Successful St. Louisan is passionate about business and philanthropy


s most everyone knows, Michael Staenberg’s real estate development company is named THF Realty. THF? “Yes, it really does stand for ‘To Have Fun!'” he says. “I’m a workaholic. I work seven days a week. But it’s one of my passions. My favorite hobby is work. And I’m having a great time!”

Staenberg’s enthusiasm extends beyond his business. He’s a generous philanthropist, a well-known patron of the arts, an avid athlete, a devoted husband and father — and a dedicated supporter of Jewish causes, agencies and activities.

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Growing up in Omaha, Staenberg’s family attended a Conservative synagogue. “After my bar mitzvah I vowed never to go back!” he says. What’s more, he was just one of a handful of Jewish students in his high school. He found his Jewish connection at the Omaha “J”. “I’d get dropped off on a Sunday morning and stay until Sunday night,” he says. Staenberg also was active in Omaha’s B’nai B’rith Youth Organization as a member of the Aleph Zadik Aleph #1, the original Mother Chapter.

Staenberg attended Arizona State University “on a lark,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do.” He earned degrees in economics and finance in 1976. “In my last semester l thought maybe I’d get into the real estate business. It sounded like fun,” Staenberg says. “My dad, who died when I was 13, was an apartment developer and I remember driving around in the car with him looking at properties. I guess a little of that actually rubbed off on me.”

To break into the business, Staenberg called a distant relative in Kansas City. “He said his company wasn’t hiring but I said I’d show up anyway,” he says. “I was hired with no draw or commission. He put me in a nine-by-nine room and said ‘Good Luck!’ That was my tenure in real estate development.”

Soon after that, Staenberg then spent 15 years with local commercial real estate developers Leo Eisenberg & Company, where he became vice president and director of real estate. In 1991, when Eisenberg began to have financial problems, Staenberg called his pal Stan Kroenke of Wal-Mart fame. “We met in 1978 when I was able to put a McDonald’s restaurant in Clinton, Missouri, which no one thought was possible, and we became friends,” Staenberg says. “I asked him if he wanted to go into business together and we struck up a partnership that exists to this day.” Staenberg is president and Columbia, Mo.-based Kroenke is chairman of THF. Their first development project was in Kitanning, Penn. “We still own it!” Staenberg says.

After 16 years in business, Staenberg and his team of 100-plus employees have made THF one of the top-ranked owner/managers of retail properties in the United States, according to Retail Traffic magazine. THF’s portfolio includes more than 100 properties in 23 states, mainly primary retail shopping centers and several office buildings, comprising 25 million square feet. Sixteen projects totaling 3-4 million square feet currently are in development. “At least eight employees who were there when I started THF are still with me, and 20 more have been with me at least 10 years,” Staenberg says.

He’s involved in every aspect of THF’s projects — leasing, development and management. “A to Z, scoop to nuts. Yeah, I have to admit I’m a micromanager,” Staenberg says. He usually wakes up at 4:30 a.m., works out for an hour or two and arrives at the office around 8 a.m. “Then I just run all day,” he says. “I work until 6:30 or 7, and most nights I have a meeting or event to attend. Around 10:30 I crash!” Typically he’s on the road two or three days a week, visiting properties, inspecting construction or attending meetings at THF’s offices in Charleston, W.Va., York, Penn., or Denver.

Staenberg believes THF’s success is due to the fact that “we are longterm owners,” he says. “When you have a mindset that you’ll be there 20 or 30 years you build it a lot better and make sure it performs a lot better. You don’t try to get the last dollar out of it, like someone who plans to sell.”

As a result, Staenberg says, THF properties include “better landscaping, signage, roofs and lighting, even fountains and art.” Above all, he says, “We make sure we become part of the community. We do that by donating land for soccer fields and playgrounds, creating hiking and biking trails and donating conservation easements.” Over the years, THF also has funded reading programs for children, established youth camps and much more. Right now, in fact, the company is helping to create a prairie dog colony to provide a sustainable food supply for a pair of nesting eagles near THF’s Prairie Center development near Denver. “We do a lot of things,” Staenberg says.

Staenberg, on a personal level, also does “a lot of things” to help those who need a hand. For example, the Rumble to the River executive bicycle race, held in the fall, began in 2003 as a bet between Staenberg and an associate. Last year, 18 cyclists covered a challenging 60-mile course from Chesterfield to the Gateway Arch, raising more than $150,000 for the St. Louis Variety Therapeutic Bike Program, the Ronald McDonald House, the Youth Technology and Education Center of St. Louis and Kiwanis. By the way, Staenberg completed the course in two hours, 56 minutes,16 seconds.

In addition, Staenberg and his wife, Carol, established the Staenberg Family Foundation in 2005. “It gives to a lot of children’s charities, plus the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and United Way, among others,” he says.

A member of the Jewish Federation board, Staenberg also recently became president of the board of the Jewish Community Center. As a result he’ll be very much involved in the J’s just-announced $49 million construction and redevelopment project, scheduled to begin this fall. “Anybody can do the hardware but we’re into the software, the soul of the building,” he says. “A lot of changes are happening, but change is good and sometimes people don’t realize that. We’re not doing business as the old J anymore, it’s the new way of doing business and I believe that we’re really making a difference.”

Todd Siwak, recent past president of the J board, says, “The J is fortunate to have Michael at its helm because he’s able to apply his archive of real estate development and business knowledge to our project. His skill set and our needs are perfectly aligned. Also, Michael has great business acumen. It’s not just managing a project but pulling it all together from a business and real estate development perspective.

“Let me add,” Siwak says, “Michael knows how to have fun. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. But he does give back, very generously, not just to the Jewish community but to the community in the broadest sense.”

In the greater St. Louis community, Staenberg has been a board member or active volunteer for the Sheldon Concert Hall, Center of Contemporary Arts, Variety Club, St. Louis Zoo Foundation, St. Louis Effort for AIDS, the Holocaust Museum and numerous others. He’s also a member of the Regional Business Council, a consortium of the presidents and CEOs of the region’s largest mid-cap companies, who advocate for regional governance initiatives. “We want to see people work together as a region. We are all one region,” Staenberg says. “We’re working to take this goal to the next level.”

For his hard work and commitment, Staenberg has received several awards and honors including the Richard Weiss Man of the Year Award and the St. Louis Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He also has been named the Businessperson of the Year by both the Cities of Clayton and Chesterfield.

Long-time business associate Rod Jones notes, “In the past Michael was very aggressive and so eager to succeed that he came across as somewhat brusque. But as the years went by and his success grew, he became quite impassioned about philanthropy. I knew that the shift was complete when he spoke at his mother’s funeral and said she had taught him the importance of giving as much as you can to help others.” Jones adds, “I’ve been fortunate to experience success as have others who have worked with Michael, and I attribute this to Michael’s work ethic, because it’s contagious.”

The Staenbergs are members of Central Reform Congregation. “I also spend a lot of time with Rabbi Elazar Grunberger at Aish HaTorah,” Staenberg says. “I just listen to him and ask questions to get a better understanding of what we’re trying to do here as Jews.” Although he doesn’t consider himself a very religious person, Staenberg says “being Jewish is important to me. I make sure people know that I’m Jewish and I’m proud to be Jewish. I think it gives me a great sense of history, of culture and meaning. I get a lot out of it so I want to give back to the Jewish community and help make it better.”

For now, Staenberg says, “I’m more committed to the business than ever. I can’t believe this will be our sixteenth year. I’m good for another 16, but then who knows?” He adds, not one of his three daughters, age 14, 18 and 21, is interested in real estate development. “One is an art major and the other two have no idea what they want to do,” he says.

As for himself, Staenberg says, “I want to keep having fun and riding my bike. I want to continue to learn and explore and try to make a difference one person at a time.” He explains, “I say, ‘I’ll help you, then you help two others and tell them they have to help two more.’ That’s what will make a difference in the world, to keep that chain unending.”