Kari Magill is leading her family’s Legacy business and has big plans for Issaquah
It took a while for Kari Magill’s professional interests to align with Rowley Properties, a real estate development business that has spanned generations of her family.
As a child, she wanted to be an astronaut. As an adult, that interest evolved to science and engineering. In 1989, she graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering, and was hired by Physio-Control, the Redmond medical-device manufacturer, where she managed a 40-person team.
Her grandfather, George Rowley, started the Issaquah family business in the 1950s, acquiring three farms (Barlowe, Bergsma, and Wallace) on the west side of the city. Her father, George “Skip” Rowley Jr., worked alongside George Sr. for years; he assumed leadership of the company in 1989, when George Sr. died. Many locals refer to Skip Rowley as “Mr. Issaquah.”
By the early 1990s, however, Magill’s father started to think about the legacy of his family business, and hoped his daughter would lead the business. She agreed, and joined Rowley Properties full-time in 1993, immersing herself in all aspects of the company. She was named vice president in 1997; chief operating officer in 2003; and, finally, chief executive officer in 2008, when her father relinquished control of the company.
“I started here as our very first human resources person,” recalled Magill, during an interview at Rowley Properties’ headquarters. “We didn’t even have job descriptions, performance reviews, employee handbooks, or anything resembling best management practices for HR. I implemented our first voice mail system and computer network, and worked with our team to select and install our first off-the-shelf property management software package.”
Today, Rowley Properties employs 21 people, and owns 80 acres of land that comprise two neighborhoods: Rowley Center and Hyla Crossing. Rowley Properties has amassed a portfolio of just under 1 million square feet spread throughout 65 buildings: two hotels (Hilton Garden Inn, built in 2007, and Homewood Suites, built in 2015); 110 commercial tenants (including John L. Scott and Bank of America); 650 storage unit customers; and another 250 customers leasing storage space for RVs and boats; 85 apartment units; and four ground leases (Evergreen Ford, Evergreen Chevrolet, McDonald’s on Gilman Avenue Northwest, and US Bank).
Q: You went from an industrial engineer to the CEO of a real estate development company. Do you miss your prior career?
A: I loved Physio-Control. It was a difficult decision to leave. Ultimately, I really wanted a family while still being able to work full-time, so I needed flexibility. The family business offered that. Plus, it was a chance to prove myself and see what I could do. I did not have prior construction experience, but I was familiar with electrical, mechanical, structural, and civil engineering — all areas that translated well into development. Plus, with industrial engineering, the focus is on systems thinking, understanding all the components and how they affect one another, and using that information to optimize performance. With the complexity of development and building projects, those are very helpful skills to have.
Q: Does the legacy of your family’s business weigh on you?
A: The weight is just making sure we continue the legacy. The odds of a company succeeding after three generations is small. It’s special. My grandfather, my father, and I are very different people, different leaders. I think each one of us has been relevant for our time. My grandfather was a risk-taker extraordinaire, an amazing salesperson, and a one-man show. My father stepped in, and his forte and love were in politics. He could figure out how to work in a more regulated environment. He was a great regional thinker and could bring people together to get things done. I am a change agent, always looking for ways to improve everything around me. That includes how our properties need to adapt to serve the community’s needs. I’m very comfortable with technology and able to think my way through complex systems — helpful skills in an era where buildings are getting smarter and more sustainable while the pace of innovation is accelerating.
Q: The company’s focus always has been on Issaquah. Why?
A: We know this community better than other developers, and that gives us an edge. Because we plan to own our buildings forever, we make different decisions about our building siting, design, materials, and finishes. We want to ensure that not only are they sustainable and going to hold up well, but that they make everything around them better. It is also paramount that they reflect the unique brand and character of Issaquah.
Q: What challenges do you run up against when developing projects in Issaquah?
A: There are so many challenges in development — it can be quite risky. For us, since we own most of our properties free and clear, it’s a matter of choosing to knock down a revenue-producing asset, borrow a whole bunch of money to build something bigger, all the while trying to make sure you hit the market timing right, so you can hang on to that asset and do well. Another challenge is that Issaquah has a very high water-table — down here on the valley floor, it’s a problem.
Q: What was the feeling at the time regarding your company’s decision to build hotels in Issaquah?
A: Before we built the Hilton Garden Inn, there was only the Motel 6 and the Holiday Inn — which was the first hotel in Issaquah, built in the 1970s. Building a hotel was quite a stretch back then.
When we (built the) Hilton Garden Inn (in 2007), we were adding 179 rooms, which was more than doubling the available hotel product in Issaquah. But we felt good about the risk because several hotels had come to us trying to obtain a ground lease. We hired some market-feasibility consultants, and their studies showed the demand was there. So, we decided to build it ourselves. Costco’s growing corporate headquarters was a good demand driver, as was Microsoft, Talking Rain, T-Mobile, and Siemens. We also have a ton of sports teams that come through here, and our hotels do a surprising amount of wedding business. I love hospitality and hope to build at least three more hotels in my lifetime.
Q: Light rail is scheduled to reach Issaquah in 2041. How much does that factor into your development plans?
A: It’s huge. Rowley Center is the neighborhood that is going to be informed by transit. The Issaquah Transit Center is there now, and it includes an 800-stall parking garage. When light rail comes to Issaquah, it’s likely going to come down Interstate 90. In a perfect world, that light rail station would bridge I-90 and connect the Costco properties to the Rowley Center properties. Both of those are designated in the city’s central plan to become the densest areas of Issaquah, where commerce, entertainment, and multifamily residential happens: a livable, walkable community with restaurants, plazas, and activated pedestrian realm that are engaging and create a different experience than what we have there now.
Q: Is it difficult to envision the Rowley Center neighborhood, with its parking lots and storage units, as a walkable, urban village environment?
A: It has taken over 60 years and three generations to go from cow pastures to what we have today. The land is always transforming and, as a result, its personality changes over time. It is never “done.” Every new building enables you to see possibilities for the neighborhood that you couldn’t really see before. Sixty years from now, it will be quite different from what it is today. The next pieces are starting to take shape as we are currently in the design stages for a 60,000-square-foot office/retail building with great freeway visibility and a 160-unit apartment/retail project.
About Kari Magill
Husband, Drew; Children, Jake (23) and Nicholas (21).
Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering, University of Washington
Chair-elect of the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce Board; Capital Campaign Committee member for Hopelink’s Campaign for Lasting Change; Swedish Hospital Issaquah Campus Community Advisory Committee member; Eastside Business Roundtable member; and former Eastside Baby Corner Board of Directors chair.
Working on her family’s mid-century modern/Frank Lloyd Wright-style home, which her grandparents built in the 1950s. Also, cheering for her husband, Drew, during his triathlons.
Books Currently Reading:
Owning Up by Ram Charan and Thank You for Being Late by Thomas L. Friedman
“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” — Steve Jobs