Helgesen wants to fill space with jobs for Janesville
His two sons from a first marriage are Navy SEALs. One just returned from his third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the other remains in Iraq.
His father, with whom he’s had a rocky relationship, suffers from dementia.
And the developer’s largest Janesville tenant has flown the coop, leaving Helgesen with a massive hole in his commercial real estate portfolio.
One challenge after the next, he worries about them all.
But before you start feeling bad for Helgesen, don’t, he says.
He’s happily remarried and spends a lot of time at his summer home in Menomonee, Mich., a perfect port to launch his 52-foot “Gaudior” on extended sailing trips across the Great Lakes.
His relationship with his father, legendary Janesville businessman Don Helgesen, is better than it’s been in decades.
And that empty 700,000-square-foot building on Janesville’s south side?
It’s been cleaned, repainted, outfitted with energy-efficient lighting and heating fixtures and stands ready for tenants that Helgesen hopes will build alternative energy components and provide good jobs to the local economy.
‘A gorgeous building’
LSI, a just-in-time supplier to the Janesville General Motors plant, ended its lease of the 10-year-old building on Venture Drive in December.
With LSI supplying a struggling auto industry, Helgesen knew he was on shaky ground with just one tenant in the huge building. Not enough eggs in one really large basket, he says.
The LSI building accounts for nearly 58 percent of the 1.2 million square feet Helgesen leases in Janesville.
Helgesen’s properties are assessed at nearly $34 million and carry a market value of more than $46 million. This year, he’ll pay nearly $900,000 in local property taxes, which puts him at or near the top of the city’s list.
Helgesen backloaded the LSI lease so he could collect six months rent when the company left. That’s helping pay the $2.1 million Helgesen is sinking into the building’s renovations, as well as the taxes, maintenance and utility costs while the building sits empty.
Surrounded by 69 truck bays, the building’s footprint includes three distinct areas, two of which are 237,000 square feet each. The final section is 225,000 square feet and includes an indoor rail spur that can accommodate seven rail cars.
Each has its own mechanicals. The building could be occupied by one tenant or subdivided for up to 11.
“This building is ready to go, and it’s attractive because it’s multi-faceted,” Helgesen says. “It’s big box plus rail.”
Doug Venable, Janesville’s economic development director, said the building’s renovations, its flexibility and the fact that it has the rail siding make it an important property in the community’s portfolio.
“These days, companies are looking for high quality buildings that are ready to go much more than they’re looking for land to build on,” Venable says. “This is a gorgeous building that gives companies more of an opportunity to look at Janesville.”
Helgesen, a frequent player in the city’s tax increment finance districts, would like to lease the space to alternative energy manufacturers. He’d also accommodate distribution or warehousing operations.
“The reality is that we’ve lost so many manufacturing jobs because of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” he says. “High fuel costs brought some of them back, but unfortunately our wage rates and health care have priced us out of the market.
“What’s left for us is everyone else’s crumbs; we’re a distributor of other people’s products.”
Janesville’s future, Helgesen believes, rests largely on companies that will manufacture components for renewable energy markets.
He’s watched cities like Newton, Iowa, and Wisconsin Rapids land companies and jobs in the alternative energy industries.
“I’m always pushing our people and the economic development people on this,” he says. “Why can’t we get those contracts? Those communities got over the idea that they were somehow going to maintain a dynasty industry forever.
“It’s just not going to happen, and that’s why I’m hammering the solar and wind thing.”
James Otterstein, Rock County’s economic development manager, has heard Helgesen’s pitch for alternative manufacturing, and he looks forward to working with Helgesen to make it happen.
“Jeff is a very tactful businessman and investor,” Otterstein says. “He’s certainly an individual that, for the right project, is the biggest champion of the Janesville market.”
The big picture
With a huge empty building, Helgesen certainly has a vested interest in the future of Janesville. But he’s done well enough in his 57 years that his lifestyle doesn’t hinge on the rental of 2929 Venture Drive.
His wife and sons are taken care of, he says, but his community needs help.
“I really do want to put something back into Janesville,” he says. “Same for the Marinette area, my other hometown.”
In Marinette, Helgesen owns the 335,000-square-foot Karl Schmidt Unisia plant, the largest aluminum cast piston factory in the country.
Helgesen knows the Marinette-Menomonee area well. He moved there when his relationships with his father and other family members soured in southern Wisconsin.
The father and the son didn’t talk for 10 years. They reunited in 1994 and formed Helgesen Family Limited Partnership two years later. The younger Helgesen ran nine building additions to the Marinette plant, as well as supervising other projects in southern Wisconsin.
Don and Jeffrey bought out other family members in 2001, formed Helgesen Holdings and tackled other projects, including a 650,000-square-foot facility for Anderson Windows in Menomonie.
Helgesen also faced personal struggles. He has worked hard, played hard, survived years as a Green Beret, lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and drank to a fault.
“I wouldn’t be what I am today without the troubles and how I have learned from them,” he says. “I wake up each morning, not mourning the past, but looking forward to the day ahead. I survived yesterday.
“I won’t make the same mistakes. Now I refuse to worry about that which I have no control. Anxiety and self-medication build nothing.”
Helgesen centers his life in part on the principles lived by the fictional John Galt in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” As the plot unfolds, Galt is acknowledged to be a creator and inventor who embodies the power of the individual. He serves as a counterpoint to the social and economic structure based on oppressive bureaucratic functionaries.
“There are no excuses,” Helgesen says. “It is what it is and move forward.”
While that’s a personal motto, it’s one that Helgesen says should apply to Janesville.
The community, he says, must stop living in the past and instead work together to lure companies engaged in alternative manufacturing.
That’s what he envisions for the former LSI property on Venture Drive. Another of his buildings, a 250,000-square-foot facility across Beloit Avenue, is leased to the max and an expansion is likely.
And LiquiPur plans to start a bottling operation in an 110,000-square-foot Helgesen building on Wuthering Hills Drive.
Close again with his father, Helgesen has a career, friends and a home in the Janesville area.
“Nothing is forever, but wouldn’t it be nice to leave Janesville a little better off than it was when I arrived,” he says. “By leaving good, decent buildings that provide jobs even after I am gone, I will in a small way have helped to build a community that keeps families together.”
Last updated: 10:25 am Thursday, December 13, 2012