As a wide-eyed Wisconsin farm girl, Julie Hughes came to the big city in the early 1970s and worked a series of jobs before she had an epiphany.

She wanted a career, not just a job — and she found one by answering a newspaper ad seeking an “Assistant to the President,” at a tiny firm called United Properties. It may not have sounded like much title-wise, but the position served as a springboard for Hughes to build the career she coveted.

Forty years later, Hughes recently retired at age 64 with an impressive title that amply fills out her business card: senior vice president and regional director of property management for Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq, a sister United Properties company that manages 40 million square feet of real estate space.

But it wasn’t the title, or the perks and challenges that come with a successful career, that Hughes has treasured most. “I’d like to think my career was more about the development of people, the mentoring,” she said in a recent interview. “That’s what really fueled my passion.”

Throughout her career, Hughes says she’s mentored more than two dozen young people, “all of them rock stars.”

Hughes’ career trajectory paralleled the growth of United Properties, once the sleepy real estate arm of the Hamm family’s brewing empire that is now a four-company, multimillion-dollar real estate firm owned by the Pohlad Cos.

“She’s such a great player and coach, she’s the real deal,” said Eva Stevens, executive vice president and asset manager for United Properties, who considers Hughes a friend.

Making a name for herself in the male-dominated commercial real estate field wasn’t easy, but Hughes is the last to complain or dwell on gender issues. “My advice to people, male or female, was to be open to anything you’re asked to do,” she says. “Never think a task is not your job. Soak it in.”

When she began as an assistant to former President and CEO Kenneth Stensby, she was given the opportunity to learn the property management side of the business, in addition to her secretarial duties. That involved managing a small apartment complex in Bloomington, where she lived, as well.

“I leased, painted, cleaned hallways, you name it,” she says. “Growing up on a farm, I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I was grateful to have a job.” She eventually married one man she screened for an apartment, Dean Hughes.

“There really weren’t any women property managers back then,” said Stensby. “She really became a bellwether in the field.”

Within a year, Hughes began managing Tarnhill Apartments, a big 300-unit complex in Bloomington, full time. She learned much about human behavior on the job. “What people are at work, and what they’re like where they live, are two different things,” she says.

Still, there were moments of levity — such as the time police officers hid in the laundry room before a drug bust, only to be surprised by a streaker. The cops emerged, guns drawn.

Wearing only a trench coat and sneakers, the panic-stricken streaker jumped off a balcony and broke both ankles. “He must have lost a bet,” Hughes said dryly.

Hughes served in several property management positions including supervisor of apartment management and vice president and portfolio manager of 4 million square feet of space. She also worked on distressed properties and court-appointed receiverships for three decades.

“They called me the Receivership Queen,” she said.

Highs and lows

As such she’s witnessed firsthand the economy’s dips and surges, which can be particularly cruel in the commercial real estate business. She recalls one home in Maplewood that was in receivership in the 1980s where the owner had removed the dining room light fixture so he could dress a deer inside the house.

“Those were hard times, some properties were rough. You see a downturn every seven or eight years,” she said.

Hughes was the first woman in the Twin Cities area to earn the Real Property Administrator designation from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and the first female to achieve the Certified Property Manager designation from the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM). She was instrumental in establishing a Twin Cities chapter of NAIOP, a national commercial real estate organization, and was active in recruiting colleagues to work on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. At the time of her retirement, Hughes supervised 20 property managers and oversaw 12 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space.

“Julie always was very professional and always had a positive attitude,” said Linda Steinbaugh, vice president of property management at CBC Griffin Cos., who worked with Hughes in the 1980s and considers her a friend. “It’s so important to like the people you work with.’’

Hughes decided to retire when Boyd Stofer, a top executive at Pohlad Cos., died suddenly in 2011 at the age of 62. “When Boyd passed, that brought me back to center,” she says.

Now retired, she plans on spending time with her family, which includes three daughters, five grandchildren and two older sisters — who love to travel, especially to New York City. The St. Paul resident also loves to bike and dabble with a side business called Hughes Flowers and Gifts.

“What else do you have at this point in life but to experience it, and find joy?”