Chicago Broker Who Started Career in Pro Football Creates Game Plan To Expand Firm

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Longtime industrial property broker Hugh Williams, who is familiar with career pivots, is now setting his sights on entering new markets to expand his commercial property firm.

Williams’ KWill Merchant Advisors bought last month the commercial real estate brokerage division of Des Plaines, Illinois-based MK Asset Management. The deal added eight MK brokers to Chicago-based KWill, said Williams, the firm’s managing member and chairman.

He created the name KWill using his middle initial, his middle name is Kitson, and the first four letters of his last name.

With the MK deal done, Williams now aims to expand his firm’s brokerage arm called KWill RE across the country. In doing so, he’s taking the latest step in an eclectic career path that’s included playing pro football in Paris, helping developer Sterling Bay expand relationships with minority firms and building companies involved with construction materials and logistics.

Raised in Iowa by Jamaican parents, Williams arrived in the Chicago area to play football at Northwestern University in the 1990s. As a linebacker, he led the team in tackles and was a team captain. He also wrestled for a season for the Big Ten program in Evanston, Illinois.

He played one football season professionally for the Paris Musketeers, an American football team in Paris that’s part of the European League of Football, before starting a real estate career in Chicago.

Williams said Harvey Shein, a real estate investor whose son was a Northwestern football teammate, inspired Williams to get into commercial real estate. Shein helped Williams meet people, get interviews and launch his real estate career, he said.

As he creates a game plan for KWill RE’s growth, Williams, a former managing broker at MK, said he plans to add brokerage offices in markets including New York, Salt Lake City and Atlanta.

In doing so, and by continuing to hire people of color for key positions, Williams, who is Black, said he hopes to change the fact that “many people don’t look like me in this business.”

He added that “I think, pound for pound, we’ve got to have the most diverse company operating at a high level in Chicago, if not the entire country. It’s not the sole purpose of the company, but I’m trying to build something that’s aspirational for a lot of people, minority and majority.”

John Coleman will lead KWILL’s advisory and healthcare teams, and Matt Knafel will head the food-and-beverage and development and site-selection practices.

Adding brokerage services broadens the mix of companies under Williams’ KWill holding company. It includes a consulting business, construction supplier Circle City Rebar and Umoja Supply Chain Solutions. Umoja specializes in deliveries to food banks, and it plans to expand its third-party logistics business, Williams said.

“We’re a minority-owned company with great reach and a lot of valuable relationships,” Williams said. “The plan isn’t to become the biggest brokerage in the world. The goal is to build an ecosystem where we can do a lot of things for a lot of people.”

Williams said he plans to continue advising Sterling Bay, one of Chicago’s best-known developers, on growing its relationships and business partnerships with minority-owned firms. That is part of a broader effort by some of the city’s top real estate and construction firms to bring more diversity to the industry.

As he embarks on the next phase of his real estate career, Williams said he’ll leverage what he learned playing football in college and Europe.

“From a mindset standpoint, playing football was good for me,” Williams said. “If you messed up, you had to own up to it. You’ve got to game plan to put yourself in a position to win. The teams that we’re building are going to have every opportunity for success.”

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