Steve Clark is still prospering

Steve Clark didn't stray from his values as the commercial real estate market heated up over the past decade. That's why the 2010 winner of the Kansas Certified Commercial Investment Member chapter's Lifetime Achievement Award is still prospering in an industry where many of his competitors are struggling with high debt load and tight credit requirements.

Clark joins a list of other lifetime achievement award recipients — Mike and Nestor Weigand, Jack DeBoer, George Ablah, the late Jack Hunt and Colby Sandlian. He will be honored during an 11 a.m. luncheon today at Wichita State University's Marcus Center.

"It's a tremendous award, and I appreciate it very much," Clark said. "It's very humbling."

Clark has a reputation in the Wichita commercial real estate industry as a disciplined, savvy investor who builds and operates his projects without financial assistance from the government.

Clark Investment Group owns and manages more than 3.5 million square feet of real estate in 10 states.

"Steve is an astute, disciplined investor who has quietly and steadily built a real estate portfolio over time that would impress even the harshest critic," said Dan Unruh, president of Wichita's InSite Real Estate Group.

Unruh praised Clark's reliance on private capital for his projects.

"It's an admirable trait of any investor, and it goes back to the disciplined approach Steve takes when he looks at a deal," he said. "Steve's deals have to weather and stand the test of time, and the way you do that is making sure that the deal doesn't require additional third-party assistance.

"Plus," Unruh added, "Steve is excellent at saying no to the bad deal."

You have to be disciplined if you want to accumulate, Clark said.

"It's a minefield out there," he said. "It doesn't get any better. It gets worse."

Lessons in frugality

Clark said he learned fiscal discipline from his father, Layman, who founded the family's investment company in the early 1950s.

"When I was growing up and younger, we were pretty frugal," he said. "Some of that rubbed off on me from my parents, who were extremely hardworking and frugal people. My father fought through the Great Depression, and it made an enormous impact on him.

"His advice kept me from growing probably faster than I should and doing things that probably would have turned out all right anyway, but I learned that caution and conservatism in investing is the best policy."

Rod Stewart, a longtime Wichita commercial broker, said Clark sits with the city's elite investors — dealmakers who only do the "win-win" deal.

"Steve is an excellent operator," he said. "I've dealt with Steve on several occasions in conjunction with Colby and Jack. Those guys don't seek to take advantage of one another. At their level, there's nothing to be gained from that. They do mutually beneficial deals or they don't happen.

"When you're dealing with the powerful, rich and influential people in Wichita, it's always a win-win. Both parties are going to be satisfied, or the transaction won't happen."

Clark's financial and professional support has been critical to Wichita State University's Barton School of Business, WSU president Don Beggs said.

Clark has endowed the Stephen L. Clark Endowed Chair in Real Estate and Finance at WSU.

"He's been generous with his expertise and his resources to the school of business," Beggs said. "And it's exactly what a business school like this one needs to be on top of the discipline."

That's Steve Clark, said Nestor Weigand, the former CCIM award winner.

"He has just given of himself in an unselfish manner to people in the commercial real estate industry or who wanted to get in," Weigand said.

"Steve is a quality guy, a smart guy and a true credit to our industry."

Clark's philosophy

Clark's frequent partner in local deals is Wichita real estate developer Johnny Stevens, a man Clark said he looks up to.

"Johnny is what I see as the standard," Clark said. "He's hardworking, extremely honest, open and transparent, straightforward in the way he does business.

"When I die, Johnny will have a big hand in what happens to my estate."

Stevens laughed at the compliment.

"I don't think too many people work much harder than Steve Clark does," Stevens said. "Steve has been a great partner for me. I'm a little more of a risk-taker, and Steve keeps me focused."

That focus is Clark's strength, Stevens said.

"Steve is not a speculator," he said. "He's an investor who analyzes every deal. He has a formula, he sticks with it, and he's been very successful."

Success notwithstanding, Clark said he takes no "validation" away from his solid position during an economic downturn.

"We're running scared every day," he said. "In the longer run it's worked out, but being on the conservative side is the best policy. Once you've lost your capital, it's the worst thing that can happen to you."

Clark and Stevens finance their deals without any tools in the city's economic development toolbox — a fact they're proud to state.

"Philosophically and ideologically, we're opposed to it because once the city gives money to one person, it opens the door to the next and next," Clark said.

"It's a true problem nationally, and it has been locally as well. It's tough to compete when it's not a level playing field. At the Waterfront, we paid for every penny that has gone in out there."

Still, Clark is reluctant to credit that "do it yourself" philosophy for his real estate success.

"What makes any project sustainable is concentrating on good fundamentals," he said. "The problem at City Hall is they throw money at projects that are ill-conceived."

Future investments

Don't look for any major Clark/Stevens developments soon.

"We're not doing any development today," Clark said. "Development is dead on arrival right now, and it will be for a number of years."

Instead, Clark's diversifying — buying residential notes in California and the Southwest, looking "very seriously" at a hard money lending business, investing in some home-building in some upscale California markets.

All done the same way.

"If you're not the right kind of person," Clark said, "eventually you will be discovered.

"Success comes from your character and how you treat others."