Final Closing For Chicago’s Condo King Nicholas Gouletas
Chicago’s condo-conversion king—the late Nicholas S. Gouletas—was a shrewd, self-made businessman who also was a kid at heart. He loved juke boxes, antique Rolls Royce automobiles and festive condo sell-out celebration parties in Greek Town.
Gouletas, CEO and chairman of American Invsco—the nation’s largest condo converter, sold more than 45,000 units valued at $12 billion in 140 projects in 40 markets since 1969. Gouletas attended his last great closing on January 8, when at age 82 he died of congestive heart failure.
A Greek immigrant who got his start in sales marketing Colliers encyclopedias door-to-door, Gouletas loved to tell the story about how in the early 1970s he purchased a high-rise at 2400 N. Lakeview. The glassy 264-unit Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building overlooking Lake Michigan and the lagoons of Lincoln Park, only steps from the world-famous Lincoln Park Zoo.
“When I was a child, I’d help my father sell ice cream from a pushcart on the corner of Fullerton and Lakeview avenues,” Gouletas recalled. “Who’d ever guess one day I’d be selling high-rise condos on the corner?” asked Gouletas, who claimed he found a four-leaf clover in front of the building.
In the early 1970s Chicagoans could buy a studio apartment at 2400 N. Lakeview for $16,900, one-bedroom units for $24,000, and two-bedroom layouts for $40,000.
Gouletas spent $250,000 to lovingly restored the 2-story glass-walled and marble lobby and common areas of the building to look the way Mies originally planned them—furnished with plush Oriental carpets and leather and chrome Barcelona chairs. Joseph Fujikawa, the architect’s chief assistant, was hired as a consultant for the redesign of the 262-unit 2400 N. Lakeview.
Later, Gouletas would buy and convert such Chicago landmarks as the 867-unit Lake Point Tower, the curved, glassy skyscraper overlooking Navy Pier, the serpentine River City in the South Loop, Ontario Place in River North, and 111 E. Chestnut on Michigan Avenue, where he spent $1-million to refurbish the lobby with marble and fancy brass elevator doors. He even sold a condo there to the late Mayor Jane Byrne.
In 1977 at the 862-unit Imperial Towers, 29-story twin high-rises at 4250 N. Marine Drive, Gouletas handed out price discounts of 15% below appraised levels to the tenants, while off-the-street buyers received 5% price breaks.
Gouletas ordered that $1-million be spent to upgrade common areas at Imperial Towers, including the development’s landscaping and Japanese-style gardens.
Excelling at teaching his sales staff the “art of closing the deal,” he told them never take no for an answer. Renters who were reluctant to sign sales contracts received gift fruit baskets and invitations to lavish parties. The philosophy communicated to apartment dwellers was “Buy or Good Bye.”
“Condo-price discounts always make the units more attractive and lead to a rapid sellout of the building,” noted Gouletas, who listed Donald Trump as a personal friend and attended the 2006 lavish grand opening party of Trump Tower in Chicago.
In the late 1970s, Gouletas hosted a legendary party for more than 100 sales people at the Greek Islands restaurant on Halsted Street to celebrate his team’s successes.
On that joyful evening, Gouletas invited this newspaper reporter to hop into his limo for a ride to Meigs Field. Then, we flew up and down Lake Shore Drive in the Condo King’s private airplane so he could point out the high-rises he converted—like a bachelor counts his female conquests.
Along with the price breaks, a number of other factors helped spur successful condominium conversions in the late 1970s. Mortgage money was relatively affordable, condos were accepted as a chic new lifestyle across the nation, and there was interest among tenants for owning a unit as a hedge against inflation.
“In the early 1970s a developer was lucky if 30% of the tenants bought their units,” recalled condo appraiser Gail Lissner, managing director at Integra Realty Resources. “He was a kind and generous gentleman and just a super salesman.”
During the 1970s condo boom, Gouletas was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate on the national growth of condominiums and conversions. Prior to his testimony, condo conversion was viewed by some as harmful to the apartment community because it caused displacement.
After his testimony—during which he showed how more than 70% of buyers in his conversions were the current renters—the parting comment from one Senator was: “Mr. Gouletas, we should be giving you accolades, not interrogating you.” The vast majority of renters were not displaced. They were converted to buyers.
“Homeownership today empowers individuals financially and psychologically, as it benefits the economy and surrounding community,” Gouletas said.
When the condo market slowed after 9/11, Gouletas asked his media consultant to draft a “Downtown Chicago Plan” for presentation to Mayor Richard M. Daley on how—with attractive buyer incentives—vacant Loop office buildings could be converted to condos.
Then in his early 60s, Gouletas insisted that he and this writer ride bicycles around the Loop to tour potential office-building conversions. The tour was like taking a three-hour trip to the health club. Chicago’s Loop has hills and bridges. Who knew?
The effort paid off with the purchase, conversion and sellout of the 292-unit Century Tower, an office high-rise at 182 N. Lake St. Later, Gouletas purchased the 309-unit high-rise apartment building at 200 N. Dearborn.
During a special sales event in 2009, American Invsco sold 80 condos valued at $25 million in one hour at 200 N. Dearborn. That event should be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“Nick was famous for his big-picture thinking and his courage to forge ahead knowing his team would take care of the details,” said Steven Gouletas, his oldest son. “He thrived on large and complex deals. He would rather do deals than take a vacation.”
Unfortunately, the financing crunch of the Great Recession scuttled Gouletas’ plans for other big deals, including the $950 million bid in 2013 to acquire a national portfolio of 3,900 apartments.
Less than three years later, Gouletas filed for personal bankruptcy, listing assets of just $3,200 and liabilities of $1.7 million.
I bet Nick’s family still has the juke box.