Kelly Doran’s name is all over town these days on apartment construction sites across the Twin Cities. Yet when he started Bloomington–based Doran Cos. in 2007, he’d never built a single unit of housing. Now he’s become one of the most prolific multifamily developers in the metro.
“I actually got into real estate by accident,” Doran says. After leaving the University of Minnesota with an MBA in 1982, he went to work for Bank of America in California and was later transferred back to his home state. A friend turned down a headhunter for the Vantage Cos., a Texas–based real estate developer, but referred him to Doran. He interviewed and got the job as a leasing agent for office and industrial space in 1986 and started to get involved with development projects.
Sometimes the deal that doesn’t work out turns out to be the best deal.
“I first met Robert Muir in the late ’80s. I tried to buy a piece of ground he owned across Highway 10 from Northtown Mall, with the idea of developing a shopping center. I had an idea that I could do a Rainbow Foods [grocery store] there, with some other tenants,” Doran recalls. “He talked me into sharing more with him than I probably should have.”
The inexperienced Doran didn’t know that Muir was a personal friend of Sid Applebaum, co-founder and CEO of Rainbow Foods.
“Not only did he not sell me the ground, he did my development,” says Doran of the project that became Rainbow Village in Blaine.
A few years later, Muir offered Doran a job, kicking off a long, successful partnership. With Doran on board, the Robert Muir Co. developed nearly 4 million square feet of retail space. The firm did many projects in Woodbury, the largest of which was Tamarack Village at nearly 800,000 square feet.
Muir retired in 2006 and died in 2017. “He was a great mentor,” Doran says. “It’s real easy in this business to become a deal junkie; he taught me how to focus and keep your attention on the goal of getting the deal done.”
Doran clearly knows how to get the deal done.
After taking a break from the business and a short-lived political career, he founded Doran Cos. in 2007. For starters, Doran bought out Muir’s half of Muir Doran Construction, which became Doran Construction, and took over managing some of the shopping centers they had developed together. But as Doran studied development possibilities, it wasn’t immediately clear which projects he should pursue.
“We really understood that retail development was going to be a difficult road, but we still had a lot of relationships with retailers,” Doran says. “There were a number of retailers that had expressed interest in being or having stores down near the (University of Minnesota) campus. That’s what really kind of pushed us in that direction.”
He started construction of the Sydney Hall project in 2009—the depths of the recession—and kicked off what became a student housing building boom. The project opened with a ground-level CVS pharmacy. Doran ultimately developed six student housing projects, but saw that the campus market was getting crowded, which drove him to make another pivotal switch.
Mill & Main, in the St. Anthony Main Historic District of Minneapolis, was Doran’s first luxury project. “I think that’s really become the template for all of our activity since—high-quality, high-amenity, condo-quality rental properties,” Doran says. The list of projects in that mold includes The Moline in Hopkins, 610 West in Brooklyn Park, and The Reserve at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove.
The company has approximately 6,000 residential units complete or under construction with about 2,000 in various states of planning. Those numbers count both its own development and third-party construction projects.
Doran says he doesn’t see any signs the market for developing new multifamily housing in the Twin Cities is slowing. “Maybe that’s happening elsewhere in the country, but not here—I don’t see it.”
Doran Cos. has teamed up with Minneapolis–based CSM Corp. on The Expo, a project under construction that calls for 368 apartment units and a 25-story tower in southeast Minneapolis. CSM president and CEO Gary Holmes says that Doran is good at digging into the project details.
“He gets into the weeds pretty deeply; he does a nice job of that. He seems to work with a lot of the Minneapolis city people a lot,” Holmes says. “It’s been a good partnership. It’s worked out well.”
One guy that Doran met on the campaign trail recently landed a big new job: Gov. Tim Walz.
“We met when Kelly was running for governor with Sheila Kiscaden. It was when I was running for Congress the first time. We started crossing paths at bean feeds and parades,” Walz says. “We ended up developing a really strong relationship and a mutual friendship.”
“He has been really good for me, pulling me into that world [of real estate development] to at least let folks know we’re listening.”
—Gov. Tim Walz says of his friend Kelly Doran
Doran ran as a “centrist Democrat,” yet DFLer Walz says that the two are “ideologically different.” But Walz says that he’s grateful to have Doran’s thoughts on issues from a business and development perspective. “He has been really good for me, pulling me into that world to at least let folks know we’re listening.”
Doran’s sons Evan and Kramer have both joined the company in the past year.
“I remember as a kid going and visiting sites with him and I remember loving this idea of sort of creating these different places,” says Evan Doran, senior director with Doran Development. “I remember drawing floor plans of malls with my dad.”
As his company has grown, Doran has made several tactical new hires in key executive roles. In mid-May, Doran announced that he had sold a majority interest of the company to chief operating officer Anne Behrendt and chief financial officer Ryan Johnson. Behrendt, who owns 51 percent of Doran Cos., is now its president and CEO. Doran retains a stake in the company and retains his real estate holdings, which were not part of the deal.
But the decision wasn’t just about business.
“I think it became more important after I was diagnosed with lung cancer” in late 2016, Doran says. “That’s what was kind of the catalyst for the discussion.”
Doran landed in the emergency room in September 2016 with pneumonia-like symptoms. An X-ray showed an abnormality in his right lung. Doctors later removed the top lobe of his right lung. Doran did not have to undergo chemotherapy and is cancer-free.
“I don’t really have any interest in retiring,” Doran says. “The company continues to grow significantly. No one’s irreplaceable and I just felt that it was not only best for them, but best for the organization as well.”
1957 – Born in Duluth.
1982 – Graduates with MBA from the University of Minnesota.
1982 – Takes a job with Bank of America in San Diego, Calif.
1986 – Joins the local office of The Vantage Cos., a Texas-based developer.
1991 – Joins the Robert Muir Co., a prominent local retail developer and owner.
1997 – The Muir Co. completes its largest project, Tamarack Village in Woodbury, with nearly 800,000 square feet of retail space.
2005–2006 – Runs for governor of Minnesota.
2007 – Completes development of Sydney Hall, Doran’s first student housing project, near the University of Minnesota.
2013 – Completes first phase of Mill & Main, company’s first market-rate apartment project.
2015–2017 – Sells his six campus projects for $170 million to two national investors.
2016 – Doran Cos. opens second office in Denver.
2019 – Sells majority stake of Doran Cos. to two company executives, retaining all real estate holdings with plans to continue developing.