For Tom Stern real estate is way of life


Thanks to cold weather, Tom Stern did not become a lawyer.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Stern, president and CEO of Solon Gershman, Inc., says being a lawyer “seemed like a good thing to do.” After earning a business degree from Washington University in St. Louis, he was accepted to the law school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “But when I got there to check things out it was 20 degrees below zero, so actually it was not a good thing to do!” Stern says. “I guess the truth is I wasn’t really that motivated to be a lawyer.”


Instead, Stern came back to St. Louis and earned a Masters in Business Administration at Saint Louis University. He also married Karen Gershman, whom he had met as an undergraduate, and in 1967 started working in the mortgage business of his father-in-law, Solon Gershman. After two years he moved into Gershman’s real estate division. “It was an opportunity,” Stern says. “The more I got into it the more interesting it became.”

Forty years later, Stern still finds the commercial real estate industry interesting and exciting. “Every day is different, working with different people, problems and properties,” he says. “There always are opportunities you can go after to benefit your clients and yourself.”

Stern oversees every aspect of Solon Gershman, Inc., a full-service real estate firm that offers commercial brokerage services, asset and facilities management, investment acquisition/disposition, corporate services, international consulting and brokerage, land acquisition and sales, and development services. He has been in involved in the development of more than 500,000 square feet of retail property, and has participated in the purchase or sale of more than $100 million in real estate and has arranged financing for properties worth more than $250 million. All of the company’s holdings are in the St. Louis metro area.

The St. Louis Business Journal ranks Solon Gershman third in licensed commercial real estate brokerages with more than six million square feet of office, retail, industrial, medical and investment property. Some notable holdings include Woodchase Plaza in Chesterfield, Flower Valley Shopping Center in Florissant, Treetop Center in Manchester and Westgate Center in Creve Coeur. “We feel we have expanded the globe in terms of availabilities in the area,” Stern says.

Solon Gershman grew to 60 employees including 15 sales people when it acquired Follman Properties in 2005.

“Prior to that we had primarily been involved in developing and managing shopping centers, but adding Follman expanded our reach in particular to the office market,” Stern says. “It created some real opportunities of scale and opened some new doors for brokers who were with us and for those from Follman.”

In addition, Stern says, Solon Gershman is part of ONCOR International, a network of top-ranked independent commercial real estate companies with offices in more than 200 markets around the world.

“This allows us to provide our clients with real estate services outside the metropolitan area when they need it, and provides us with opportunities when ONCOR members from out of town have needs in the St. Louis marketplace,” Stern says. “It’s been a real benefit for us and for our clients.”

Stern says Solon Gershman and Follman were “friendly competitors, but more complementary.” Actually, friendliness is the norm in the St. Louis market, Stern says. “From my experience St. Louis is a market where there is more friendly competition and more cooperation between brokers than in other cities,” he notes. “The marketplace in general has 2.5 million people and 100 million square feet of various types of real estate. So there are a lot of things you can get involved with.”

Despite the current challenging national trends in real estate, Stern says, “We have been fortunate to have a great base. And combined with the fact that we manage a lot of property, our company has not had big ups and downs.” He adds, “In the Midwest in general you see less of those dramatic cycles than on the East or West coasts.”

On the mortgage side of the business, Gershman Mortgage is the largest independent mortgage company in Missouri, Stern says.

The “family business” tradition continues at Solon Gershman; Stern’s youngest son, Randy, was appointed vice president in May. His two older sons, Scott and Tim, also have worked at Solon Gershman and recently formed Lenders One mortgage cooperative with a partner. “I feel very fortunate to have them in the industry. We all talk frequently about business issues,” Stern says. “My wife, having grown up in the business, is a great sounding board and resource as well. And my mother-in-law, Bettie, is a great role model and very much involved with the business — she’s chairman of the board.”

Stern credits his father-in-law with being a great mentor to him. “His involvement both in the business and the Jewish community was significant,” he says. “Ed Balk, our executive vice president, similarly has provided mentoring for me in both areas.”

Says Balk, “Tom is a very good business man in the sense that he is fair in negotiations with customers and employees.” Furthermore, Balk notes, “Tom could walk down the street in Clayton and be elected anything he wants. He knows everyone and everyone likes him. He’s terrific with people.”

Stern’s ability to inspire and motivate others has led to several leadership posts in professional and Jewish organizations. He’s a former director of both the Missouri and St. Louis Association of Realtors, and past president of the SLAR Commercial Division (which named him Realtor of the Year in 2003) and the Commercial Information Exchange. Stern also is vice president of the Missouri Growth Association, a trade association of commercial property owners, managers and developers, and a director of Habitat for Neighborhood Business, which promotes inner-city economic development and job growth. In addition, Stern has served on the board of the Clayton Chamber of Commerce.

He also served on the board of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Jewish Community Center, and he was past president of the Jewish Center for the Aged. “Tom put a lot of time and effort into the JCA at a critical time,” says former JCA board member and longtime friend Harold Sarner. “The home was in some financial stress and Tom not only was there to recruit new leadership from within, he also was able to put together a fine board and establish some very good bridges to the Federation. With the help of the Federation the JCA came out of it a stronger agency at the time.”

Sarner, who has known Stern since they shared a motorcycle to visit their college sweethearts (whom they married), adds, “Whatever Tom sets his sights on, he gives his heart and soul to make it successful. He’s as honest and upfront a guy you could ever meet. He enjoys the reputation he deserves in the business community where he’s known for his integrity and leadership. And,” Sarner adds, “he’s a single-digit golfer!”

Stern confirms, “I have a single-digit handicap. I shoot in the high 70’s to low 80’s.” He has played on “some of the finest courses in the United States and in Scotland and Ireland, mostly together with my wife, who is a very good player herself,” he says. And he’s shot not one, not two but three holes in one, all at Westwood Country Club on three different holes. The most recent one occurred “quite a while ago,” Stern says. “I’m due!”

His involvement with golf led to Stern’s association with the Chicago-based Evans Scholars Foundation. The largest privately funded scholarship program in the country, the 77-year-old foundation provides full tuition and housing grants for individuals who work as caddies. Stern is a 15-year board member of the organization.

“It’s a marvelous opportunity for kids who work as caddies and might not otherwise be able to afford college,” Stern says. “It has pretty tough criteria but more than 8,000 people have benefited from it, and right now there are more than 800 kids in college on Evans scholarships, including 40 who live in the Evans House at the University of Missouri.”

Stern says the past few years he has started to scale back a lot of his former commitments. “I’ve been very fortunate to have served on several wonderful boards, but now it’s time to give young people the opportunity to serve,” he says. Additionally, at work, he says, “At this point I’m delegating a lot of responsibilities.” The result is extra free time which Stern clearly enjoys. He attends Cardinals baseball and Rams football games. “I’m a big Green Bay Packers fan, too,” he says. Also, he and Karen are able to play golf and travel more. They’re planning a trip to Australia and New Zealand early next year.

Above all, Stern says, “A lot revolves around family.” He treasures the time he spends with his eight grandchildren, age three to eight, all of whom live in St. Louis. A member of Temple Israel, Stern says, “I’m not a particularly religious man but I’m very pleased my kids and their kids recognize themselves as being Jewish. It always has been an important identity for me.”

Looking ahead, Stern says, “We want to continue to grow Solon Gershman as we have done the past 60 years. We have been able to add both to our investment portfolio as well as to the third-party management we do and we want to continue these trends.” Looking back, he says, his career and his life have been “very rewarding. I have no complaints.”