NAIOP New Jersey CEO Michael McGuinness is retiring in late July, following more than 25 years at the helm of the commercial real estate association. — Courtesy: NAIOP
By Joshua Burd
Mike McGuinness was feeling reflective, understandably so, after being asked to recall his proudest moments during more than 25 years as NAIOP New Jersey’s CEO.
His response was perhaps unexpected, but not surprising. The chief executive pointed to the work of the Community Action Committee that the organization formed in the late 1990s, which spent much of the next decade building parks and playgrounds in cities such as Paterson, Trenton, Asbury Park and a host of others, in coordination with state and local officials.
“I think, by doing that, we gave the members an opportunity to feel good about something other than what their business is, get to work alongside one another, get to know people better,” McGuinness said. He added: “It also built a really good relationship with those towns and it gave us another nice thing to say about the industry.
“For me, personally, it was very rewarding to give the kids and the community this outlet that they might not have had.”
Those who know McGuinness know of his commitment to service, which he traces to his days as a Boy Scout and his Jesuit education in Jersey City. Naturally, he’s managed to serve the community at large while serving the commercial real estate industry as NAIOP New Jersey’s CEO, a tenure that’s also been marked by stability, dramatic and sustainable membership growth and a record of persistent yet professional advocacy that has earned the respect of both industry executives and government officials throughout the state.
That legacy will be in focus in the weeks ahead as McGuinness, the association’s longest-serving CEO and one of the longest-serving leaders of any NAIOP chapter, prepares to step down this summer.
“Mike became synonymous with the NAIOP brand,” said Peter Bronsnick, Cushman & Wakefield’s managing principal in New Jersey, who serves as the chapter’s vice president for associate affairs. “If you think about it, that’s pretty incredible because it’s a national organization. So from my perspective, that dedication is really what has separated him professionally from anyone else.”
The chapter announced last month that McGuinness will leave his post in late July after 26 years on the job, having lobbied on everything from permit reform and infrastructure investment to business incentives and mitigating against the effects of climate change. It also introduced his successor, Dan Kennedy, who will join NAIOP on June 19 after serving as the senior director at the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.
McGuinness, who will stay on during a six-week transition period, says he hasn’t decided what he’ll do in retirement and when he’ll do it, other than spend more time with family and friends. But he is secure in his decision to step aside. He points to the death of his sister in 2021, which “made me wake up” and ask questions such as “What’s still on my bucket list?” or “What am I not paying enough attention to?”
He also believes the time to right to infuse NAIOP New Jersey with new blood.
“I feel that I’ve had a really good run here,” McGuinness said, later adding: “I’ve invested so much in the association and seen it grow, that I feel I owe it to the association to let them have some fresh talent, someone that has more of a runway ahead of them, that can take the chapter to the next level and have a different perspective — and more energy, perhaps.”
In the meantime, he is looking back on a tenure that began in 1997, following three years in the Gov. Christine Todd Whitman administration and more than a decade with the New Jersey Builders Association. He has served alongside more than a dozen NAIOP chapter presidents and hundreds of trustees during that time, many of whom were critical in helping him understand commercial real estate and provide support as he led day-to-day operations with a small office staff.
But industry leaders say McGuinness has done more than enough to return the favor. The association has grown from around 300 members when he joined to more than 800 today. Equally important, he has excelled at the all-important task of retention.
“Mike’s ability to get the market to participate in NAIOP was probably the thing that he may not get enough credit for,” Bronsnick said. “There was a consistent participation in NAIOP throughout the New Jersey real estate community, and that was in large part because of Mike. The organization doesn’t exist without that.”
Bronsnick added that it is “not easy to wrangle this industry into wanting to be part of an organization … What Mike was doing, in terms of the organization itself and as an advocate for those in the real estate community, made everyone want to be a part of it.”
Equally important: McGuinness has long managed to build consensus in an industry that is filled with big personalities.
“A lot of us don’t always agree to agree, yet somehow Mike is able to help us get there,” said Jeff Milanaik, Bridge Industrial’s Northeast region partner, who is a former NAIOP New Jersey chapter president and the immediate past chair of the national organization. “That, to me, has been hugely important to the real estate industry, and it’s a result of the brand that he helped create and polish under his tenure as a CEO.”
That talent is all the more critical during times of crisis or uncertainty in the industry, such as the Great Recession or the COVID-19 pandemic. McGuinness has felt that “there’s good and bad in those times … and we would make that case saying, ‘This is not the time you want to stay out of touch. You need us and we need you.’ So I think it’s important to make that connection. It’s during the bad times that you want to make sure you keep your membership going.”
He has also paid close attention to succession and grooming future leaders.
“You have to constantly be thinking about this, (as in) ‘OK, we’re good right now, but what about three years from now? He’s a great president, but who’s behind him?’” McGuinness said. “So you want to make sure that you’re building that infrastructure, looking ahead for five, six, seven years.”
The chapter has filled its ranks while expanding its influence in the public policy realm. McGuinness has been central to that effort, chapter leaders say, providing a respected, thoughtful voice for the industry that has seemingly resonated with state lawmakers and regulators. For instance, he was a vocal proponent of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s decision to raise the Bayonne Bridge starting in 2013, allowing larger cargo ships to reach Port Newark-Elizabeth. He was also at the helm as the chapter successfully lobbied for the Site Remediation Reform Act of 2009, a landmark law that allows third-party consultants to spearhead environmental cleanups in the state, helping to clear the Department of Environmental Protection’s massive backlog.
Michael Seeve, president of Woodland Park-based Mountain Development Corp., said McGuinness is at his best when “our industry faces regulatory threats which are complicated to understand and seemingly all the momentum is against us.”
“Everyone trusts Mike, from our members to the legislators and rule makers and even to those who advocate for positions contrary to ours,” said Seeve, a past president of NAIOP New Jersey. “Mike presents accurate information without gilding it, he listens patiently without being argumentative and he makes the case for our industry’s interests with thoughtfulness and gentle persuasion, which is, of course, the only way to actually change people’s minds.”
Government advocacy will be as important as ever as NAIOP grapples with ongoing policy challenges, including new flood hazard and stormwater rules by the DEP that will require higher elevations for development projects. There’s also the growing pushback against New Jersey’s booming warehouse sector. On that issue, McGuinness believes the association is “doing the best we can in the Legislature and with state government,” he said, but still faces a higher hurdle when it comes to convincing local leaders.
He agreed that developers would be wise “to meet with the community as early as possible and understand where the objections are and why,” while “(taking) a few extra steps to come up with a more aesthetically pleasing, less obtrusive design.” But those communities that are pushing back need to be more aware of their zoning and what their infrastructure can support, he said, adding that “towns need to be more thoughtful of their futures.”
Fortunately, McGuinness feels the chapter will be in good hands under its new CEO. On the issue of land use, he noted that Kennedy chairs the planning board in his town and is a former member of the State Planning Commission, “so I think he’s got some good credentials there.” But his resume also includes time with the DEP and a strong overall background in public affairs.
Also crucial is Kennedy’s experience in running an association, most recently with the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.
“As far as I’m concerned, he just checked all boxes,” McGuinness said. “He had good government experience and effectiveness in government, he had good association management experience and he had good industry knowledge. To me, they were the three most important things.”
What comes next for McGuinness is still to be determined, he said, although he plans to “take a sabbatical to give myself some time, just take a deep breath and step back.” He rattled off several activities during an interview in late May, including spending more time in his garden, kayaking in Maine and finally tending to a coin collection that his grandfather left his family years ago.
He ultimately expects to volunteer, serve on boards and, not surprisingly, focus on “helping where I can help people” — echoing his message in mid-May, as he addressed NAIOP New Jersey members at the chapter’s annual awards gala.
“My passion has always been to help and serve others, and I believe that’s what set me up for success,” McGuinness told the packed house at The Palace at Somerset Park. “When you bring together great people, you can achieve great things.
“It’s been an extraordinary learning experience and one that has kept me engaged. I look forward to the many opportunities and adventures ahead, both personally and professionally, as I continue to seek ways to help others. Those who are successful have a duty to give back to those who are less fortunate. I’m blessed to have all of you in my life and I look forward to staying connected.”