practical nature stepped in. In 1981, when Wilking went to work for the architecture firm Benjamin Thompson & Associates in Cambridge, Mass., right after graduation, he quickly realized his talent did not point to a career as "a big hot-shot architect," and the young architects joining the firm out of the best architecture schools, even the truly gifted ones, were not making any more money than he was making as a "go-fer."

"It made me realize that I wanted to do something else," he says. Still having a love of buildings as his lodestar, Wilking thought he would try commercial real estate. Bad timing. It was 1982; the market was terrible; nobody was hiring; and in one of those lucky rolls of the dice, Wilking says, he took a job with National Properties Ltd., "a total mom-and-pop shop" run by a husband and wife who were managing condominiums and wanted him to work 20 hours a week.

"They left me to do whatever I needed to do," he recalls. "I got to learn the business on my own, on his nickel, and the 20-hour-a-week job turned into a 40-hour-a-week job very quickly. We went from about 200 units to a little over a thousand, and then I brought on a few people and we got it up to almost 2,000 before I left." Wilking was 24.

A couple of years later, Wilking was hired by the Copley Group in Boston as head of property management, where he built the property list from 500 condominiums and a thousand units of apartments to 2,500 units of condominiums and 3,000 apartments, adding some commercial as well. Along the way he also qualified as a Certified Property Manager.

Then came another turn in the trail. One night, attending a Hawaiian theme party of St. Lawrence and University of Vermont graduates, Wilking met Wanda Hopp. "You know, 24- to 26-year-olds causing trouble," he says. "I was in shorts, and lots of the girls were in bikinis. Wanda came with a UVM grad and she was the only girl there who didn't know it was supposed to be a Hawaiian party. She was in a sweater. She stood out, so I managed to get her phone number quite quickly." He laughs.

Of Neville Companies' 13 employees, eight work at the main office, and five work out of the office or on roving maintenance. Kathy Levins (left) is assistant property manager; Michelle Lincoln is the company's treasurer and property manager.

In 1987, Wilking and Wanda were married and decided to move to the suburbs. "We couldn't imagine bringing up kids in Boston," he says. Determined to avoid the commute, Wilking went to work for a management company in Needham, helping to get it back on a positive financial track. Two years later, after a visit to Burlington "We came up here one weekend, went to Church Street, parked in the parking garage, which was empty, paid $1 for a whole day, walked out, met Madeleine Kunin, who was the governor, ate Chinese food, which was terrific, and said, 'Wow! This is easy!'" the Wilkings moved to Vermont.

Wilking formed Nestle & Wilking Commercial Group with a partner, John Nestle, in the Kilburn & Gates Building, combining his property management expertise with Nestle's background in real estate and restaurant ownership. Their service was the foundation of what the Neville Companies are today.

They visited businesses, particularly banks, with the offer of a "cradle-to-grave service" for property. "We said, 'We'll help you take a property on, fix it up, fill it up and sell it for you,'" says Wilking. It took a while for clients to react to their pitch, but the seeds were sown. By the time Wilking went out on his own in 1991 as Neville Companies Neville is his middle name the three parts that would make up the selection of services were in place.

First is the property management piece. "In Vermont, people think property management is getting the lawns mowed and the trash picked up," Wilking says. "That's an aspect of it, but typically it is more oriented to managing the asset. If you hand your property to me and you're looking for an 8 percent return on your money, we're trying to get there or exceed it. We negotiate leases and control expenses and make sure the property is attractive enough that people will want to come in."

Then there is brokerage. "We do more of that than people are aware of, mostly with repeat clients who keep coming back to us for advice." Wilking's right-hand man in the brokerage line is Mark Thibeault, who, he says, does a lot of retail, finding locations, selecting sites, negotiating leases and handing the building over to the client. A big brokerage client for Neville is UPS. "We are brokering two or three UPS stores in New England every week," Wilking says.

Wilking also fields lots of calls from people who just want advice on buying or selling properties. "Advice is what we sell more than anything else."

The third service Neville Companies sells is facilities management, "where we see the most growth right now. It's a service for a company that occupies a lot of leased space or owns a building and doesn't know how to run it or doesn't want to take the time to run it."

He describes the situation of a company whose office manager is trying to operate a 70,000-square-foot building or a 15,000-square-foot office space. "Everything's fine as long as you don't ever run into a problem, and if you aren't growing or shrinking." Most of the facilities management business is related to office space, he says, typically for companies such as Burton Snowboards on Industrial Avenue or Homebound Mortgage on Water Tower Hill where there are growth issues. At Burton, he says, there has been a lot of refitting to accommodate a new retail center. Neville Companies was involved in overseeing some construction aspects and advising on design, layout and bottom-line issues.

Homebound Mortgage in Colchester has three properties rented to accommodate its 5-year-old, rapidly growing national mortgage business: two on Water Tower Hill and one on Roosevelt Highway. Neville Companies has been managing Homebound's facilities since it moved into the Roosevelt Highway building 11 months after the company started. "He lets us focus on our business," explains Gary Tuorila, Homebound's president. "I don't know about managing a building, and he does.

"We have a terrific working relationship with John," Tuorila continues. "He's an all-around guy making sure everything is working properly, providing help with cleaning and maintenance, looking after taxes, making sure we're not paying too much. He's very detail-oriented, has lots of experience and knows the commercial real estate market really well. We wouldn't think of making any changes in our property situation without getting him involved."

Wilking admits his profession isn't rocket science. "This is basic business knowledge put to work," he says. "It's running a whole lot of small businesses."

He draws a parallel between what he does for clients and the work of a stock portfolio manager. "When you go out and buy stock, you don't have to do anything but buy the stock. Someone is managing it, and eventually selling it for you. That's what Neville Companies does."

Of course, the scale and longevity of the investment could vary considerably. A buyer of a large commercial property, Wilking says, needs to realize that it's a big investment; it's not liquid not easy to buy and sell and it must stay filled to produce income and pay its way. "You have to be involved or have to hire somebody to do it for you," Wilking says.

The Chace Mill, a large, unusual and highly visible property on the banks of the Winooski River, was one of Neville's first property management clients. Built in the 1840s, the Chace Mill is one of three American Woolen Mills buildings abandoned in the mid '50s and neglected for 30 years, used only as warehouse space for the likes of J.C. Penney and Sears. In 1980, developer Tom Anderson reclaimed it for use as an incubator space.

Anderson's first tenants were startup businesses with simple needs for space and services. Vermont Plastics, Resolution and other light manufacturing businesses found it the ideal location with its solid construction and great carrying capacity. The walls are 11/2 feet deep, and the supporting posts and beams are more than six inches thick. Wilking recalls that when they decided to put in an elevator, the contractor started to cut a hole in the floor using a circular saw, progressed to a more hefty Sawzall and ended up using a chain saw.

By 1990, Anderson had sold to Jan Rozendaal, a South Burlington real estate developer, who hired Wilking's fledgling company to address the crisis of Resolution's moving to new headquarters, leaving the Mill almost empty.

Wilking moved his business into the historic Chace Mill in 1992. Broker Mark Thibeault (left) handles retail accounts such as the UPS stores.

"It is characteristic of an incubator building that when tenants grow, they tend to leave and go out on their own, and it leaves a big hole," says Rozendaal. "He did an excellent job of gradually filling the place up, and we've been full for the last few years." After 13 years, Wilking still manages the property for Rozendaal; and 11 years ago, when Nordic Leasing left the Mill for other quarters, Rozendaal called Wilking and suggested he would love to have the Neville Companies in his building. Wilking took the bait and moved.

"It's the nicest office I've ever had," says Wilking, extolling the charm of the almost-2-centuries-old boiler room with brick walls and coffered ceiling and a wide expanse of windows looking out over the river. For Wilking, the office provides a continuous distraction, as he watches seasonal fluctuations of the water, from spring when the river is so full it appears almost flat to the autumn when it slows to a trickle over the rocks. In the spring he can watch kayakers daring the rapids. There are otters and lots of ducks, and a year ago, he saw a bald eagle.

As the building's owner, Rozendaal likes Wilking's expeditious approach to renovations they have done in the building, and the way he has handled refinancings and negotiated taxes. "I have confidence he'll do it right," he says. "But he's a lousy golfer." He laughs.

Wilking doesn't leave his love of buildings behind when he heads for home. He and Wanda and their children, Bentley, 4, and Chatham, 8, live in a historic 1860s farmhouse on Dorset Street in South Burlington. While owning an old house is not for everybody, Wilking says, "fixing up this house over the last 10 years has fitted right in with my desire to play with stuff. It was an old red farmhouse, then it was beige and now it's bright yellow."

Originally published in October 2003 Business People-Vermont