Commercial real estate developer Kelly Doran, who built more than 3,500 Twin Cities apartment units, died early Thursday morning after a battle with cancer.
Doran, 66, gained a reputation as a prolific developer who constructed millions of square feet of retail space along with housing in the metro area. Within the past decade, he was one of the busiest multifamily developers in the Twin Cities area.
"Kelly was always someone who didn't shy away from a fight," his son Evan Doran said. "He was competitive, and he would negotiate with the best of them."
Evan Doran, who started working at his father's business in 2018, now takes on leading the Eden Prairie-based Doran Group.
Fairness and standing by his word were important values to his father, Evan Doran said, which helped the elder Doran establish respect in the industry. Evan Doran recalled how his dad often advised his children to "do what you say you're going to do."
Leaders of cities where Doran developed projects were often grateful for his community contributions.
"Kelly was a doer, pure and simple. He attacked his work with vigor, and his work has provided people with homes and built out our skyline," Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement. "What I'll remember is that beyond his well-known thick outer shell was a person who cared deeply."
Born in Duluth to single mother Donna, Kelly Doran went on to graduate from Southwest High School in Minneapolis. He earned an MBA from the University of Minnesota in 1982 and initially worked at Bank of America out of college. He eventually had three children: Evan, Kramer and Sydney. Doran and his wife, Connie, married in 2013 and blended their families.
He joined Robert Muir Co., a retail developer, in 1991. Doran's instincts led him to pursue projects in areas with strong population growth. Muir and Doran developed the Tamarack Village shopping center, an 800,000-square-foot project, in Woodbury.
"Kelly was an icon in our industry. It is heartbreaking to lose him at such a young age," said Matt Van Slooten, CEO of Minneapolis-based United Properties, in a statement. "His success as a real estate entrepreneur was truly remarkable, and his passing leaves a somber note in our industry."
Doran took a break from real estate to mount a campaign for U.S. Senate in 2005 but then switched gears and launched a self-financed run for governor as a centrist Democrat. A political novice, he dropped out of the race in March 2006.
In 2007, he founded Doran Cos., which handled development, construction and property management.
"Doran started his own company with a calculator, some tools and a truck. Doran is a hands-on boss, often in jeans, who still grabs a broom to tidy a job site," wrote Star Tribune columnist Neal St. Anthony in 2017. At that point Doran had developed $1 billion worth of projects since the Great Recession.
Doran kickstarted a boom of student housing development around the University of Minnesota campus that began when he started construction on Sydney Hall, named for his youngest child, in 2009. His firm built several other projects including 412 Lofts, the Knoll and the Bridges.
"He transformed Dinkytown," said John Wodele, who was Doran's campaign manager and later worked for the developer's company.
Doran then transitioned to developing market-rate apartments starting with the upscale Mill & Main on the Minneapolis riverfront.
Through the past decade, he built a metro-wide footprint of apartment projects. Doran's multifamily projects include the Moline in Hopkins, 610 West in Brooklyn Park, the Reserve at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove and the Triple Crown Residences at Canterbury in Shakopee.
"Kelly accomplished so much in a relatively short period of time," said Mike Ryan, northern division president for Minneapolis-based Ryan Companies, in a statement. "... He will be missed by the Minnesota real estate community."
Doran sold off a majority stake in Doran Cos. in 2019. In collaboration with his son, he started a new venture, the Doran Group, in 2021 with more than 160 employees. In late 2022, Doran Group acquired a building in Eden Prairie to relocate the company headquarters from Bloomington.
"Kelly was a remarkable leader in our industry: fearless, passionate and visionary," said Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, in a statement. "... He leaves an incredible legacy."
Doran initially discovered he had lung cancer in 2016. Doctors then removed the top lobe of his right lung, and he was cancer-free for a time.
When Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) of Minnesota denied a follow-up cancer scan for Doran, he discovered some of his employees were having the same problems with denial of coverage for routine procedures. Doran switched his employee coverage to HealthPartners after being unable to resolve the issue with BCBS despite it costing his company more money.
Evan Doran said his father was always "clear-eyed to make sure his employees were taken care of."
"If he was your friend, he was so protective," is how Wodele put it. "That carried over to his work."
Doran received a terminal cancer diagnosis in January 2023. He stopped his chemotherapy treatments, paid a goodbye visit to his company and entered hospice care in mid-December.
In a parting note he sent to his employees, Doran said, "I have been able to witness a new generation take over leadership of the organization with integrity, ingenuity and creativity. This company is going to outlive me: that has always been the plan."