In a business climate where ethics scandals are common, Traders Realty Corp. President Jeff Kolbus said the most useful professional advice he ever received was to operate by the Golden Rule. “I’ll never forget a comment a builder made to me regarding the way Bob Wilkins and Traders Development handled a difficult situation,” he said. “We had sold a lot to the builder for the purpose of building a spec home. They ran into an unexpected issue regarding the height of a sewer manhole and asked for our assistance. Without giving it a second thought, we told him to obtain a price to correct the mistake and submit the invoice to us. He thought we would have told him it wasn’t our problem anymore and was genuinely surprised at how we handled the situation. We take great pride in our developments and want people to remember Traders Realty & Traders Development as a company with integrity.”

Kolbus, a graduate of Indiana University, has been a real estate broker since 1996, is a graduate of the Real Estate Institute, and is a National Association of Realtors® Realtor® ePro.

He has served as a director of the Peoria Area Association of Realtors, as well as its president. He served on the Illinois Association of Realtors Board of Directors, as state director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Peoria, and as an ex-officio member of the City of Peoria Planning Commission. He’s a member of the Children’s Hospital of Illinois Community Advisory Board and chaired the Children’s Hospital of Illinois Development Committee from 2003 to 2005.

Kolbus and his wife, Wendy, have two children.

Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

I was born in Indianapolis in 1966. My father worked for an International Harvester plant on the east side of Indy before going into business for himself, and my mother stayed home to raise my three siblings and myself. I attended Scecina Memorial High School in Indy and Indiana University in Bloomington. I have two older brothers who both live in Indy and a younger sister in Chicago. I married Wendy Wilkins from Peoria in 1991 and we have two sons: Michael, 10, and Nick, eight. I was a sales rep for a small sportswear supplier right out of college until we relocated to Peoria to assist with our family business. I’ve continued my education, mostly in the real estate industry, by obtaining a Real Estate Brokers License, G.R.I. (Graduate Realtor® Institute) and the ePro® technology designations. Community involvement has been important for me to meet people and to learn about the community, as the only people I knew when I moved to Peoria were my wife’s family. I graduated from the Peoria Chamber of Commerce Community Leadership School in 1998, am a past member of the City of Peoria’s Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, the Home Builders Association of Greater Peoria Board of Directors, Northgate Park Homeowner’s Association Board, past president and on the board of directors of the Peoria Area Association of Realtors® as well as numerous committees, and the Illinois Association of Realtors® Board of Directors. I currently serve on the Children’s Hospital of Illinois Community Advisory Board and Development Committee; the Illinois Association of Realtors® Technology Working Group; RPAC Trustees, Public Policy, and Governmental Affairs Working Group; and the OSF Foundation Council and Finance Committee.

Who or what influenced you to become a real estate developer?

Bob Wilkins. Bob was and still is my mentor. When Bob found out I was considering a career change in 1993, he asked my wife and me to move to Peoria and assist with Traders residential developments. Though I had no real estate experience, it was an exciting proposition, and within three months, we had sold our home and relocated to Peoria. Bob has been developing residential and commercial real estate for more than 50 years, and the knowledge he’s shared with me has been invaluable. The entire development process—from acquiring land and getting it through zoning and planning to marketing the property—Bob has shared his expertise.

As president of Traders Realty, what does your job involve?

Traders Realty supports approximately 90 Realtors®. We assist in providing the tools, training, and support to our team of Realtors® to further their careers. We believe our Realtors® will be more successful and perform better for their clients if they have constant training in technology, sales and marketing techniques, license law, and negotiating.

There are no two real estate transactions that are exactly alike. Thus, I never have two days exactly alike. A typical day involves meeting with our management team, facilitating our company sales meeting, assisting with technology issues, coordinating our participation in special events such as the Home Show and the Parade of Homes, providing information about any of the neighborhoods we’ve developed, overseeing the spec homes we have under construction, and assisting with our commercial developments. I also help in the development of our residential neighborhoods and commercial developments, working with the municipalities, engineers, and contractors; marketing the properties; and negotiating offers to purchase.

Tell about some of the different subdivisions Traders has developed in Illinois. Have you developed in other areas?

Traders Realty was founded in 1938 and has been extremely active in developing residential subdivisions in the Peoria Metro area. A sampling of the residential neighborhoods (active neighborhoods underlined) we’ve developed and/or marketed are Berkshire Estates, Breckenridge, Cassell Heights, Cedar Hills Estates, Chapel Hill, Copperfield, Crab Orchard Estates, Courtside Villas, East Brentwood, Edgewild, Forresst Gardens, Garden City, German Hills, Glen Elm, Hamilton Park, Keystone Park, Lexington Park, Nettle Creek, Nordic Villa Apartments, Northgate Park, North Park, Oakcliffe, Oakwood, Pershing Gardens, Radio City, River Forrest, River Ridge, Scenic Heights, Stratford Aire, Sun Valley, Sycamore Trail, University Court, and Wee-ma-tuk. We’re in the process of developing two new exceptional neighborhoods in Peoria’s Growth Cell Three named Waterstone and Wyndridge. Commercial developments include 200 Main Street, Evergreen Square, the original Jefferson Bank Building, Mossville Industrial Park, Park 74, Savings Center Tower, Sterling Plaza, and Willow Station. We’re very proud of all of them, as they offer a wide range of business opportunities and homeownership. Over the years, there have been many changes in neighborhood development—from smaller homesites such as Hamilton Park, which was developed shortly after World War II for the returning servicemen and women, to the one-acre-plus homesites in Nettle Creek for the buyer who wants a little more privacy and elbow room.

Tell about the various divisions within Traders Realty.

I wouldn’t call them divisions as much as they are truly their own companies; however, they’re all owned and operated by the Wilkins Family. Traders Realty Corporation is the real estate brokerage company. As I stated before, we have 90 Realtors® who work with buyers and sellers in the purchase and sale of residential and commercial real estate. Traders Development Corporation acquires and develops residential real estate. Traders Insurance Agency, which is run by Jack Wilkins, is an independent insurance agent. TMC of Peoria manages residential real estate for investors. Peoria Area Referral Network Inc. is a holding company for real estate licensees who aren’t currently active in real estate sales.

How does your company find tenants for its commercial developments?

Most tenants are introduced to our shopping centers by local Realtors®. Our commercial Realtors® are members of the Commercial Listing Service (CLS) through the Peoria Area Association of Realtors®. They list all of the properties where they represent the seller in the CLS, which is accessible to all members. Advertising also plays a major role. We advertise our commercial properties on the Traders Realty web site (www.tradersrealty.com), on site signs, periodic flyers to all of the commercial Realtors® in the area, and monthly ads in InterBusiness Issues.

Will the residential building boom soften in the next year?

I wish I new for sure, but my instincts tell me we aren’t quite finished seeing a great real estate market locally. You’ve been hearing a lot about the real estate bubble bursting in the press, but I’m not so sure we’ll feel those effects in the Peoria market. Real estate is local. By that I mean the local job market plays a larger role in our real estate market than does American Airlines laying off employees in Texas. I don’t want to trivialize these effects; however, our local real estate market is driven more by interest rates, local employment figures, job market outlooks, and housing affordability. The important thing to remember is that the ups and downs of any real estate market are based on local conditions. Employment news such as Caterpillar’s Vision 2020 bodes well for our local real estate market.

Who’s a typical buyer of land within a new subdivision? Is it easier to build than buy an existing home?

The typical buyer of a homesite in a new neighborhood varies on any given transaction. We sell our land to both builders, who are buying to speculate a home or to attract custom build jobs and also to end consumers who want a home built specifically for them. Some consumers start their home search looking for something existing and will build after they don’t find anything that’s exactly what they want. Building their own home gives them the opportunity to create their “dream home” from the ground up. Those who build typically have a larger budget and want something built specifically for their taste.

Some people love to build and do so every few years. Others build one time and tell us they’ll never do so again. My advice to those who are going to build their own home is to take time in choosing their builder. They need to interview more than one builder; obtain references; and consider that, next to their spouse, they’ll spend more time with their builder for six to 12 months than anyone else. A lot of preplanning is necessary. Making early choices regarding cabinetry, floor coverings, light fixtures, paint colors, brick and siding materials, etc., and knowing they fit in your budget will go a long way toward having a pleasant experience.

What are the current trends in housing development?

Today, with the amount of competition and the needs of the consumer changing, we try to be much more creative in the planning of our neighborhoods. Open spaces, water features, walking/biking paths, or parks within the neighborhoods are becoming very popular. To design a neighborhood, we try to predict who will be the buyer. We’re seeing a large number of neighborhoods being designed around retirement living because the housing needs of the enormous number of Baby Boomers/empty nesters are changing. One statistic I recently heard was that a person in the U.S. turns 50 years old every seven seconds. That type of buyer is going to want a smaller yard with little or no maintenance and want to be close to all conveniences—groceries, drug stores, hospitals, etc. Neighborhoods designed for young families will have larger yards, parks, etc. Cul-de-sacs also are very popular for the buyer looking for less traffic. The municipality in which you develop also plays a major role into how the finished product will look. For example, the City of Peoria has ordinances requiring sidewalks, specific street widths, and stream buffers that maintain the natural setting around waterways; the City of Chillicothe requires street lights in their new subdivisions.

How do these views differ from consumer preferences 20 years ago? Ten years ago?

Locally, the major difference is that there are so many new neighborhoods being developed today that developers must differentiate themselves. Neighborhoods of the past offered “cookie-cutter”-style building sites where most of the lots were rectangular and identical. Today, buyers want larger homes that, in turn, require larger homesites and also are seeking uniqueness.

What changes do you foresee in the next 10 years?

The next 10 years will bring about the continued focus on “self-contained” communities. An example of this is the City of Peoria’s Fargo Run conceptual plan. Fargo Run calls for planned residential growth that includes walking/biking trails connecting different subdivisions. Schools will continue to become an integral part of the community. Buyers prefer neighborhoods close to their school. Neighborhood parks and small retail projects that serve the residential population may become the norm.

Of which project are you most proud?

Any transaction where we can provide a homesite for someone to build their dream home is very fulfilling. Traders has developed some exceptional neighborhoods, and the most recent have been very exciting: Nettle Creek, Copperfield, Courtside Villas, Sycamore Trail, and Waterstone and Wyndridge. When we can offer property that fulfills the wants and needs of buyers, we’re extremely satisfied.

What are some misperceptions about Realtors® and developers?

Most people feel Realtors® make too much money. What consumers don’t know is that a brokerage fee is first split between listing and selling companies, then between their broker and themselves. From this amount, the Realtor® must pay all of his personal expenses. These include costly advertising, health insurance, MLS fees, local/state/ national association fees, independent contractor income taxes, and any retirement plan they might have in place. Most consumers also don’t see all of the behind-the-scenes work required—the late nights, weekends, and a multitude of details to manage—all while trying to market themselves. It’s an extremely demanding career, but it can be very fulfilling to know you’re assisting your clients find a home—the American Dream.

Real estate developers take on huge risk every time they invest in our community. Not every endeavor is a money maker. Most developers care deeply about our community; otherwise, they wouldn’t risk investing enormous amounts of time and capital. Most of the residential and commercial developments in our area have been completed by a handful of some of our community’s most loyal and pro-community individuals.

What advice would you give someone contemplating a career in real estate development?

Start small. Consider partnering with an experienced developer. They might want to start by either building a spec home in a new neighborhood or by purchasing a small commercial property and leasing to acquire some knowledge of the market. The risk is too large for someone to come into this business without the knowledge and experience it takes to succeed. IBI