BETTENDORF -- Steve Geifman remembers when he was 10 and his grandfather had him walk up and down the aisles of the family's grocery stores, making sure products were neatly arranged and on the front edge of shelves.
Today, the 40-year-old president of First Equity Development does the same thing at the Hy-Vees in buildings his company owns.
"My wife sometimes has to rein me in because I find myself literally going up and down the shelves, fronting all the stuff," Mr. Geifman said at his offices in Bettendorf's Northwest Bank building. "You'll find my dad and/or I at Hy-Vee at least once or twice a day. It's still in our blood."
Geifman Food Stores once operated 12 local stores with 500 employees, but transitioned to a real estate management business after closing the stores in 1986-87. Today, First Equity owns and/or manages nearly two million square feet of commercial space, including several properties where Geifman's used to have groceries.
"I love it; I love the interaction with the tenants," said Mr. Geifman, the fourth generation of his family in the company. "I think we have a good rapport. If they have a problem, I want to handle it now, so when it comes time when their lease is up and they're thinking of moving, I want to keep them, and I want them to say we tried our best."
He's excited about the 93-year-old firm's latest project, its first associated with a hotel. First Equity is developing retail property along Middle Road (across from Duck Creek Plaza) in front of a new Hilton Garden Inn it will not own.
It's building a 1,800-square-foot Starbucks Coffee to replace the one across the street, with a large outdoor patio and drive-thru, and a 7,000-square-foot shopping center to include an Aveda salon -- both to open about May 1.
"It's the first time ever we purchased a property where we didn't have a tenant," Mr. Geifman said. "We just believed in that location. It's at the corner of I-74 and Middle Road." The area's first Hilton (a 119-room, five-story hotel), to open by October, will provide a steady customer flow for the area, he said.
Coming from Kiev with nearly nothing
George Geifman, a 21-year-old immigrant from Kiev, came to Rock Island in 1910 with 75 cents in his pocket, following his brother, Abe, who moved to the U.S. looking for a job with Deere & Co. He started peddling fruits and vegetables by horse-drawn wagon in Rock Island, and by 1921, opened his first store on Perry Street in downtown Davenport.
That's where a water fountain is now across from the Adler Theatre, next to Duck City Bistro. Steve Geifman said when Ronald Reagan lived downtown (while working for WOC radio), he used to shop at the store. In 1925, the grocery moved to 119 E. 3rd St.
Geifman's left the downtown in the 1950s, when it moved to 29th and Brady streets. Its first Illinois-side store opened in Rock Island in 1955, at the location of the current Hy-Vee on 18th Avenue.
Unlike today's super-large grocery stores, its stores ranged from 29,000 square feet (its Rockingham Road site now operated as a Hy-Vee), to 42,000 at its Bettendorf Devils Glen Road store (later expanded and torn down by Hy-Vee).
Geifman's old warehouse -- which served all its stores -- on Central Park Avenue in Davenport (now Phoenix Closures), was 74,000 square feet. The Hy-Vee in Bettendorf is 89,000 square feet and that's just one store, Mr. Geifman said.
"We love being their landlord," he said, noting that First Equity owns the property, including outlying retail stores and Governor's restaurant at Glenroads Shopping Center.
There now are three local Hy-Vees in former Geifman stores. Other company properties include:
-- Rock Island Hy-Vee, 2930 18th Ave.
-- Crossroads Shopping Center, Milan (includes CVS, Hungry Hobo, Rudy's).
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-- Ridgewood Shopping Center, 4153 7th St., East Moline (includes Save-A-Lot, Maid Rite, Subway and Dollar General).
-- Northwest Bank and retail, Locust and Washington streets, Davenport.
-- Memorial Christian Church and EZ Pawn, Avenue of Cities and 16th Street, Moline.
A 14-acre property at 53rd and Pine streets, Davenport, will have retail on the front four acres, and First Equity will sell the rest to a housing developer for 45 to 50 single-family affordable homes, Mr. Geifman said.
'The writing was on the wall'
Geifman's closed its stores when Hy-Vee moved to the area and the farm crisis took its toll.
"At the time, with the economy in the late '80s, we knew kind of the writing on the wall," Mr. Geifman said. "It was a really tough decision for my father and grandfather to make, but it was the right decision."
The store at Ridgewood in East Moline was the last to close, and soon, Walmart and Target started getting into the grocery business, he said.
The decision to close was best for employees and the family business, Mr. Geifman said. "Whereas Eagle filed for bankruptcy. They were a little bigger, and thought they could last longer, but they were forced out of it, where we transitioned."
After Geifman's sold some locations to Hy-Vee, and closed the rest of its stores, it "freed up our time and cash to build more. We didn't have to focus on the grocery business anymore," he said. "We started growing and my father expanded and expanded to where we are today, and we're doing many different deals and developments."
His father, Richard, is board chairman, and Steve's brothers, Dave and Jeff, are partners, but live and work out of the area, in finance and real estate.
Steve Geifman still feels he's in the grocery business, and shares pride in Hy-Vee's success. The Iowa-based company has 235 stores in eight Midwestern states.
Besides Steve Geifman, First Equity has just one full-time employee, administrative assistant Sally Toensfeldt, who's been with the company for 41 years.
"What I miss about not having the stores, whenever a new item came out, the salesmen would bring it in and show it to his grandfather before they tried it out. So they always had samples," Ms. Toensfeldt said. "We were the first people to find out about Double Stuff Oreos. It was fun."
Mr. Geifman, a Bettendorf native who graduated from Indiana University, worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car and in real estate in the Chicago area before moving back to the Q-C in 2001. He and his wife, Joni, have two kids, ages 10 and 4.
"I hear my son and nieces and nephews talk about how they want to come back and work for the company. I hope we can grow big enough where I need all of them," he said. "Family businesses are awesome. I'm extremely fortunate, and every day I realize that, but it can be stressful, too.
"If you work for a company and something happens to the company, you can go get another job. If the company is my family, it's all on me."