Family business builds loyalty

CHAMPAIGN - When brothers Jeff, Steve and Mike Hartman went into the real estate development and management business together, they combined more than the initials of their first names.

They also merged everything their father taught them about the construction business and all their mother taught them about family loyalty in their three enterprises, JSM Apartments, JSM Development and JSM Management.

Under the JSM umbrella, the Hartmans now own and manage 700 apartments and 114,000 square feet of commercial space in Champaign-Urbana, including the new Technology Plaza apartment/retail/office complex in Campustown.

And they have more developments on the way.

Already started are a new apartment/retail complex on Gregory Street in Urbana, near the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and a new retail center on South Neil Street in Champaign, where Hillcrest Lumber used to be.

The Hartmans say they work well together in business, running things jointly and never undertaking a new project unless they all agree.

And when they're frequently asked how they manage to get along so well, the brothers credit their late mother, Dorothy, Jeff Hartman says.

"She was just so into family loyalty," he adds.

Jeff, 51, Steve, 56, and Mike, 60, are also the sons of the late home and apartment builder Lyon Hartman, who put them all to work on his construction sites when they were growing up.

"Other kids went to summer camp, and we worked," recalls Steve Hartman with a smile.

Lyon Hartman, who had a degree in ornamental horticulture from the University of Illinois, started out in the florist business in Paxton and moved his family to Champaign-Urbana in the late 1940s.

Lyon Hartman originally went into construction with his own brothers, then ventured out on his own, his sons say.

Mike and Steve Hartman initially followed their father by going to the UI for degrees in ornamental horticulture, with Mike serving in the Navy after college and Steve going on to graduate school. Jeff went to Southern Illinois University, then Parkland College, then the UI, and studied business.

All three turned to apartment development early in their careers, though they also had other business interests. Steve Hartman, for example, also owned a franchised real estate territory for ERA Realty for a time, which he later sold, and Mike Hartman was a partner in Hart Oil Co., which was a distributor for local Mobil stations.

Initially, Mike, Steve and Jeff Hartman began developing apartment buildings individually and sometimes partnering on some projects with their father, they said.

"We had our own sets of books and employees," Jeff Hartman recalls.

Then, in the early 1970s, they got together on a 95-unit apartment complex called The Village on East White Street, and after their mother died in 1974, they were left partners in a small apartment building she had owned.

The business name JSM was created in that period, and the Hartmans began merging the management aspects of their businesses. The three brothers continued to build and own some buildings individually, but over the years have come to do the majority of their work collectively, they said.

One of their most noticed projects in the past decade was the acquisition and transformation of Johnstowne Centre, formerly a two-level retail center at Fifth and John streets, into a retail/apartment complex.

It took seven years of negotiation to put that deal together, they said, but they had some strong incentives: For one, that complex backed up to some commercial property they had already acquired on Green Street. And they knew that the back section of Johnstowne Centre, hidden from the street and full of vacancies, would work better as student apartments.

As large as that project was, the three men say it was the recent Technology Plaza project on the 600 block of East Green Street that has been their most memorable so far.

Long before that project was announced, the Hartmans were quietly assembling properties on the 600 block of East Green Street, among them the former Coed Cinemas.

The Hartmans said they originally planned the Technology Plaza project as a strictly retail/ office complex to house technology companies and shops. But before construction began, they noticed a weakening in the technology sector. They went back to their staff architects and redesigned the complex to house underground parking, two stories of retail and office space and six floors of apartments.

Construction was launched in a bitter cold November, and the first year of the project was stressful, the Hartmans said.

"It was scary, huge, three times as big as anything we'd ever built before," Mike Hartman recalls.

But it proved to be a great learning experience, he and his brothers say: They realized it required all the basic general contracting skills and experience they already had, only on a larger scale, Jeff Hartman said.

Jill Guth, who headed the community's Campustown 2000 group when the Technology Plaza project was under way, said the Hartmans gave Campustown a major push forward.

"I just think they're some of the best people in the world to work with," she said. "They're extremely professional. And I think their hearts are in the right place."

Guth, now executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp., said the Hartmans are also concerned about their community as a whole and have been strong supporters of economic development. Jeff Hartman is a former chairman of the Campus- town 2000 board and a current member of the Economic Development Corp. board, and JSM has been an active supporter of the Champaign Park District flower islands program.

Steve Hartman is also chairman of the Champaign County Republican Central Committee, executive vice president of the Prairielands Boy Scout Council and a member of the Parkland Foundation Board, and a past member of the St. Joseph-Ogden High School board.

While the Hartmans run their business together, each focuses on different aspects, they said. Jeff Hartman handles the cosmetic aspects of the apartments, keeping up with decorating trends that make the units marketable, and oversees buying and financing arrangements. Mike Hartman oversees taxes, ledger management and work at the building sites, and Steve Hartman has focused on site acquisition and insurance.

The Hartmans say they've been asked to take over management of properties they don't own, but have resisted, largely because they want their name linked only to buildings that meet their own standards.

Mike Hartman said it would also be difficult to sell some property owners on the JSM management strategy, which in-cludes keeping all apartments in top shape, replacing appliances and carpeting frequently and keeping decor up to date.This approach does more than keep tenants happy, Mike Hartman said, it's also good business.

"We know our reputation is a certain level of excellence," Jeff Hartman added.

While JSM is focused largely on the campus area, the company has been looking for more commercial opportunities elsewhere in the community.

Steve Hartman said the South Neil Street project might look like a spot development for JSM, but he and his brothers see that area as ripe for development potential and already have their eyes on some other properties.

The brothers are also diversifying a bit because they all have children - three each for Mike and Jeff and four for Steve - and the next generation is getting experience with JSM during the summers and showing interest in eventually joining the business. Mike Hartman's son, Chris, an engineer, already joined the company last fall.

Jeff Hartman said it remains to be seen how well family cooperation will carry on when the younger generation takes over.

But the current one is leaving a solid foundation, according to Jan Miller, executive vice president of commercial lending at BankIllinois.

Miller, who has worked with the Hartmans on projects for 25 years, said they're highly regarded in the business community, and he would even call them a cornerstone of Campustown's revival.

"I think they're universally known as people of their word, and they've put out a quality product," he said.

The Hartmans have also become his good friends over the years, Miller added.

"It's been amazing to see how far they've come in that time," he said.

You can reach Debra Pressey at (217) 351-5229 or via e-mail at dpressey@news-gazette.com.

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