For VanTrust’s Dave Harrison, the firm’s runaway success isn’t about him, but colleagues (and a competitor) say it’s because of him
By Thomas Friestad – Staff Writer, Kansas City Business Journal, April 29, 2022
Editor’s note: As part of the Capstone Real Estate Awards, the Kansas City Business Journal honors Dave Harrison as the third recipient of our Power Player Award. This is not meant as a lifetime achievement award. Rather, it shines a spotlight on people who have had — and continue to have — a lasting positive effect on the commercial real estate industry.
Dave Harrison was exploring his next steps in 2010. The veteran broker and developer had kept Opus Northwest LLC from falling into bankruptcy after the Great Recession, but the local firm’s parent struggled and eventually ceased operations.
An introduction to the late auto magnate Cecil Van Tuyl offered a clear — and compelling — path forward.
“Cecil, at the end of a meeting, asked if I had determined what our go-forward was, and I said I was close,” Harrison said. “Cecil said, ‘So you haven’t shaken hands with anybody?’ That was his way of a deal, and I said, ‘Not yet, but I’m close.’ And he said, ‘Well, would you consider me to be your partner?’”
During the intervening 12 years, Harrison — a former cross country and track runner — has embarked on a marathon run leading VanTrust Real Estate LLC.
A generous equity runway and nimble fiduciary structure provided by the Van Tuyl family have propelled the firm to about $5 billion in projects to date. And with an additional $2.5 billion pipeline at any given point, VanTrust’s most notable local deals might be yet to come.
Harrison’s calling card? A focus on his team’s collective success.
“We’re all just rowing together, and I think that is atypical in our industry,” he said. “A lot of real estate companies are tied to specific performance on any given project, and in regional-national companies, they are judged by what their office does versus another. In both of those, there’s some inherent conflict. We’ve got one objective, and that’s to be a collective good fiduciary to our ownership.”
Making a new splash
Harrison’s career began in 1981 as a downtown broker with Jones & Co. He went on to market Overland Park’s Southcreek Office park under brothers Marshall and Vincent Dean and in 2000 parlayed brokerage relationships in opening Opus Northwest LLC, a new Kansas City office for Opus Corp.
After the local unit was put up for sale in February 2010, Harrison left. He reviewed options with John Snyder, then at the Dentons US LLP law firm, who engineered his introduction to Van Tuyl.
Six weeks after the pair met, Caymus Real Estate was born. Harrison made the leap alongside a few Opus colleagues — Dave Lacy, Rich Muller and Bret Sheffield — and wasted no time making a splash. Premier early efforts involved reviving the Country Club Plaza’s long-stalled West Edge project as Plaza Vista and being an equity adviser for the Park Place mixed-use in Leawood.
Within two years, Harrison said the scope of Caymus’ work didn’t remotely match its business plan.
“I think our target was $40 million to $60 million around 2010, and two years later, because of the holdings that (Van Tuyl) had that we started working on, we looked up, and we were saying grace over hundreds of millions of dollars of opportunities and real estate, both in Kansas City and Texas,” he said.
With different potential paths forward, Van Tuyl’s son, Larry, encouraged the firm to pursue a regional-national focus. The shift came with a name change, to VanTrust, and chances to open new offices, including in Phoenix and Jacksonville, leveraging the family’s market familiarity from its auto business.
Locally, the ensuing competition became intense, and often memorable, said Ken Block, managing principal of Block Real Estate Services LLC.
Around 2013, in competing to land Teva Pharmaceuticals’ headquarters, Block recalled seeing a helicopter flying over VanTrust’s proposed site — a strategy his firm replicated and sought to one-up with a high-lift on site to demonstrate office views.
“It was a very, very strong competition, but we had fun doing it,” said Block, a friend who has known Harrison for about 22 years.
Despite the industry’s zero-sum nature — “You win, or you lose. You get the deal, or you don’t get the deal” — Block said Harrison recognizes the importance of relationships, regardless of outcome.
“He’s very humble — he doesn’t really like the limelight — but he’s not laid-back,” Block said. “He works really hard, and he’s very good at what he does, but he’s got a calm, even-handed approach. I’m impressed with it because he’s just got a different way of doing things.”
VanTrust’s office project list snowballed on both sides of the state line. It included headquarters for AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. in Leawood, Dairy Farmers of America in Kansas City, Kansas, and Freightquote in south Kansas City, plus acquisitions south of the Plaza and near Union Station.
Adaptability became a constant. About four years ago, Harrison said VanTrust saw a roughly even three-way split among office, multifamily and industrial projects. The industrial piece grew closer to 50% before the pandemic and since has ballooned to around 80%.
The company built about 21.1 million industrial square feet at 37 properties, or around $1.95 billion, from November 2016 to November 2021, according to data from Real Capital Analytics.
Beyond just building
But beyond the impressive statistics, Harrison said he feels an obligation for VanTrust’s deals to positively affect their respective communities. He cited VanTrust’s redevelopment of the Meadowbrook Golf and Country Club site in Prairie Village as one example.
VanTrust worked with Johnson County officials to include a large public park and clubhouse as a key part of the project near 91st Street and Nall Avenue.
“You can look at a warehouse, office buildings, apartments and figure out what the pro forma resulted in, what the return on equity is and all those real estate Excel spreadsheet pieces,” Harrison said. “My grandkids come over (to Meadowbrook Park), and hopefully their kids and grandkids will enjoy that park in perpetuity.”
Harrison’s aim to “do what’s right by the dirt” is evident in his team’s long list of successful projects, said Leah FitzGerald, managing director of CBRE’s Kansas City office and a former development services director with VanTrust.
“He sets high expectations for himself and those around him and, as a result, has built a great team, but it’s his leadership and attitude that set him apart,” FitzGerald said. “Dave is the last to take credit for anything. … However, for those who know him, he is a driving force in the industry and an inspiration to all.”
The biggest successes for Harrison to share could well sit just over the horizon — most visibly at the East Village, over which VanTrust retains development rights.
The eight-block area on the east side of the Downtown Loop long has been considered a front-runner for a new Kansas City Royals ballpark. The Royals are officially evaluating options for when its Kauffman Stadium lease ends in 2031.
Although Harrison opted to let East Village rumors remain as such, he said the area’s opportunities eventually will present a “defining moment” for Downtown.
But he isn’t above using baseball lingo to describe VanTrust’s general approach:
“We want to do singles and doubles. We’re not going to show up at the home run derby the night before the all-star game. … We’re not swinging for the fences. … We’re just kind of comfortable in our own skin. How big we get, we’ll only figure out looking in the rearview mirror.