Frontlines: On his own terms

Detours, obstacles and deals gone bad didn’t deter Mike Mooney, chairman of leading commercial real estate firm MLG Capital

"Absolute integrity" and "Make a difference" are featured on a themed wall at MLG Capital in Brookfield, led by Chairman Mike Mooney. Photo by Jeffrey Phelps.

By MARILYN KRAUSE | April 2019

To those who knew him when, J. Michael Mooney’s prospects after high school were not exactly promising.

He hauled garbage after his college football scholarship evaporated. A walk-on spot the next fall fell through when he got sick before the season began. After stints on a pig farm and as an ironworker, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee but left without a degree.

So how did a guy self-described as “not a great student” go on to lead one of the nation’s top commercial real estate companies?

The answer lies far back into his childhood.

When 7-year-old Mike Mooney was sent to northern Wisconsin one summer as company for a beloved uncle whose young wife had died, he could not have imagined it was the first of 11 summers he would spend helping that uncle restore and run a resort — or that it would be key to identifying his inner strengths and life goals. 

But that is exactly what Mooney credits for much of who he is and what he has accomplished.    

​The Mike Mooney you meet today — self-made co-founder, chairman and principal of MLG Capital — is grounded in those summers. Schooled in people skills by his Uncle Dan, Mooney learned from every setback or triumph and each person he met along the way. He was determined to succeed on his own terms.

A real estate juggernaut

MLG, a leading commercial real estate investment firm that also comprises management and development, is the successor to multiple companies and partnerships over 33-plus years, including the original Mooney LeSage & Associates Ltd. (See timeline graphic of MLG at the end of article.)

MLG's millennial-friendly employee lounge offers pool, ping pong, air hockey and pinball.  Photo by Jeffrey Phelps.Since its founding in 1987, the firm has developed more than 7,000 acres in Wisconsin, divided equally between business parks and residential subdivisions. Its 20 business parks have a tax base of about $1.5 billion and have generated an estimated 30,000 jobs, while the nearly 50 subdivisions have a tax base above $1 billion, according to MLG estimates.

MLG employs more than 300, including 60-plus at its Brookfield headquarters and about 250 in Dallas, and has investments in Wisconsin and 10 other states.

Mooney, 76, often greets visitors to MLG in the Founder’s Room just off the reception area and millennial-friendly employee lounge — sporting shuffle board and ping pong. MLG bought the former Brennan’s Market on bustling Bluemound Road and relocated in July 2018 after an extensive renovation, including a massive bocce court and patio in the former open-air produce section.

MLG's headquarters features a massive bocce court. Photo by Jeffrey Phelps.The Founder’s Room is a deliberate choice: Its north wall showcases a word cloud that describes the company, highlighted by “absolute integrity” and “make a difference while making a living.”

“This is what we stand for,” Mooney says. “This is our heart and soul.”

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Rooted in family

Hubert (Red) and Betty Mooney lived near Wright Street in Wauwatosa’s East Town neighborhood, in a series of ever-larger homes as their Irish Catholic family grew. Mike was the oldest among four girls and two boys.

His eyes twinkle as he recalls hanging out with Red, a partner at Russell Real Estate, and Red’s childhood friends, the “Hi-Mount Rover Boys.”

Most of Red’s pals were entrepreneurs, too, and they played in baseball and basketball leagues after work. After games, Mike tagged along to neighborhood taverns, where he soaked up every detail as they bantered about work and the corporate world. That left a deep impression.

In 1949, Mike, 7, and his beloved uncle, Dan O'Connell, display their day's catch. Mike spent 11 summers up north helping his uncle restore and run a resort. Mooney family photo.But an even bigger influence were those 11 summers spent with Betty’s brother, Dan O’Connell, restoring the ramshackle Shorecrest Resort on Muskellunge Lake in tiny McNaughton in Oneida County.

Seven might seem a bit young to start working, but it wasn’t really about the work at first. O’Connell was a newlywed in 1949 when his wife died from complications of polio. Mike was sent up north to keep him company.

It was in McNaughton — after countless conversations under the stars, helping to expand the resort from three rundown cabins without power or plumbing to nine cabins with full amenities, attending to vacationing families and directing children’s activities — that Mooney, at age 17, defined his future.

In 1955, the teenage Mooney was honing his people and social skills at the Shorecrest Resort in McNaughton in Oneida County. Mooney family photo.He realized he was an ideas guy, with people and social skills honed over those summers. At his core, he was an entrepreneur, a leader.

But his path to success resembled a winding country road more than a freeway.

From pig farm to ironwork

Mooney graduated from Marquette University High School in 1960 with plans to attend St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, on a football scholarship. However, two weeks before he was to start, the school dropped its football program. So he went back home and worked for the City of Wauwatosa, hauling garbage for a year. “I saw every back yard in Tosa,” he says.

Mooney (#48) played middle linebacker, fullback and halfback at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. He went on to play football at UWM. Mooney family photo.The next fall, Mooney was to be a walk-on for Iowa State but was diagnosed, incorrectly as it turned out, with ulcers. By the time he was cleared medically, it was too late to join the team. He attended classes, worked on a pig farm to make ends meet and then returned home.

Mooney worked as an ironworker before enrolling in 1963 at UWM, where he finally played collegiate football as a walk-on offensive guard and middle linebacker. He immersed himself in campus life — from homecoming king to student government activist, including a hand in changing the school’s mascot from a cardinal to its current panther. 

Ultimately, he left UWM in 1965 without graduating. “I was not a great student,” Mooney admits. “I tell people I majored in extracurriculars.”

He returned to ironworking, earning more than his college graduate friends. But by 1967, the challenge was gone, and Mooney was ready for what would become his life’s passion: real estate.

“I viewed it as the last bastion of the free-enterprise system,” Mooney says, revealing that his dad had advised against a real estate career because the business was too difficult. “I wanted to either succeed or fail and take responsibility for it — own it.”

An Irish detour

In 1971, Mooney (second from right) poses at Ireland's Knappogue Castle. He spent years pursuing a $30 million development in Ireland that never came to fruition. Mooney family photo.For a time, Mooney sold houses for his father but was drawn to the lucrative, less emotional commercial side, where he excelled. Then, in his late 20s, he took a detour.

Always interested in his Irish heritage, Mooney spent three years pursuing a dream on 500 acres he acquired in Ireland, targeted to Irish-Americans. Shannonside Village, a $30 million development along the Shannon River, was to include vacation homes for 2,500 residents and a Pete Dye golf course.

After years of assembling investors and navigating complicated foreign banking, financing and land use regulations, the deal collapsed in 1972. Mooney regrouped, took a commercial real estate job with The Boerke Company in Milwaukee and spent 10 years paying off his debt.

By 1980, he had spent years brainstorming the best ways to run a commercial real estate firm, but his ideas often were dismissed. That was enough motivation to form Mooney & Associates.

“My intent was to see if any of those ideas were feasible — or fall on my face,” he says.

While he did well, he soon realized he did not have all the skills necessary to succeed. “I had to humble myself and take in partners.”

That led to perhaps his most crucial business decision: partnering with Phil Martin, Michael Zimmer and Pat LeSage to establish Mooney LeSage and Associates Ltd. in 1987.

During the early years, there were notable deals: the site search for Quad/Graphics’ Sussex plant, subdivisions and the first of 20 business parks in southeastern Wisconsin. Expansion continued over the decades, spreading beyond Wisconsin — thousands of apartment units in Dallas; development and investment companies; condos, office buildings and property management.

Of course, it wasn’t all success. An unusual deal in 1989 to become Miller Brewing’s distributor in Yugoslavia fell through, as did an ambitious plan to develop Pabst Farms near Oconomowoc. And after the 2008 recession hit, MLG went from 250 employees to about 60. Mooney and other principals sold personal assets and company holdings to sustain the business.   

Making a difference

A conservative who supported many initiatives under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, Mooney is uncertain about Wisconsin’s economy under Democratic Gov. Tony Evers but is confident in what he terms strong leadership at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Mooney doesn’t hesitate to reach out to government officials when he believes industry reforms are necessary and when he can have a positive impact.

“It’s all part of making a difference and giving back. Elected officials don’t always have the background. Even people of good faith don’t always understand the view from the trenches. If I helped government get out of the way … everybody wins,” he says.

Among other roles, he spent 12 years on the Wisconsin Economic Development Association (WEDA) board and is a co-founder of Wisconsin’s chapter of NAIOP, a national commercial real estate development association. The chapter later established the J. Michael Mooney Award to recognize extraordinary leadership in advancing economic development in Wisconsin.

Over 30-plus years, Mooney essentially has never looked back. Referring to projects gone bad or ones he’d like to do over, he says, “I learn from them and move on. If you focus on regrets, you get mired down.”

Mooney’s now the only founder still at MLG, the others having moved on amicably, he says. He now is MLG's chairman, with CEO Tim Wallen and five other principals running the firm day to day.

​MLG’s structure has been refined in recent years, shifting from mostly development to mostly investment today. With about 1,000 institutional and individual investors and currently controlling about $1.5 billion in assets, MLG’s goal is to become the nation’s No. 1 private equity commercial real estate firm.

When many would be long-retired, what’s driving Mooney?

He circles back to that Founder’s Room theme. “Success for me is not driven by money … I keep going back to making a difference, affecting people’s lives,” he says. As part of that mission, he focuses on mentoring, often working with students.

Despite living with serious health conditions since the mid-1990s — leukemia, atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea — Mooney hasn’t slowed down. He cherishes time with family, including his wife, Marilyn, their children and grandchildren.

To those beloved grandkids, he offers this advice, gleaned from a lifetime of roadblocks and detours along with the triumphs: “They shouldn’t be afraid to fail. There’s more to learn from failure than from success.”

“And definitely have fun along the way.”

Marilyn Krause, principal of Krause Communications, is a former reporter and editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Photo by Jeffrey Phelps.