Near the tail end of World War II, before the cell phone or internet, the Farm Auction Service, Inc. was established. This Lake Geneva, WI company would evolve, weather two bouts of recession, and astutely reinvent itself so that 75 years and three generations later, it is timelessly relevant today as Keefe Real Estate, Lake Geneva’s truly local, family-owned, full-service brokerage firm.
Struck with polio in his teens and orphaned as a child, Bob Keefe could have chosen to let circumstances become his crutch. Instead, he strapped on his leg brace daily and became the uncompromising foundation upon which the 75-year-old Keefe Real Estate company was built – and the reason why those kelly-green Keefe signs dot lawns and businesses today throughout Lake Geneva and beyond. Surprising to some, Keefe’s first focus was actually farms, not homes. Founded in 1943 as an agricultural auction service, Bob and his partners sold livestock, equipment, farms, and provided financing for the purchases in Walworth County’s once predominantly rural market. A small-town businessman focused on personal relationships, Bob possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of every farm and farmer in Wisconsin, according to grandson Rob Keefe.
“After Grandpa died, Ed McCullough [founder of the local retail store and pharmacy bearing his name] told me, ‘One thing I liked about Bob is you never had a contract with him. If he shook your hand, it happened,’” shares Rob. “That’s how business used to be done around here. You knew people by reputation, and a man’s word was just as good as his signature.”
“One thing I liked about Bob is you never had a contract with him. If he shook your hand, it happened.”
– Ed McCullough, Local Business Owner
As Lake Geneva became a more mainstream second home destination, Bob welcomed Jack Kuechel into the business to sell real estate out of Keefe’s storefront on Lake Geneva’s Main Street. “Dad gave Jack some office space in the early ‘60s and added to the brokerage business,” recalls Bob’s son, Mike Keefe. “But it wasn’t until the late ‘70s when the economy turned around and real estate – and the newly named Bob Keefe & Associates – evolved, perfectly positioned in this beautiful market.”
In the midst of real estate’s ascent, the company parted ways with its agricultural roots and founder Bob Keefe retired shortly afterward, in 1980. While less than one third of family-run businesses pass successfully to the second generation, according to Boston-based Family Firm Institute, Keefe Real Estate transferred seamlessly from founder to son.
“I’d been working alongside my Dad since the early ‘70s, and prior to that, had been employed at a bank in Chicago, so the reins weren’t turned over in a day,” says Mike. “My outside work experience, coupled with the business acumen and resilience I learned from my Dad, certainly played a part in smoothing the transition.”
Like father, like son, Mike sensibly sought opportunities in the marketplace, reinventing the company to stay current while expanding the Keefe “family”. He surrounded himself with strong, smart colleagues, the likes of brokerage authority Steve Beers and tax specialist Dennis Carnes, both of whom still sit on the company’s board. While Beers headed up the brokerage side of the business, Mike diversified into commercial and residential development, including lakeshore subdivisions Academy Estates and Abbey Springs, Lake Geneva’s only high-rise apartment building, Geneva Towers, and Geneva National’s housing community and business park.
Reflecting back on the many milestones during his 50 years at the helm, Mike recalls the first million-dollar home sold on Geneva Lake. “We had purchased the house at Maytag Point ourselves and were anxious to sell it,” he recounts. “A gentleman was very interested in purchasing the home – provided his mother’s baklava pans fit in the ovens.” In a rather unconventional showing, the buyer pulled up with his mother, who unloaded her baking pans from the car trunk, and stepped into the house. “We were unsettled and nervous,” adds Mike, “until she walked out and pronounced the ovens adequate.”
From that first 7-figure lakefront sale to working with local families, lottery winners, and Chicago’s social elite, Mike and his leadership never lost sight of what makes Keefe thrive – its people. Often referred to as “The Keefe Family,” the company’s agents, staff and clients know they are part of something much larger than a sale; they are a valued part of each other’s lives.
“We live in a small community where you know everyone and their kids; you grow up together,” says Mike. “We’re at each other’s baptisms, weddings and everything in between. We have that kind of a relationship with our agents and with those with whom we do business. It is wonderfully unique and has made running the business that much more meaningful.”
“We’re at each other’s baptisms, weddings and everything in between. We have that kind of a relationship with our agents and with those with whom we do business.”
– Mike Keefe, Chairman Emeritus, Keefe Real Estate
The next generation entered the business in 2000 as Mike recruited his son Rob to join Keefe after a 10 year career as a Naval Officer. Rob became President in 2004, overseeing the company’s real estate brokerage and development businesses. The 2000’s marked a period of enormous volatility in the national real estate market, yet through its close community ties and the small-town values exemplified by the company’s founder, Keefe Real Estate was able to weather the challenges. In 2010, Keefe Real Estate earned the unique distinction of brokering over 50% of all property transactions in Walworth County.
The period saw Keefe pioneering the concept of conservation subdivision design, including two of Wisconsin’s first fully realized conservation-oriented developments. During Rob’s tenure, Keefe also began to engage more fully as an industry leader with Rob leading the State’s 16,000 member Realtor trade association as President of the WRA, a position that current Chairman, Steve Beers, will hold in 2019.
Mike and Rob Keefe established the Keefe Foundation in 2006, both as a way of organizing the company’s long-standing financial commitments to our community and as a way of bringing together the enormous generosity of the Keefe’s agents and staff. This organization, now known as Keefe Kares, has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthy local charities and causes and is one of the most prominent charitable givers in our area.
In 2013 the torch was again passed to Rob’s brother, Tom Keefe. A competitive NYC real estate broker with a background in marketing and film production, Tom was uniquely poised to take the company into the future – communicating with today’s consumer personally and through creative outlets, like Lake & Country Magazine. “Having the opportunity to be a part of a family business was a dream come true,” says Tom, who moved back with his wife, Kat, four years ago and recently welcomed twin girls, Lucinda and Rose. “The incredible foundation built by my Grandfather, Father, and Brother has resulted in a first-rate operation, with rich tradition and long-standing relationships not only in the area, but in Chicago and the State of Wisconsin. Keefe is a special company, in a special place, and I feel incredibly proud to be a part of it.”
“We couldn’t have a better person leading the effort than my brother Tom,” affirms Rob. “He’s qualified and grounded, someone who loves this community and respects the history of the company and its legacy. Tom has a disciplined business demeanor, but he also has a lot of heart – and that comes out in how he deals with people, employees, and how he looks out for his customers.”
As Tom focuses in on Keefe’s vision moving forward, he aims to provide cutting-edge tools for agents and customers while retaining Keefe’s personal touch and strength as a truly local, full-service independent brokerage that reinvests back into the community. “I see us continuing to build and grow on our strengths, while keeping an entrepreneurial approach to new business opportunities as they arise, as my grandfather and father always
did,” says Tom.
Like his predecessors, Tom considers it his ultimate responsibility to foster what has made the company what it is today –the Keefe Family. “At our core, our mission is to enhance people’s futures. From our customers, who we assist with finding their homes in Southeastern Wisconsin, to our agents and staff, who earn their livelihood in real estate, and to the communities where we work, our deepest purpose and passion is to play our part in helping everyone we work with build their futures.”
For 75 years, these values have taken root and anchored the Keefe family business. “We focus on the long term and are deeply proud that everyone shares in our mission and values. Those who came before us took this approach, and we are doing our best to continue their legacy for generations to come.”
By: Barbara Karabas