About Our Founder: A Tribute to Jon Hempel

By Josh Krsnak, President and CEO, Hempel Companies

As I thought about how best to define Jon, I recalled a press article written in September 2008.  The Star Tribune was reporting on the grand opening party of The Hotel Minneapolis – one of Jon’s favorite projects.  The sleek lobby of the hotel with its towering marble columns and ornate coffered ceilings grabbed most everyone’s attention.  But it was Jon himself that grabbed the reporter’s attention.  She wrote:

“Was it just us, or was the hotel’s 37-year-old developer and owner, Jon Hempel, the finest man in the room? Hempel is tall, blond and handsome with a broad, boyish smile.”

 As developers, we are not known to be an excessively handsome bunch.  We make buildings, not movies.  When people write about us, they write about the appearance of our properties and the attributes of our projects, not about us as people and certainly not about our boyish good looks.

But not Jon.  You see, Jon had every gift.  He was smart, driven, tall, well dressed, a scratch golfer, resourceful, and, of course, handsome.  He was someone who charmed you, disarmed you, and put you at ease.   Yes, he had every gift, but the gift of time.

In March of 2002, Jon signed up for real estate licensing school.  And that’s where I met Jon Hempel.  Little did I know the trajectory of my life was about to change forever.

At the time, real estate licensing classes were designed to teach people how to be residential realtors.  The instructor mainly taught the students about prospecting for home buyers and which day to hold an open house.  But Jon wasn’t there for that.  Jon was there to get his license so that he could begin assembling his commercial real estate empire.  I was there to buy a duplex.

One of Jon’s greatest attributes was his ability to think big.  No project size or dollar amount ever scared him.  Over the years he would challenge me to think big, beyond whatever I imagined to be probable or even possible.  Jon had vision.  Vision to think beyond duplexes.

During a 15-minute break on our third day of class, Jon and I struck up a conversation.  He told me about the new company he had just started and his aspirations.  In typical Jon fashion, he made the company sound just a little bigger and a bit more successful than it actually was at that time.  We became classroom buddies.

A few days later Jon invited me to breakfast.  He told me had an idea he wanted to run past me.  Intrigued I took him up on the offer.  At breakfast Jon explained that he had a plan.  He intended to put together a group of investors and buy old, dilapidated office buildings.  He would then fix them up, lease them, stabilize the occupancy, and sell them for a tidy profit.  He was convincing, he had conviction, and he must have sensed my enthusiasm, as he then offered me a job.

Shocked, I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “How much can you pay me?”  He said he had one little problem; he didn’t have any money.  But Jon made me a promise.  He said he would pay me a portion of the company profits – no matter how little or how much we made.  I told him I would think about it and get back to him tomorrow.  That afternoon I told my boss that I was quitting and phoned Jon the next morning to tell him I accepted his offer.  I was 23 years old.  Jon, 31.

Unfortunately, our first year together wasn’t quite as fruitful as Jon had forecasted.  I made $8,000 the first year.  I was so poor that I had to rent out my townhouse and move into a janitor’s closet in our office building.  I don’t think Jon took home a single penny that year.  Things were pretty bleak.  But as the Business Journal would come to say six years later, “The young developer is cool as a cucumber.”  You could never rattle Jon.

Our fortune soon changed.  Due to Jon’s eternal optimism, persistence, and courage, we were able to put together a partnership to purchase a 6 story, 100,000 sf office building.  12 months prior, I was hoping to pass my real estate exam and purchase a duplex.  12 months after meeting Jon Hempel, we owned a $6 million property.  That was Jon.  No mountain too high or challenge too big for the dreams and ambition he had.  And that was just the beginning.

In 2006, three short years later, we purchased our first high rise in St. Paul.  Then, within the next two years, we purchased two more high rises as well as developed the $61 million Hotel Minneapolis.  The company grew from there.

During our time together, we purchased over 80 properties including two full city blocks in downtown Minneapolis and three city blocks in downtown Milwaukee.  But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Jon.  Jon had a bigger vision.

So in 2013 we ventured up to North Dakota to start Jon’s fifth company and begin his largest project.  We purchased 400 acres of land and ultimately developed a $140 million oil transportation business.  Jon was CEO of Northstar Midstream – as the company is called – for less than two years when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Jon accomplished a lot in his 47 short years, more than most people could do in 2 lifetimes.  He left nothing in the tank.

Professionally,

He started 5 companies;

He acquired over 80 properties;

He employed hundreds of people;

He changed the landscape of our community.

And the Hempel name will carry on.  We will continue to be known as Hempel Companies in honor of our great founder.

In closing I would like to share a poem I once heard.  It goes:

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on his casket from beginning to the end.
He noted that first came the date of his birth and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time that he spent alive on earth
and now only those who loved him know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own…the cars, the house, the cash,
What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.
Think about this long and hard; Are there things you would like to change?
For you never know how much time is left that can still be rearranged.
So when your eulogy is being read with your life’s actions to rehash…
Would you be proud of the things they say about how you spent your dash?

Through all the heartache and through all the tears, it is our obligation to Jon to think not about what was and what might have been, but instead to think about what is…because of him.