Dick Youngblood: A young hire brought Unlimited growth

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2008 - 11:44 PM

Kristi Oman went from selling cars to building a $2.5 million business turning warehouses into office spaces and creating a popular reception venue.


Kristi Oman in the Semple Mansion in Minneapolis, where she has booked receptions into 2009. She is CEO of Space Unlim- ited; her husband, Zev Oman, is a co-owner.

Photo: Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune

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The smartest thing Zev Oman ever did was hire a 19-year-old lass with nothing more than a high school diploma to sell used cars off his tiny lot at an abandoned gas station in Crystal.

Despite her inexperience, she turned into a pretty good salesperson, which led directly to their marriage and ultimately to a commercial real estate business that she has grown to $2.5 million in 2007 revenue.

"I was attracted to him, but he'd never ask me out," said Kristi Oman, now 35. "So I made a deal where he would take me to dinner whenever I reached certain sales goals."

She sold enough cars to translate those dinner dates into both a romantic relationship and a business partnership that she has been running since 1996 with growing success.

Kristi Oman is CEO of Space Unlimited, a property developer with 12 commercial office properties totaling 388,000 square feet and 15 duplexes and single-family homes with 122,000 square feet.

The crown jewel of the collection is the 20,000-square-foot Semple Mansion, a stately, three-story monolith on W. Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis that once housed the Franklin National Bank. With a 2007 gross of $511,000, it is the company's top revenue producer.

Under Kristi's direction, the mansion not only has become an office site and corporate headquarters for Space Unlimited, but also has been turned into what she acknowledges is "the most expensive reception and event venue in town" with a charge of $5,200 per event.

Despite the cost, she has events -- mainly wedding receptions -- booked solid for every weekend of the spring-to-fall wedding season in 2008 and already has six Saturdays booked for 2009. Minnesota Bride Magazine last year named the mansion as its "Best Reception Site."

There's no question of who runs the business, as a Minneapolis real estate agent learned to his regret a few years back.

The couple was purchasing a warehouse in downtown Minneapolis, and Kristi told the Realtor she needed to delay the closing a week to complete the financing. He told her that he didn't think she had the authority and said he'd have to check with her husband first.

"We're not doing business with that guy anymore," said Zev Oman, whose responsibility is supervising property renovations and scouting for promising acquisitions while leaving negotiations, financing, renovation planning and tenant recruiting to his wife.

"She's the inspiration for the business, and she runs it herself," said Zev, 55, who does not have an office at the company's headquarters.

Real estate isn't Kristi's only entrepreneurial exertion. In 1993 she opened a day-care business that started with 12 children and grew it to 150 youngsters by 2003, when she sold it to concentrate on the real estate business.

And last year, when she was unable to find a website that had a comprehensive listing of available properties, she started GoFishCommercial.com, which offers free property listings to sellers and free registration to potential buyers. She started selling advertising this month on the site, which had nearly 700,000 hits in January.

To hear Zev tell it, Space Unlimited's stock-in-trade is "taking a vacant, ugly warehouse, fixing it up as an office site and making it beautiful."

Translation: "There are no drop ceilings, no fluorescent lights and no carpeting," she said. Instead, she shoots for a contemporary look involving "polished concrete or wood floors and exposed brick, beams and ductwork."

Except, that is, for the Semple Mansion, on which Kristi spent six months and $100,000 restoring the splendor it displayed when it was completed in 1901.

"There were old carpets covering wood floors, drop ceilings hiding elaborate crown moldings and fluorescent green paint on the entire second floor that looked like it hadn't been updated since the 1960s," Zev said.

"But the bones were there," she said, a skeleton that includes a 3,000-square-foot ballroom and dining site on the third floor. The second floor is leased as office space and the first floor contains Space Unlimited offices and a "grand foyer" where cocktail hours can be held.

Here's my favorite part: Zev also transformed Franklin National's basement vault into a well-appointed wine cellar where wine tastings can be arranged as part of a wedding reception.

While her husband locates most of the company's acquisitions, Semple was Kristi's project from the start: "I drove by the "For Sale" sign for a year, thinking 'that has a lot of potential,'" she said. "But the asking price was $2.2 million -- way too much."

So she waited a year, until the price was lowered to $1.75 million -- then bargained it down to $1.4 million before buying it in 2005.

In short, there's a persuasive reason why Kristi is running the business while her husband chooses to remain in the background. He explained it this way:

"Experience tells me that anyone who thinks women do not rule the world is a fool."

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

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