The story of brothers Bill and Bob Planek is one about a family business with a unique place in the Oak Park community. Oak Park Apartments manages over 1,000 local apartments and is now in its 25th year of operation. The business’ achievement is a story of local success not only for its owners but for the community in which they live and work.
Bob says that he and Bill were bitten by the real estate bug at a young age. “We were watching Bob Villa’s This Old House back when we were kids. With some friends, we built a two-story clubhouse in a neighbor’s yard. We’re pretty sure it was the only two-story clubhouse with a fireplace in the village.”
As the youngest two of six siblings, Bill and Bob say their mom was happy to have them playing over in the clubhouse all the time. While admitting that today’s local codes surely would prohibit such an ambitious tree house, Bob says their childhood inspired a love for the Oak Park community that remains with them today.
The idea for their business really began to germinate when the two brothers attended Fenwick High School and thought about ways they could work their way through college and graduate school. At first, they offered their services to local buildings as janitors and maintenance workers. Bill quickly realized that it was possible to work and attend school which paved the way for the rise of their business.
“Both Bob and I attended local schools for college and graduate school, and we realized we could easily get in 18 hours of class work a week and still work a job,” Bill recalls. “At first we were doing building maintenance and janitorial work. When I graduated from graduate school in 1986, it was just in time for a recession. From the 1960s to the early 1980s there had been a disinvestment of properties in Oak Park, so there was need for reinvestment in a lot of the buildings we encountered.
“We started off buying a two-flat. Piggybacking on that, we were able to keep acquiring properties.”
For many years, the Planeks had the residential building market in Oak Park mostly to themselves. “In the late 1990s, the market started getting crowded with flippers and a lot of local apartment buildings went condo,” says Bill. “I think now the market has come back to people who want to make a long-term investment, not some quick fictional return.”
According to Bill, Oak Park is uniquely situated which makes it a great rental market. “It’s really easy to sell people on living here when you’ve got quality housing stock, good public transportation and nice people making up a community. People love the suburban-urban feel. Our proximity to the city, medical centers, colleges and universities makes Oak Park an ideal place for many people to live.”
As their business has grown from the management of one two-flat to overseeing 27 buildings, the Planeks have significantly increased their role in the community. They’ve gone from employing three people to having 28 on staff and from one store-front to four. In 2000, the business moved their offices to 41 Chicago Avenue in support of that area of the community. An Ace Hardware and Enterprise Rent-A-Car were already in the neighborhood, and the Planeks wanted to support the redevelopment of the area. Now, they enjoy proximity to their buildings and their tenants and are a vital part of the revitalization of the area.
Looking long term, the Planek brothers believe they are positioned well for what the future offers. In the immediate future, they see a continued influence of the internet on people’s decision-making. Their website is already number one in web searches for apartments in Oak Park, bringing them much international as well as local traffic, and allowing them to target their advertising for specific audiences.
Bob notes that their website and they use of technology sets them apart from other apartment rental companies.
“It used to be that a prospective tenant had to see an ad for an apartment in the paper and make an appointment with a building manager or maintenance man to see a unit. Now, people want to take virtual tours of places, use mapping services to figure out the neighborhood and local places of interest,” he says. “They want to see an apartment before they make an appointment, everything has to be instantaneous. You have to be available and have a staff available all the time. “
The company is overhauling its bill payment system so that tenants will be able to pay rent online.
“Keeping up with technology and marketing really means nothing if you can’t keep tenants,” explains Bill. “I believe one of the tell-tale signs of our success is the number of our tenants who transfer within our buildings when they are ready to move up to a bigger unit or prepare to downsize.”