No one knows more about changing course than Don Steininger, president of Steininger Development. Though well known in the area for his commercial real estate projects, he has forged a circuitous path — one that first led him to engineering school, the railroad, a law practice and a host of other adventures along the way.
“Life is not a straight line,” says Steininger with a smile. “You’ve got to pivot.”
It’s easy to find traces of Steininger around northeast Indiana; he’s had a hand in many of the development projects that have shaped the region over the last several decades. Jefferson Medical Park, Chapel Ridge Shopping Center, Northbrook Shopping Center, several Buffalo Wild Wings and many branch banks anchor his list of accomplishments, but his involvement runs deeper than that. If there’s a major project on the horizon, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that Steininger has been involved in some way.
Although he has built a successful career around real estate development, he didn’t arrive there until midlife. As a teen, Steininger entertained dreams of a career in engineering. That changed after a couple of failed attempts in college and he spent the next few years working several different jobs, including a position as a fireman on the railroad.
Steininger’s early academic failure was mostly the result of not being ready to settle down. This not only helped hone his work ethic, but also taught him a valuable lesson: don’t be afraid to admit mistakes.
“When those things happen, you can’t bury your head,” says Steininger. “You’ve got to work and learn from your mistakes.”
Working came naturally to Steininger; what he lacked was focus. At age 10 he landed his first job, a paper route, and has never spent a day unemployed since. Steininger began to learn from his college experience, however, that he needed to work with purpose in order to move forward. He eventually returned to college and graduated, pivoting once again to enter the business world.
His life changed again when a series of business interactions led Steininger to two separate conclusions. First, he realized he wanted to work for himself. Then he decided he wanted to be a lawyer. Both took several years to accomplish, but Steininger ultimately reached these goals through focused effort and the unwavering support of his wife, Kathy.
“Not many people know I practiced law,” says Steininger. “I absolutely enjoyed it.”
What he enjoyed less, however, was working under the constraints of a partnership. He had already determined years before that he wanted to work for himself, and his work as an attorney had given him a taste for real estate deals. Ultimately, Steininger left the law firm where he had become a partner and started his own, specializing in commercial real estate. In 1977, he finally took the leap that led him down his current path. With a deal executed on the back of a napkin, Steininger bought a piece of land he would develop into an Arby’s restaurant.
As Steininger puts it, “This began my real estate development career.”
More than four decades later, Steininger’s career can be considered a success by nearly every measure. The barometer he uses is not financial; his gauge is more personal.
“I love what I do,” explains Steininger. “I love to get out of bed every morning.”
As he reflects on the lessons he has learned along the way, Steininger gives much of the credit for his success to the people close to him. His parents raised five children with little money, but they gave Steininger the gift of a loving family.
“I used to believe I never had much given to me, but trust me, I did,” says Steininger. “I never saw my parents argue. They were caring people and they taught me how to get along.”
Most importantly, he says, his mother always believed in him. He credits her for helping him build a foundation of self-confidence.
Steininger’s own marriage has been equally essential to his success. His wife, Kathy, has been a true life partner, actively navigating a lifetime of chasing dreams alongside him.
“Marry someone who allows you to be yourself,” says Steininger, “someone who’s supportive.”
Now, he wants to share. The latest chapter of his life has been centered around giving back to organizations that matter to him. Born and raised in Auburn, he has put significant effort into helping the Community Foundation of DeKalb County, including site selection, funding and contract negotiation for its new building. He has done the same for the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne and also works with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the AWS Foundation, Byron Health Center and Junior Achievement. Over the last several years, Steininger has been recognized for his service by many of these organizations. In 2021, Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana inducted him into its Business Hall of Fame.
“This type of work is what makes me proudest,” says Steininger.
When asked about his life lessons, Steininger condenses them into four steps, and executing them in the right order is essential to success. First, he says, a person has to learn to work, and after that to learn how to spend.
“Don’t focus on spending before you learn to earn!” Steininger emphasizes.
Next comes learning how to invest and finally, to share.
“Don’t guard your stuff. You should share; give back,” he says.
Life lessons turned into adages punctuate conversations with Steininger. “You can’t satisfy everyone,” “don’t pick and choose how you treat people,” “admit your mistakes,” “finish what you start,” and “don’t take yourself too seriously,” all naturally find their way into the dialogue. What he comes back to most often, however, succinctly characterizes his life as much as it serves as advice to others:
“Live your dream as long as you can, but don’t be afraid to change it.”
Owner(s): Principal: Don Steininger
Phone: (260) 438-2030
Products & Services: Commercial real estate development