Iowa City real estate company plans for the future

Family-run businesses committed to employees, community

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“My relationship with Jody involved one of those serendipitous moments,” Janie Braverman said. “He didn’t marry me for my work experience, but it came in handy later.”

Janie Braverman, now vice president and general counsel of SouthGate Companies in Iowa City, said she never intended to work for SouthGate. But due to her professional background, she ended up sitting on the board, then going to work for the company.

“I had 25 years of experience as an attorney in Denver representing primarily real estate developers,” she recalled. “My biggest client in Denver was pretty close to the same as SouthGate, although they didn’t own as much property.”

So her husband, Jody Braverman, asked her to lend some of her expertise to his business.

SouthGate Companies was established in 1962, when David Braverman began investing in Iowa City real estate after successfully starting Hawkeye Foods. Today, the company has developed more than 600,000 square feet of commercial real estate, and manages more than half a million square feet of office, industrial and retail space.

SouthGate also handles close to 1,000 residential units in Iowa City. David’s youngest son — Jody, Janie’s husband — is now the director.

The Bravermans attempt to keep work where they think it belongs — at work. Janie said it’s a little easier for them than most people because two of the company’s three shareholders aren’t in Iowa.

They observe the Jewish Sabbath, which means they don’t work — or discuss work — from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.

“We have that one block of time where, no matter what it is, it doesn’t get discussed if it’s work-related,” Janie explained.

They also make it a point to have other activities and topics to discuss after hours, such as traveling, Iowa City Noon Rotary Club and sports.

“We do talk about work a little bit after hours, but we try really hard not to. Even if we were to talk about work after hours, we wouldn’t have all the right players involved in the conversation because the business isn’t just family anymore,” she said.

Growing Beyond Family

Terry Sill joined SouthGate two and a half years ago as the company’s chief financial officer. After a year, he moved into the role of chief operating officer and, this past August, he transitioned to president and chief executive officer.

“I have a legal background, and Jody comes from a business background. Neither one of us are accounting people,” Janie said. So SouthGate hired Sill for his financial and accounting skills.

Bringing in nonfamily members is part of SouthGate’s plan to keep the company moving forward after the Bravermans retire.

“We have to build a team that has the experience and knowledge base to run SouthGate and report to the board on a regular basis,” Sill said.

Sill has spent most of his career working for privately owned companies.

“The only short period of time I wasn’t working for a privately owned company was when one company was bought out by a publicly traded company,” he recalled.

“I experienced a few years of the paperwork shuffle and chain of command you followed for approvals to get things done. It was eye-opening for me.”

Sill said he prefers working with family-run businesses, especially when there’s limited ownership within the company. To succeed in privately held companies such as these, Sill said you have to get to know the owner to understand how they think and how they view different situations.

“Once you accomplish that, you know where you stand. You don’t have to report to 10 board members,” he said.

“If you’re patient, informative, honest and forthcoming with information, you’re going to be successful in a family-owned environment.”

What ‘Family-Run’ Really Means

For the Bravermans, being part of a family-owned business with approximately 35 workers also means that management tries to focus on the families of their employees.

“We’ve made some changes to our vacation and sick-day plans, combining them into a paid time-off plan for more flexibility,” Sill noted. “That way, if we have an employee whose child has an afternoon sporting event, he or she is sure to make it.

“We need to get our jobs done, but unless it’s something urgent, we can work around it because family is important. That has to start at the top with family ownership.”

But Sill also tells SouthGate employees that they’re responsible for looking after the Braverman family’s assets.

“It’s like a huge mutual fund and we have to do right by them,” he said.

Sill added that, to SouthGate, running a family business also means the management team has a responsibility to make decisions that are good for the community. With its 50th anniversary in 2012, the company gave $10,000 to each of five community organizations.

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