Marc R. Wilkow acknowledges having a largely two-dimensional understanding of Pittsburgh before his company bought a majority of the Waterfront, the 1.3 million-square-foot shopping center in Homestead that ranks as the region's second largest, in 2012.
Before then, Pittsburgh conjured the popular image of a dated steel town for Wilkow, president and fourth-generation owner of Chicago-based M & J Wilkow Ltd.
In a rare visit to Pittsburgh this week, Wilkow added that he didn't realize Pittsburgh had such a hilly topography, either. He spoke with the Business Times in the lobby of 420 Boulevard of the Allies, which his company is renovating for new office use after years as the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
"When we acquired the Waterfront, we did our due diligence," Wilkow said. "It was a bit of a revelation for a lot of us in terms of Pittsburgh not being your grandfather's Pittsburgh in terms of the diversified economy and the vibrancy of the market."
A little more than five years later, Wilkow views the Pittsburgh market from a much more knowledgeable perspective, hills and all.
His company, which owns major properties in cities such as San Francisco, Denver and many others, now owns 3.8 million square feet of space in the Pittsburgh market. Typically working with joint venture investment partners, M & J Wilkow also owns three office buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, the Penn Center East mixed-use development in Wilkins Township, an office building at Southpointe, and shopping centers in Monroeville, Cranberry Township and along the Parkway West.
Within the last seven months, M & J Wilkow and ALTO Real Estate Funds invested more than $100 million in the region. The company added two of Pittsburgh's more high-profile shopping centers, Miracle Mile in Monroeville, which it paid $78 million for in a joint venture deal late last year, and Cranberry Square, which it bought in February for $23.5 million.
M & J Wilkow's Pittsburgh holdings are now "far and away" the largest in any market for the company, said Wilkow, whose company owns and manages 10 million square feet nationwide.
He noted how Pittsburgh "checked a lot of the boxes" for the firm in terms of investment potential. The city's hills and rivers represented a barrier to entry by limiting the amount of flat land on which to build. The economy was increasingly diversified beyond its steelmaking past. And the values and investment potential had become more and more favorable over bigger cities in which values were rising beyond investor expectations of a reasonable return.
"What has happened is the kind of yields that our investors are looking for can be hard to come by in the major markets. So you start pivoting and giving thought to so-called secondary markets," he said. "Income is a big deal. If you can generate higher cash-on-cash return in secondary markets, then that's very appealing for our investors."
M & J Wilkow is far from alone among outside investors in Pittsburgh at this point.
Marty Sweeney, a senior vice president who has lead M & J Wilkow's growth and development activity in western Pennsylvania, noted how M & J Wilkow was a runner up to buy One Oxford Centre, to San Francisco-based Shorenstein Properties, as well as Liberty Center, to CBRE Global Investors.
Wilkow acknowledged that even in losing out in buying such properties, it still validates his company's acquisitions here as its larger presence here has become something of a calling card for large investment partners.
"The fact that we have developed such a significant portfolio here is also advantageous because institutional investors that we talk to say, 'oh, you're from Chicago,' and then they realize the substantial investment we've made in Pittsburgh that it's become like a second home," he said.
Wilkow spoke on the subject a day after meeting in New York where he experienced just such a conversation.
"A very large institutional investor, together with a large pension fund that often teams up with them, said to us we're open to Pittsburgh," he said, of a potential new investment partner for the company here without divulging who it was.
Wilkow reports that all of its company's assets here are performing well, with "every asset we own here...worth more today than when we bought it...meaningfully more."
That's in a national portfolio of more than 40 properties with a value of more than $2 billion far beyond its hometown of Chicago, where it owns far less than the company does here.
"We follow the opportunity," he said.