Gary Kirt was a thrifty, working-class kid who learned the value of real estate as a teenager. He went on to build a lucrative 40-year career in the Minnesota mortgage trade, and now is stepping up his work on homelessness.
Kirt's entry into the housing industry began in 1969, when he bought a modest south Minneapolis house on a contract-for-deed for $6,500 at the age of 17. He'd decided to stay in Minneapolis to finish his senior year at the former Marshall University High rather than follow his family into a rural-community factory job.
Kirt was a good student, good quarterback and hard worker. He took weekend night shifts at a bait shop on Lake Street that served fishermen of the city lakes. Frugal and a renter, Kirt put down $1,000 in savings to buy the house. The bait shop owner, an accountant, helped him with the process.
Kirt refurbished and rented out his house, then bought and moved to another one on the North Side. He eventually sold them both for a profit.
At 19, Kirt talked his way into the former Conservative Mortgage as a commission-based mortgage banker. He worked nights and weekends to meet with potential developer-and-builder customers and real estate agents, in what was traditionally a bank-and S&L-dominated industry that resisted change.
Kirt joined the late Hal Greenwood's big Midwest Federal Savings in 1979, but left within six months. He was wary of the emerging legal-and-regulatory problems that precluded a full-throttle investment in mortgage banking, for which he'd signed on. Those and other issues would lead to the failure of Midwest Federalin 1989.
Kirt took $5,000 from his severance check to buy Bell Mortgage, a 100-year-old company in decline. Kirt was essentially buying a well-known name and some typewriters.
Kirt grew Bell Mortgage into the largest privately owned mortgage company in the Midwest with nearly $2 billion in annual closings. Kirt last month received a lifetime achievement award from the Minnesota Mortgage Association for innovation, success and ethics.
"I bought it in 1980 and sold it in 2011," Kirt, now 69 and fully retired, recalled of Bell. "We had about 200 people. We were acquired by State Bank & Trust out of Fargo, North Dakota. They are really decent people. It was a home run."
Kirt ran a clean shop that avoided the sub-prime mortgage debacle. He led Bell Mortgage for another two years before becoming a consultant to the company. In 2013, State Bank renamed itself Bell Bank, a recognition of the strong Bell name in the fast-growing Twin Cities market.
"As they say in the Minnesota Boundary Waters, always leave your campsite better than you found it," Kirt said. "I hope I'm leaving the mortgage industry at least a bit better than I found it back in 1970."
Kirt, a millionaire, has served as an inner-city youth coach and mentor at the Boys & Girls Club, where he also was a board member for nearly 30 years.
"I'm probably the only board member who was ever a member of what was just the Boys Clubback then,'' Kirt recalled. "When I was a kid from the street, there were people at the Boys Club who helped me make the right choices. And I had other choices."
As a young man, Kirt played pickup basketball in the basement gym of Simpson United Methodist Church at E. 28th Street and First Avenue S. He volunteered when the church opened a homeless shelter in its basement 38 years ago. He served on the board of what became the nonprofit Simpson Housing Services for more than three decades and is now an emeritus board member with his wife.
"We're not winning yet at homelessness," Kirt said. "But we're using a nonjudgmental, supportive-housing approach. The Simpson people are really smart and we're working at it."
Kirt bought a building for $600,000 to help Simpson Housing Services expand. He now a is helping lead a $30 million private-public fundraising campaign to build a new 70-bed facility and 42 units of supportive housing on the church site.
Simpson Housing Services works with 1,000-plus individuals and families annually on housing and related barriers to self-sufficiency.
"Gary and his wife, Karen, are very invested in our mission and programs and they are generous," said Simpson Housing's Executive Director Steve Horsfield, who left a business career years ago. "He's always looking to network and bring partners to us to make them part of the Simpson community."
Kirt wants to help more folks do better.
"At some point, my life became more about gratitude than acquiring more money and more stuff," he said. "The concept of helping always came natural to me. And I like the concept of paying it forward."