Mike Kaeding of Norhart
Mike and I chat about his love of technology, philosophy of business, virtual reality, quantum mechanics, and Norhart’s mission-based practices.
I met Mike Kaeding at Emberwood Apartments thirty minutes before our scheduled interview for a tour of their apartment building in Blaine. A minute after I arrived, Mike came to greet me. He was tall, wearing a button-up shirt, glasses and had sandy hair. Not unlike Bill Gates, I thought to myself. Mike greeted me with an enthusiastic smile and his relaxed demeanor made small talk easy as we began the tour.
The more I walked around Emberwood, the more impressed I became. In addition to standard amenities such as a fitness room, underground garage, and party room, there was a home theater room, game room, and guest quarters which could be rented out for people who were visiting. I thought about my own experience living in an apartment building, and how my parents would have to rent out a hotel when they visited because there was simply no room.
The apartment itself was just as impressive; the layout spacious and efficient. But more interestingly, the apartment had a lot of technological amenities I’d never seen before. A router was preinstalled in the unit capable of speeds faster than what cable companies currently have available. An app comes with the apartment that can control the lights, heat, and air-conditioning. And for a small extra fee, Alexa, Amazon’s smart assistant, can come with the apartment. Mike’s excitement for the technology was enthusiastic, and it was easy to see how much thought and care went into the building’s design.
We settled into the party room, ready to get started. From my perspective, it was easy to see how Mike’s love of technology influenced the building’s design, and I asked him to tell me a little bit about his history with technology.
“So that’s going way back,” he began, his eyes bright. “Back in high school, there was a movie special effects class with about thirty to fifty students. We tried making virtual helicopters, recreating shots from the matrix. I was passionate about that. When I got to college, I heard there were some neat groups like that doing some neat stuff. I dug into it and went to random buildings and random professor’s offices until I found them.”
Mike’s sleuthing earned him a spot volunteering in the virtual reality lab, where he started off helping with motion capture. “We were getting the same systems that Star Wars was using and I just thought, ‘Dude! This is my dream! I’m going to learn everything I can!’” Eventually, Mike’s volunteer position turned into a paid one, and he began working on a research project involving how people perceive virtual spaces when in virtual reality. “A common problem we found was people perceived spaces smaller than they were projected to be. Distance compression,” he said moving his hands together. “Our hypothesis was that it was caused by a lack of a sense of presence. People knew they weren’t in a real space, so we gave them virtual bodies in the environment, and we had some support to say that was part of the problem.” He paused. “I think I was co-authored on some papers related to that.”
Mike’s enthusiasm for technology during his college days also landed him a project scanning outdoor environments, very similar to how Google constructs their Street View on maps. “Strapped a camera that looked like a bomb to the parent’s mini-van,” he said with a laugh. “We had a special permit from the city, but it sure looked suspicious!” I laughed.
Hearing Mike’s love of technology made me wonder how he transitioned from special effects and virtual reality to becoming the head of a company. When I posed the question, Mike turned his head slightly before giving an answer. “I learned the thing I was passionate about was seeing a company grow,” he said surprising me. “I loved special effects, but I loved seeing us achieve something greater and I was wondering how to do that in the real world. I didn’t want to spend my days sitting at a desk and modeling stuff all day.”
The transition to business was difficult, Mike told me. “My dad wanted me to join the family business,” he said. “The reason I didn’t want to wasn’t that it wasn’t a great business; I didn’t want people to think it was given to me. I struggled that year after school. I interviewed at places like Yale, but,” he said with a smile, “I eventually got over my own ego and realized the opportunity in front of me was incredible and I jumped in full force with my dad. Doubled the size of the company in four years, and after he died, I took on the company. My team and I doubled it again in the last four or five years.” Mike also told me the company has a forty-year growth plan to become one of the largest apartment management companies in the world, and that they’re on track with their goal. I was impressed.
Normally, I usually don’t think about apartments and technology in the same sentence, and I asked Mike how he integrated his love of technology into the company. “It started early on,” he began. “Everything was pretty antiquated. They were handwriting books in 2009 and using Microsoft Works.” I gaped, and Mike laughed with me. “Yeah, can you believe that? It was obvious we needed something. I started digging to see what software was out there, and there was good stuff, but it was expensive and wasn’t deeply integrated.”
Deciding he could make something to suit his needs, Mike began to write a program and told me he was taking his desktop home on the weekends to code. Eventually it became impossible for him to balance writing code and his other work, so he hired some developers to create the software. When I asked if he would ever make the software available to other companies, he shook his head.
“Our company purpose is ‘Creating a better way for people to live,’” he explained. “Technology is one way we do that. But if we provide software, then we have to provide support for that software, and that takes away from our core mission.”
Discussion about the company’s core mission shifted our conversation to the philosophical side of running a business. I asked Mike to explain how their core mission informs how they do business, and he was ready with a story. “A month ago, we had an employee who became homeless,” he began. “She was from another state, was kicked out with her kids and had nowhere to go. Her supervisor was in the know and got her a hotel, but we posted on social media and had people from all over the nation reach out and support her. Baby clothes, Tupperware from Florida, a handcrafted kitchen table, two months paid rent, a security deposit and a furnished home. All within two days. That initiative wasn’t me. It was our staff who realized the issue and stepped up to make this happen.”
The company’s driving mission informs what projects to pursue and how they build apartments. Some design choices are the normal apartment amenities, like stainless steel appliances, but then there’s the not-so-obvious. Norhart will be launching an app that gives incentive for apartment dwellers to go to social events, because building relationships improves quality of life. There’s talks of making a service where you can schedule a mechanic to look at your car at the apartment complex. “We’re digging in hard to find every strategy, so we can create a better way for people live,” Mike said adjusting his glasses.
Thinking outside the box doesn’t just apply to how Norhart does its business; it also informs how they hire. Mike loves looking for people who haven’t had an opportunity to shine. “The guy designing apartment buildings was my waiter,” he grinned. “I hired someone I worked with from Menards. I also hired someone who was from India just recently. She was on fire for data, and you could just feel it ooze out of her.” I asked Mike if he could nail down exactly what trait makes him consider someone he’s met for a hire, but aside from their passion, it’s mostly intuitive. “I’m not always right,” he confessed. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, so I’m not perfect at it.”
Even so, I deeply appreciated his willingness to take a chance, rather than play it safe. In my experience, companies like Norhart look for hires that will not only be a good fit for a job but for the team as well. And sometimes this requires looking in unusual places for the perfect fit.
Mike’s insatiable appetite for science and technology spills into his hobbies. When I asked him what he did for fun, his answer was “studying quantum mechanics.” At this point in the interview, I wasn’t surprised to hear Mike tell me this. His sharp way of thinking, the ability to see solutions and overall brightness lends itself to learning about complex topics as a hobby. His enthusiasm was immediately infectious as his eyes widened and a smile crossed his face. “I listen to a lot of lectures,” he began. “Holographic principle, string theory, relativity, wormholes.” The list he fired off immediately reminded me of the opening to J.J Abram’s television series Fringe. “One of Steven Hawking’s final works was about studying black holes,” he continued without knowing my thought, “And through this study they realized that black holes actually evaporate. They realized the inside of a black hole could be fully described by the surface of that black hole.” Mike adjusted his glasses again and leaned forward slightly. “That’s true about all space. The most amount of information you can have in the room,” he gestured, “Can be stored on the boundary of the room.”
Our conversation also steered toward Einstein’s theory of relativity and how my mind was blown seeing it played out in the movie Interstellar. I asked Mike how he got into quantum mechanics. “I learned about quantum entanglement and was just totally blown away by the true nature of reality,” he explained, “And I had to know more. I’m not proficient except in higher level descriptions, but I usually listen to a lecture as I fall asleep.” I commented that his curiosity lends itself to constantly want to learn. “I can’t watch more than twenty minutes of a fictional show,” he confirmed with a laugh, “And I can’t stand being on vacation because I always need to be doing stuff.”
Before wrapping up our conversation, I asked Mike to tell me what specific goals the company is working on. His answer was quick and animated. “Our goal is to see our communities reach a point where residents have strong friendships with their neighbors, which is a hard goal,” he admitted. “We have the dream, but we’re not there yet.” I nodded and recounted my own experience living in an apartment where I didn’t know any of my neighbors. Community, I commented, is organic and therefore slippery. But I got the sense that if anyone could tackle how to foster community in an apartment setting, it was Mike’s team. They’ve already made strides in that area with their app, and it made me interested to see what they would come up with next.
“The only reason I am where I am,” Mike concluded, “Is because I’ve got so many smart people. Very little that I do came from me. It came from the giants before us, and the business leaders that have coached me.” I smiled and understood what he was saying. We all learn from the people who mentor us and use what they’ve pioneered as a springboard to reach the next greatest idea.