Bill Neal, left, and Leo Schuster, each made a deep impression on Northern Colorado with their business success and community service. The two men died earlier this year in a plane crash. Courtesy of Wheeler Commercial Properties, Progressive Living Structures

Neal, Schuster shared zest for business, communities Bill Neal & Leo Schuster - Fort Collins and Loveland

In 1976 Bill Neal gave up his job as a staff planner with the city of Greeley’s planning department to delve into real estate. The early career change put Neal on a track to become one of the most instrumental figures in Northern Colorado’s development over the past quarter century.

Just a year later, Leo Schuster arrived in Loveland , fresh out of college, plying a trade as a handyman. In 1978 he bought three housing lots in Masonville. It was the first step to his company’s construction of 1,200 new homes throughout the region, as well as business and community interests that included restaurants and the arts.

Neal’s and Schuster’s paths eventually crossed in the 1980s. To each other, they would become friends, business allies, and inspirations. To those who worked with them, they would become mentors and leaders in their respective firms.

Neal and Schuster died in a plane crash on July 24, but their contributions and legacies are recognized with 2004 Bravo! Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement award from The Northern Colorado Business Report.

Origins of influence

Neal cut his teeth in the real estate business at Wheeler Realty in Greeley, under the guidance of John R. P. Wheeler. He later opened a Wheeler office in Fort Collins, and assisted in the development of subdivisions like Brown Farm and Fairbrooke.

Neal would eventually acquire the Wheeler business in its entirety, and became more directly involved in residential land development, said Joe Zahn, a long-time friend of both Neal and Schuster.

Even as he was establishing his own position in the industry, Zahn recalled that Neal “always took people under his wing. There are a lot of successful real estate people that came up under Bill’s tutelage.”

In the late 1980s Neal’s influence in the community was recognized by then-Gov. Roy Romer, who picked Neal to represent Northern Colorado on the state’s Transportation Commission.

Neal’s business interests expanded in the 1990s when he formed a commercial real estate operation, Wheeler Commercial Property Services, in 1995 along with partner Fred Croci.

The gregarious Neal served as the public face of the Wheeler partnership.

“His main function was to try to find deals and to handle the political aspects” of the development process, as well as lining up necessary investors, Croci said. ” I did the grunt work, so to speak.”

The role fit Neal’s personality.

“He knew everybody,” Croci said. “He was just such an easy going sort of guy. Nothing ever riled Bill. He could analyze things very quickly on his feet. He knew who to talk too. If it wasn’t an area of his expertise, he knew how to get in touch with people who could help him.”

Wheeler Commercial put together trend setting projects in Fort Collins and Windsor, such as Poudre Valley Plaza, Rigden Farm, and Windsor Commons.

Neal also saw opportunities outside of Northern Colorado, launching projects in Wyoming and Nebraska, as well as metropolitan in Denver.

At the same time, Neal linked up with other partners outside Wheeler for projects around the region, including Tuscany in Evans and Miramont in Fort Collins.

Neal became known for his willingness to embrace unconventional approaches to development.

For instance, when the city of Fort Collins implemented new land use standards that emphasized higher density housing, many developers groused about the heavy-handed city regulations. Neal openly chastised the critics and developed Rigden Farm as the first large-scale subdivision under the new code.

“Rigden Farm was one of the best things we did and one of the worst things we did,” Croci said. “It was a great project – it still is a great project. Economically it will become very viable for us.”

But Rigden Farm’s many delays and changes experienced as a “guinea pig” project absorbed many of the would-be profits, Croci acknowledged. Appropriately, Wheeler has gained permission to name William Neal Parkway within the Rigden project.

Neal’s community interests made him an unlikely figure in the development industry.

He patronized artists, led the charge for taxes to buy public open space, and backed environmental causes, such clean up along the Cache la Poudre River. He also recorded an album as a tribute to the river.

“His vision was the most important thing,” Zahn said. “He wanted to make a constructive and positive contribution to the quality of life for the people living in the homes in his subdivisions, or for those working and operating businesses in the commercial centers he built.

‘A sense of timing’

Leo Schuster showed instincts for business decisions soon after he started Progressive Living Structures, the homebuilding company he founded in 1978 with his wife Darlene.

“He would look at projects … other people wouldn’t, and create something popular,” Darlene said.

An example was his first development, a 24-unit condominium project in Loveland called Locust Park.

A group of 18 would-be homebuyers who knew each other were interested in living near to each other. They were either retirees, or approaching retirement.

“In their mind it was kind of like their dream community,” Darlene said. And Leo delivered.

More recently, Schuster conceived of the idea for what be the Pyrenees development on an isolated piece of ground in northwest Loveland. His vision was for a French country-style home.

“People thought Loveland couldn’t support this type of product at the time,” Darlene said. “Leo was a very calculated risk taker. He would some potential and follow it through to success.”

Schuster’s ability to see potential worked for people as well as for housing subdivisions.

“Leo hired people who knew how to do their jobs,” Darlene said. “He was not somebody who micromanaged.”

The deft touch helped Progressive Living Structures stay consistently profitable during periods of ups and downs in the real estate industry in Northern Colorado. Leo seemed to know when not to commit to projects when demand was about to wane, and when to invest in advance of a growth curve.

“We survived when a lot of builders didn’t,” Darlene said. “Especially in the ’80s when the economy was flat.

Leo made great choices … He knew when not to be expanding. He would say the most money he ever made was all the money he never spent.”

At the time of this death, Schuster’s company was building about 80 new homes per year, and had started more than 1,200 in 26 years of business.

Zahn credited Schuster with an “elegant sense of timing.”

An example was during the late 1980s, when larger building companies were leaving Northern Colorado at the peak of a real estate slump.

“That’s when Leo bought most of the Wagon Wheel subdivision (in Fort Collins),” Zahn recalled. “It was certainly counter intuitive … He stepped up and took a big risk. Ultimately the 1990s were an exceptional period for Northern Colorado in terms of growth.”

Schuster applied his business acumen to other sectors. He invested in a series of restaurants in Loveland, including Springfield’s and the Cactus Grille. He hired Mike Severance in 1988 to manage the Cactus Grille, eventually allowing Severance to invest in the business before selling to Severance entirely.

Severance now operates two restaurants, the Cactus Grille and Out of Bounds, in Loveland.

“Leo is the sole reason this business, actually these two restaurants, are viable,” Severance said.

“I never met another individual like him. He had the ability to bring people to their full potential. He gave them the room to stretch their wings, so to speak. I had been a restaurant manager for corporations for a long time … I think Leo saw something in me.”

Schuster also saw something in his community.

He headed up the High Plains Arts Council during the years when Loveland was cementing its national reputation as a center for sculpture art. He also served on Loveland’s Economic Development Council board of directors.

His donations of supplies, money and time helped varied groups such as Habitat for Humanity, the Boy Scouts of America, Colorado State University and the MS Society.

Different but equal

Zahn, who was a friend and associate of both Neal and Schuster, said the two men had distinctive personalities.

Neal was outgoing and rarely shied from public view. Schuster, despite his community contributions, managed to stay out of the news.

But the two shared a commitment to honest dealings.

“One thing that embodies both of these guys is that ethics was of the utmost importance,” he said. “A lot of people give lip service to ‘win-win,’ but that would be true of both of them.”