Outside entrepreneurs relocate to the Northland for many different reasons. Some are actively recruited by economic developers. Others move here as the result of passive recruiting. They reside here as students, or perhaps visit as tourists, then they like what they see and decide to make this area their home, personally and professionally.
No two situations are the same, but Baiers Heeren and Brad Orn definitely fit the second description. The Stillwater natives both wanted less hectic lives than they were living in the Twin Cities metro and found them up north.
“Baiers wanted to get off the grid, so he acquired a title company and a law firm in Grand Marais,” Orn explained. Some seven years ago, Heeren, a real estate attorney, purchased Cook County Abstract, rebranding the firm North Shore Title. He also bought Swanson Law.
“That was the genesis of it all,” said Orn, who joined Heeren in 2014. The operation was small at first. “At one point, it was just Baiers, my wife and I and a couple other people in Grand Marais.”
But the company grew quickly, starting with the addition of an office in Two Harbors to accommodate closings on property transactions there, in Silver Bay and elsewhere between Duluth and Grand Marais.
Merging of the minds
Orn’s prior career was in banking, where he gained experience in lending and also conducted due diligence for potential bank acquisitions. Combining their backgrounds created a perfect set of experiences for the complicated work of transferring real estate titles.
“I’m more of the salesman and he’s got the real estate knowledge,” Orn said. But the sales typically aren’t to the ultimate consumer. Although property buyers can select the title company they prefer, most of them rely on their real estate agent or lender for advice, and Orn speaks their language. He met with many of them to set the stage for future business.
As the business matured, the pair decided to expand into Duluth. Orn said he conducted due diligence for several months before they opened a Duluth office on Jan. 1, 2015.
One of the larger challenges was finding qualified employees. Training, experience and certifications are needed to become an abstractor. Attorneys conduct the title checks.
“We have to search for good people and plant seeds to recruit them,” Orn said. But by offering incentives, such as a 401(k) plan, the company has assembled a seasoned staff, he added. Most recently, it hired several workers away from a larger national firm. The recruits “liked the fact that we were locally owned, we were cutting edge and wanted to provide good customer experience in nice offices.”
In seven years, North Shore title has grown to have a staff of 32. After establishing an office in Downtown Duluth, the company expanded into Cloquet, added a second Duluth office on Miller Hill and then opened in Superior.
“It happened quickly, and it has been great,” Orn said. In large part, that’s because the real estate market has been experiencing a boom. “We haven’t seen any slowdown. We anticipated one last winter but it didn’t materialize. There’s still a glut of buyers with a limited amount of inventory.”
Most of their business involves residential property sales, with a minor amount on the commercial side. The mix is somewhat different in Grand Marais, which has become a magnet for people seeking a short-term reprieve from the Twin Cities. It’s where Heeran resides and oversees a staff of nine. He recently was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Cook County Chamber of Commerce.
“We see a lot of second home acquisitions, cabins, condos, resorts and quarter-shares,” Orn noted. Like Duluth, Grand Marais has a shortage of traditional housing.
More growth opportunities are available, possibly on the Iron Range or along Interstate 35 near Moose Lake or in Pine County. But Orn, 44, stressed the he and Heeran, 41, don’t seek expansion near the metro area.
“We moved here to slow down, not speed up,” said Orn, who resides in Duluth. For now, hunting, fishing and youth hockey are priorities.
“The Duluth and North Shore culture is exactly what we expected it to be,” he said. “This has been fun. We’ve come to know many people. It’s just a good community to live in.”
A growing number of people feel the same way, Orn observed.
“It’s attractive to buyers. People want to live here and find jobs here. The bike trails bring people here, along with the Skywalks. It’s really getting polished,” he said.