Fulfilling a Milwaukee Legacy

Domingo Cruz blazes a legal path with Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual for himself and for generations to come

Domingo Cruz, Assistant General Counsel, Northwestern Mutual

Domingo Cruz’s grandparents were Midwest trailblazers. Though born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and the Rio Grande and Nueces River valleys of southwest Texas, they heard there were good industrial jobs up north. So, during the WWII era they traveled 1,500 miles to Wisconsin and landed jobs in the automotive industry.

It was perfect timing: the founding of the United Auto Workers in 1935 improved pay and working conditions in plants throughout Wisconsin and Michigan. They settled in Milwaukee, which soon had a thriving Mexican-American population. Many of their family members still live in the Milwaukee/Racine area along the coast of Lake Michigan.

Cruz’s father, one of nine children and the first in his family to go to college, practices criminal and family law in Racine. “I always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” Cruz says. “Maybe it’s partly because I was the first-born, a boy, and had a strong work ethic instilled in me, but I always felt that law was my path.”

After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Cruz joined Godfrey & Kahn corporate law firm in Milwaukee, where he quickly developed an affinity for real estate transactions. “I think your ability to progress in an area of law is tied to your natural capabilities and competencies and the relationships you develop with certain senior attorneys and practice leaders.”

After two years at Godfrey & Kahn, Cruz joined Northwestern Mutual’s real estate group. He was excited by the opportunity because several Godfrey attorneys had preceded him—including Ray Manista, who led Godfrey & Kahn’s summer clerkship program when Cruz went through it and is now general counsel at Northwestern Mutual. “This is the premier in-house company for lawyers in Milwaukee, particularly in this practice area, and openings don’t come along very often,” Cruz says.

Another important mentor for Cruz at Northwestern Mutual has been Fred Bessette, vice president and real estate counsel until his recent retirement. “I have always appreciated my mentors at every step in my education and career.”

Cruz also values the level of engagement employed at Northwestern Mutual. “In some in-house departments, the attorneys are just advisors. Here, we actually do the hands-on work. I enjoy interacting with my colleagues and rolling up my sleeves. We have a $44 billion real estate portfolio. I like knowing I’m playing a part in keeping it strong—for the company, the community, and our policyholders.”

And Cruz doesn’t find working on real estate transactions at all boring. “The real estate group is tasked with seeking out the best investment opportunities possible. So we’re dealing with high-stakes projects. And they run the gamut—multifamily, office, retail, industrial—with lots of different legal issues. It’s a constant learning experience with new challenges all the time,” he says. Northwestern’s real estate group is divided into eight field offices, each overseen by an attorney, all of whom are based in the company’s headquarters in Milwaukee. Cruz is the lead attorney for the San Francisco office.

In 2012, he left Northwestern Mutual to be a staff attorney at Simon Property Group in Indiana, where he learned even more about the development side of the business, but he returned to Northwestern Mutual two years later. “They called, and my wife and I missed Milwaukee, and all the family and friends we have here.”

He also missed being part of one of the city’s great legacy corporations. “Northwestern Mutual is over 150 years old. It is one of the pillars of this community. You walk into the building and you can’t help but feel the importance of what we do. And that affects how I approach my work.”

Beyond the nine-to-five, Cruz is dedicated to improving opportunities for other Hispanics in the community via his service as former board president and now treasurer of Centro Legal, which provides affordable legal assistance to low-income residents of Milwaukee County. “I’m proud to know I’m helping some people improve their lives, just like my grandparents did when they first moved here. They set the stage for my family and me to thrive here. Now I want to do the same for others.”