Product innovation at Brunswick Corp.’s Harris and Cypress Cay Pontoons and national pontoon boat demand trends have supported at least 58 percent employment growth at the company’s Fort Wayne area plant in recent years.
By Linda Lippllipp@kpcmedia.comWhile Don Steininger is best known in northeast Indiana as a real estate developer, philanthropist and stalwart member of area nonprofit and for-profit boards, his involvement in the development of Fort Wayne’s riverfront has him singing and dancing another role: principal pitch man.Selling a vision of what Fort Wayne’s riverfront can be to politicians, the public and potential donors, whose agreement and support are needed to get it done, has been the most difficult task he’s ever undertaken, Steininger said.“I think all you can do is put on your best sales shoes you’ve got. Give it the best tap dance you know,” he said in his typically blunt style.In recognition of his decades of service to the community, Steininger is being honored by Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly in February as the 2016 recipient of its Legends of Leadership award.Timing is everythingThe Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, on whose board of directors Steininger sits, has taken a lead role in raising funds for riverfront development and providing oversight for the project. The latter is something it hasn’t really done before, said David Bennett, the foundation’s executive director.But after visiting Des Moines, Iowa, and seeing the activist role its community foundation had taken in redevelopment, Steininger helped persuade other board members that Fort Wayne could and should do the same.“He’s really taken a keen interest in that and sees the incredible transformation that can take place if we get this thing done,” said real estate developer and longtime friend Barry Sturges, of CBRE/Sturges.About year ago, the foundation was offered a chance at $1 million from the Lilly Endowment as a 50-percent match to fund a community project, if the foundation could raise $2 million. When Mayor Tom Henry proposed a riverfront redevelopment project, “all those pieces came together,” Bennett said.In part through Steininger’s efforts, the foundation is only about $150,000 away from its goal of raising the $2 million to get the riverfront development on track.“That’s taken a lot of time and…personal goodwill, whatever,” Steininger said. “I’ve beat on a lot of doors and called on a lot of friends and people have really stepped up.”Steininger also sits on the city committee planning the development, and it’s the public nature of the project that is making it a special challenge for him.“It’s just not as fast as it would be in the private sector,” he said. “I’ve got to build a consensus. I’ve never had to do that before. If I wanted to do something, I just did it.”Although Steininger is open-minded and will listen to what others have to say, “he doesn’t have a lot of patience for process. He knows what he wants,” said Irene Walters, who is working with him on riverfront development.“He’s driven and he’s determined and he’s organized and he’s like a pit bull getting things done,” she said. “He’s a go-get-it-done person.”That drive and determination were not always part of his makeup, Steininger said. He had very little interest in school in Auburn, where he grew up, other than playing on every sports team he could.“I didn’t study. I did what I had to do. At that age, I really didn’t believe there was anything in a book worth learning… You read them because someone told you you had to, but you weren’t expected to learn anything you would really use in life.”Steininger’s first choice of career also was sports related: he wanted to be a basketball coach.“Then I realized about the time I was graduating they (coaches) were teachers, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “And I also realized they didn’t make much money. So I thought, maybe that’s not for me.”False startsFortunately, the 1961 Auburn High School grad had a math teacher who took a special interest in him.“I think she was one of the few people who understood I was more capable than what I let on,” he said.The teacher found him a co-op scholarship at what was then Tri-State College, through Borg-Warner, that would allow him to study one quarter, then work one quarter, and get a paycheck year round.Unfortunately, Steininger, who chose to major in engineering, didn’t last long.“It didn’t take me long to figure out I wasn’t an engineer at all. It was a very demanding curriculum and I wasn’t ready to make the commitment. I convinced myself that the school wasn’t good enough for me – despite the fact that I couldn’t cut it – and that I needed to leave home.”Steininger convinced Case Tech in Cleveland, “the MIT of the Midwest,” to accept him, but only if he could first complete a semester of pre-engineering courses, with a 3.0 grade average, at the University of Akron.“Then I thought I had it all figured out,” he said. “I started school, dropped all my engineering courses, played my way through school and didn’t learn much.”Fortunately, Steininger said, it was during that time he met Kathy, the woman who became his wife. She turned him around enough that, by the time he graduated from Akron with a degree in industrial management and a minor in accounting, “at least I wasn’t at the bottom of the class.”First jobsThe Steiningers moved to Fort Wayne, where he went to work at International Harvester. He quickly figured out that wasn’t the right place for him and switched to Central Soya. That wasn’t the right spot either.“I couldn’t have asked for a better employer, better people to work with, but deep down I just didn’t quite think that was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life,” he said.A friend convinced Steininger his next move should be to enroll in law school. He went back to Akron for his first year, and then transferred to the Indiana University Law School in Indianapolis to get his degree.“Once I got to law school, I understood for the first time in my life what education could be,” he said. “I think it was because you were there to learn how to think, to reason, to make sense out of things. And I did well. Like everything else, when it’s your passion and you believe in what you were doing, you usually do well.”Steininger was hired by Fort Wayne attorney Bob Haller, who was a father figure and important mentor in his life. He later decided to strike out on his own, forming a plan with Dan Coats to open a boutique firm specializing in commercial real estate. That plan fell apart when Coats took a job with new Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle instead, so Steininger opened his own firm.Pat Hart, who went on to work with Steininger for decades as a secretary and assistant, met him in the mid-1970s when he taught a class she took in business law.“He was a wonderful teacher. I did great in class and he hired me,” she said.Steininger also was kind and encouraging to her children, offering them part-time jobs around the office, for example.“He’s just one heck of a guy and I am so proud to call him not only a boss but a really, really good friend,” Hart said.^The pull of real estateDuring the 1970s, Don and Kathy Steininger also began buying rental properties.“The thing that I realized was, in practicing law, you only get paid when you work,” he said. “A passive investment, like rental real estate, at least it’s making money every day and you don’t have to be there taking care of it. I guess that was the kind of thing that really appealed, and that’s how it all began.”Steininger’s first commercial project, in 1977, was a deal to build a restaurant for an Arby’s franchisee – signed on a paper napkin at a meeting at a Clear Lake cottage. Three friends put up $25,000, he put in $5,000 in sweat equity, and they borrowed money and built the building.Other projects followed – most of them office buildings – but also Casa D’Angelo restaurants, other Arby’s locations and some retail.“There was no roadmap. I never had one major client. It’s not as if somebody said, ‘go do this,’” Steininger said. “The basis of how these things come about is, you just really keep your eyes and ears open. Figure out where the growth is and then try to figure out how to get in the way of growth.”“Don is very, very strategic in planning and well organized, as good as anybody I know,” Sturges said. “He puts his strategy together and then does a very good job of executing his game plan.”He brings those same qualities to the game of golf, added Sturges, who with Steininger and a group of other friends has been making treks to Arizona to play for 30 years.“Don, being the well-organized person, is in charge of the tournament games and the wagering that takes place and the scores. His expertise is well used on those trips. We call him the golf czar. He makes up the games, he makes up the rules and we all have to fall in line and do what he says,” Sturges said.One of the last and the largest of the 50 or 60 development projects Steininger completed over the years was the Chapel Ridge shopping center on Maysville Road, anchored by Walmart and Kohl’s.The subsequent sale of that center provided the Steiningers the ability to donate $1 million to build an office and community center for Fort Wayne’s community foundation. They followed that a few years later with a donation of $400,000 to the Community Foundation of DeKalb County to build a facility in the town where Don grew up.Tired of retirementThe Steiningers retired to Florida – but a life of leisure wasn’t a good fit for Don.“He wanted to come back and help make the community better,” Walters said. “He’s not only generous with his resources…it’s the giving of himself.”Walters and Steininger had known each other for years, but reconnected on the business junket to Des Moines, Iowa, to view that city’s riverfront redevelopment.“On the way back, Irene and I are sitting in the airport in Detroit discussing how impressed we were, and what a shame it was that other people in Fort Wayne who really need to hear this weren’t there,” he recalled. “I said, I’ll go find a jet, you find another one, and we’re going to fill both of them up…We’re going to fly to Des Moines and let them see and hear exactly what we did, and by golly we did it. We pulled it off.”Steininger leads by example, and “for him, it’s not about the credit.”“It’s because it’s the right thing to do,” Walters said.“He is forthright, he is blunt, you know where he stands and you can deal with it. He is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Whether he is leading from in front or (pushing) from behind, he makes himself known.”