Featured In Issue: CLT.biz Insights 16.09.08
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There are thousands of different types of paint and wall coverings used in the painting trade; hundreds of floor coatings and finishes on the market. Andy Robbins, CEO of A&K Painting Company, Inc., has worked with a large number of them during the years since he rode the paint bucket on his father’s van as a teenager.
Today, he spends a lot of time standing in the brand new 10,000-square-foot Operation Training and Showroom Center—the pride of A&K Painting—which he owns with his brother Kevin, president of the company.
A&K Painting is a full-service commercial and light industrial painting company headquartered here inCharlotte. Started in 1994, the company has grown to be a highly respected painting contractor serving clients in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Virginia,Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
“If you have the right size project and we can agree on terms, then most definitely—there’s nowhere we won’t go for the right job,” says Andy spiritedly.
With revenue exceeding $5 million, the company has enjoyed strategic partnerships with the likes of CB Richard Ellis, Childress Klein, Bissell Companies, Myers and Chapman, Harker Doerre, DSS and Choate, to name a few.
Projects range in size and scope within industry segments including up-fits, new commercial construction, commercial repaint, and multi-family rehab. The company has worked in office buildings, big box stores, banks, health care and fitness centers, car dealerships, university facilities, data centers and restaurants. National accounts include Target, Starbucks, Applebee’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wilco-Hess and Burger King.
A&K Painting’s slogan—“A Relationship You Can Trust”—sums up the company’s philosophy. “We take a different approach to our projects,” says Andy. “We’re not followers. We don’t come to the job asking what to do. We come with a plan of action to review with the client and then get to work. To do that, we have to have their trust.”
Kevin is quick to point out, “That trust had to be earned. When we first came toCharlotte, nobody knew us. We had to earn our way, and that’s a big deal to us.”
Painting by the Numbers
One of the toughest and largest contracts for A&K Painting was a massive, multi-state repaint project for Wells Fargo Bank in the fall of 2010 through the fall of 2011.
“We did the first 23 branches in three weeks!” exclaims Andy, who describes the project as a great opportunity to showcase their talents. “They were so impressed with our work that they awarded us the contracts on 227 additional branches.”
The project was started in Florida, moving at a pace of 60 to70 seventy branches every six to eight weeks. While some of the project consisted of prep and paint, other parts of it involved removal of decades-old wall coverings from 100-year-old plaster walls. But the most difficult part was that, in almost all of the branches, they had to work during open hours of the bank.
“We had to leave the sites spic-and-span, everyday, while staying on schedule,” remembers Andy.
Last summer A&K worked on another project in Winston-Salem for Caterpillar, Inc. which required 23,000 gallons of dry fall material to be sprayed onto 900,000 square feet of ceiling space.
“We were working alongside people in other trades, which is difficult to do,” says Kevin. “Our products are applied wet and dry solid. Plus, the scheduling restraints were such that we had to do our work late at night between 6 p.m. and 4 p.m.—also quite a challenge.”
Last year A&K also completed a 750,000-square-foot interior and exterior paint project for Becton Dickinson in Cary.
“Last year was a very good year for us,” agree the partners. “Those projects were definitely catalysts for our boom in business,” says Kevin.
Creating a New Canvas
“We outgrew our old offices and operations space,” says Andy. “All this is new,” he motions around at his remodeled office and gestures towards theOperation Training and Showroom Center (OTS) just a short distance down the street. The company moved into the facility in November of 2011.
“Workers check in and out of the OTS and that’s where they gather supplies. We also hold monthly training sessions as well as foreman roundtable meetings there,” continues Andy. “Additionally, we wanted to create a space where clients could see how various products actually look when applied.”
“We are on the finishing end,” explains Kevin. “The operation time for us is usually fairly small, which doesn’t leave time for adjustments or changes. Preferably, we want to be brought in on the front-end, when choices of products are being made. We want to educate the client up front.”
The actual showroom is 1,600 square feet and displays over 100 types of paints, 40-plus different wall coverings, eight different types of floor coatings, faux finishes and a mural.
A&K Painting’s growth in core business and market share has spawned new hires. The company currently employs 80-plus employees. Eighteen of those are in office positions; the remainder are field personnel including foremen, project managers and estimators.
Keeping employees safe is critical. All field personnel have lift certification, 30-hour OSHA certification, and are certified for first aid and CPR. Workers are required to have all of their personal protection equipment—ear plugs, hard hat, safety glasses and boots—before going out into the field.
Foremen wear green shirts so clients know who’s in charge. Painters wear white shirts and white pants. All staff members are sent out with digital tablets, a colored set of plans, large paint samples to match against paint, and directions to the job.
“We are constantly looking for innovative ways to manage,” says Kevin, describing the company’s recently investment in a massive cloud-based job management system to handle purchase orders, bids, information about jobs and reports.
“We run our business the same way Well Fargo or other corporations run theirs,” says Andy. “We consider ourselves to be very professional and take pride in that.”
Like most businesses, A&K Painting had to make some changes to weather the economic downturn of the past few years.
“We’ve had to enlarge our operational radius to find the types of work and contractors that best fit our personality and philosophy,” says Andy. The downturn also drove segmentation changes. Whereas new construction had been plentiful previously, the downturn has led to more repaint projects.
Finding experienced workers is often a challenge. “Back in the day there used to be craftsmen and they had apprentices. They took time. They had time. Now the world has gotten itself busy,” says Andy. “We’re still painting with the same tools we used 50 years ago—so it’s very challenging to meet the lightning speed schedules and train an apprentice.”
The paint industry has also been impacted by the green movement with new products coming out with reductions in volatile organic compounds which produce off-gases and recycled products being added to the market.
“We feel like we’re one of the first [paint companies] to embrace the green movement,” says Kevin. “We make every effort to stay abreast of these issues so we can keep our clients informed.” That commitment is reflected by the staff, some of whom carry Green Advantage and LEED certifications.
Prepping for Painting
Andy and Kevin grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., the sons of a residential painting contractor. Seven years older than Kevin, Andy worked with his father from time to time and learned to paint. After earning a business degree from the Universityof South Carolina, Andy first pursued fitness and coaching, considering painting more seriously.
”My father was adamantly against being partners, but he made a call to a contractor friend who had two spec homes side by side. That’s where I got started. He let me borrow his van,” says Andy, officially starting his own company in 1994 at the age of 26.
His first big job came in the second year of business. Driving down the road from his old high school, he noticed a large construction project. He decided to turn around and talk with the contractor and walked away with a contract for the 475,000-square-foot West Marine Distribution Center.
Then he landed another large project in Spartanburg. “I had no experience with building plans, books or balance sheets,” says Andy. “Dad had taught me the application side of painting, but now I needed to learn the business side. But I was smart enough to realize what I didn’t know and started reaching out.”
Andy was fortunate to find a series of mentors in the industry and in organizations like the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America to help him understand contracts, bidding and estimation. Then, in 1998, Kevin came on board.
Kevin had attended Winthrop University and worked with U.S. Tobacco. He joined A&K Painting as vice president to fill the estimation and project management role. At the time Andy was doing new home construction but wanted to venture into commercial business.
“My job was to develop the commercial division,” says Kevin. “I discovered that there is a very big difference between being a painter versus an executive who owns a painting company.”
Kevin did learn and a year and a half after he came on board, the company went 100 percent commercial. The two partners moved their growing business toCharlotte in 2000. From an efficiency point of view, it made little sense to remain in Rock Hill. Most of the work was in Charlotte.
“Long term, it was the best decision we’ve ever made,” says Kevin. “Short term, it was difficult. We jumped out of our comfort zone in Rock Hill; now we were the new kids on the block.” The brothers understood that to reach their goals and be the company they wanted to be, they needed a strong Charlottepresence.
In 2003, Kevin left the company for seven years and went to work for PPG. “I wanted to see what it was like to work for a large corporation. It turned out to be a very educational experience. I learned how to manage a large, diverse group.”
Returning to A&K Painting in 2010 as a partner, Kevin now oversees the work of the department heads, manages finances, monitors negotiations with vendors and advances the company through operations and systems development. Andy focuses on sales and business and client development.
With roots in both Rock Hill andCharlotte, Andy and Kevin give back to both communities. Both Andy and Kevin are family men. Andy has three children and lives in Lake Wylie; Kevin has two children and lives in Indian Land.
A&K Painting is forging ahead with business development but the company is reasonably cautious.
“In this economy, it’s impossible to plan much further than five years,” says Kevin.
Commenting on their success, Andy says, “We are getting a lot of exposure now; our reputation is growing, but I prefer to stay very humble. As difficult as it is to reach the pinnacle, it takes continued hard work to stay there.”
The brothers express a lot of gratitude for the success they have experienced in Charlotte.
Billboards and outdoor advertising have come a long way from the displays used in our grandparents’ days. Billboards first came into use near the turn of the 19th century, once lithography had been invented and standard sizes were established. Among the early adaptors were Barnum and Bailey, who pasted up large posters to advertise their circus appearances.
“Up until the last 20 years or so, there was very little change in outdoor advertising,” notes Kevin Madrzykowski, lead regional executive in Charlotte for Adams Outdoor Advertising, the fourth largest outdoor advertising company and the largest privately held outdoor advertising company in the U.S.
“But in the last 20 years, there have been dramatic technological and other advances that have changed the entire dynamic of our industry,” he continues. “The poster product in use now is far more environmentally friendly; a different substrate has replaced the older environmentally-unfriendly pastes and paper. Modern signs are composed of biodegradable vinyl. Lighting has been made more energy efficient. And the newer digital messages can even adjust brightness depending on the time of day.”
“The innovation of digital billboards itself has been a tremendous game changer,” Kevin asserts. “Advertisers now want social media integration, activation of their brand, and interaction with potential customers. Digital displays have allowed companies to deliver a message unlike they have to this point. It’s exciting, and opens up the advertising market to a far broader spectrum of customers.”
Seeing the Signs
Madrzykowski’s first exposure to outdoor advertising came after college, when he answered a want ad for a salesperson at one of the larger outdoor advertising companies in the country. He hadn’t necessarily envisioned himself in sales, but in the interview he discovered he had a lot in common with the general manager. He got the job and worked in sales for two years before beginning his ascent in the outdoor advertising field.
Fifteen years later, Madrzykowski is now general manager of the Charlottemarket for Adams, having worked previously for them as a sales manager in northern Virginia and as general manager in Pennsylvania.
Adams Outdoor Advertising operates primarily on the East Coast and in the Southeast, and it also has offices across the Midwest. The Charlotte region has 65 employees and is the only location in North Carolina. Its territory extends as far as Statesville to the north, Pinehurst to the east, just south of Rock Hill to the south and as far west as Boone. The office is centrally located on North Graham Street with good proximity to uptown.
When asked about the business, Madrzykowski is almost scientific in detail.
“We’re a tightly-regulated industry at the federal, state and municipal levels,” he says. “In Charlotte, we’re fortunate to have a large and effective inventory of billboards. But stringent state and municipal requirements make it very challenging to maintain existing billboards and nearly impossible to build new ones.
“To meet our customers’ evolving advertising needs, we are constantly looking for innovative ways to expand our portfolio, such as converting existing signs to digital displays or adopting whatever the latest technology might be.”
TAB Billboard Ratings
Recently the Traffic Audit Bureau for Media Measurement (TAB), an advertising trade organization, launched a new rating system called TAB Out of Home Ratings which is changing the way out of home advertising is planned, bought and sold. Similar to the Nielsen and Arbitron systems, it assigns a specific demographic rating for each billboard.
The new ratings allow out of home to become an audience-driven medium. Now, TAB Out of Home Ratings will help transition the industry from a legacy of selling based primarily on showings and locations, to accountability-based selling of the audiences that out of home campaigns actually deliver.
For the first time, out of home has scalable audience estimates that can be projected to the DMA or CBSA standard media market definitions used by other media. TAB out of home ratings can be compared and used in conjunction with the ratings of other local and national media.
“The ratings make it easier for planners to assess the power of out of home media when used in combination with other media,” explains Madrzykowski, “and, most importantly, provide a new level of accountability that will generate more confidence and use among both local and national advertisers.”
He cites an example: “If males ages 18 to 34 with a certain income and education level are being targeted, Adams can design a campaign that delivers that demographic based on the billboards selected and their ratings. From a measurement standpoint, the company can precisely measure how many times the target demographic sees the message, the cost per impression, and a variety of other performance data for advertisers.”
Outdoor advertisers have always been able to provide daily traffic counts for their billboards. Kevin explains. But while Adams could provide data on the number of people driving by certain billboard locations, it couldn’t offer any insight as to who those people are or what they might be thinking.
“The basis for our rating system is census data, which obviously can tell you a great deal about each market,” says Madrzykowski. “Legally, each citizen must complete a census form. The data collected reveal a lot about who you are, where you work, how much you earn, what your education level is, what your ethnicity is and how many kids you have. Our modeling takes this information and draws conclusions about lifestyles, especially how certain types of people move around the area. The demographics can then be applied to our inventory, specifically to tell us who views our billboards and when.”
“The really interesting thing about our rating system is that it’s based on a ‘likely-to-see’ versus an ‘opportunity-to-see’ model. For example, a television commercial’s potential value to the advertiser is based on the ratings of the shows which are on when the commercial runs. It doesn’t take into account what the viewer does when the commercial comes on. But when we give a rating for the likely number of people who will view a billboard, it is based on whole series of factors comprised in a visual index.”
Before the advent of sophisticated ratings systems, it was difficult to determine the true effectiveness of outdoor advertising. With this new rating system—arguably the most sophisticated out there—Madrzykowski says Adams is on a level playing field with radio and television.
Using digital displays has also been a major advancement. “In advertising, the push now is for greater interaction with potential consumers. Advertisers want campaigns that integrate their social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as websites. Our digital displays enable companies to deliver on the promise of consumer interaction and engagement to an unprecedented level.”
Adams’ digital displays can now feature live Twitter feeds, show real-time updates about promotions, or broadcast messages to consumers using an RSS feed that sends information directly to the unit.
“You can take a photo, upload it to a designated site using a smartphone, and the photo can be displayed on a billboard. Billboards can even display real-time scoring for football or basketball games and the latest weather conditions,” Madrzykowski beams.
These innovations have taken outdoor advertising from being arguably the most inflexible medium to the most flexible available.
“Ten years ago, a bank wanting to advertise interest rates for savings accounts would have had a hard time using outdoor advertising. The signs had to be painted and installed, and if the rate changed, it would take at least three to five days to make the necessary modification. Now, you can post new rates using a wireless interface with the digital unit in literally less than a minute,” Madrzykowski snaps with his fingers.
“Think about consumer lifestyles,” concludes Madrzykowski. “We spend a lot of time outside of our homes shopping, commuting, playing and socializing. From a marketing standpoint, it makes perfect sense to provide advertisers with a way to reach consumers in these contexts. The optimal time to reach someone with a promotional message is when they are in position to act on that message.
“Imagine it’s lunchtime and you are hungry. You leave the office but haven’t decided what or where you would like to eat. A digital display advertising a special at a nearby restaurant could help you make up your mind.”
Driving is a dominant factor in Charlotte’s culture, as Madrzykowski points out. As advertisers seek ways to reach more potential consumers, the future is bright for the outdoor advertising industry, especially with new rating methods that allow companies to more accurately deliver an audience.
“Technological advances like TiVO, DVR and Satellite Radio have affected other media in similarly significant ways. Advertisers are focused more than ever on return on investment for their advertising dollars. Fortunately however, we have a growing audience and detailed information on how we reach them.”
Nationally, Adams has 100 digital displays out of a total inventory of 1,600 billboards. Charlotte has 19 digital displays in operation. Madrzykowski says digital billboards likely will not become a dominant part of their repertoire because of regulations involved.
But they will remain very attractive to advertisers because of the flexibility for message changes they offer, he says, and the real-time information they can display will continue to attract potential consumers.
“Our goal is to deliver the best return on investment for our clients’ advertising dollars. The bottom line is that people spend a tremendous amount of time outside of their homes in their vehicles, when they are making purchase decisions,” Madrzykowski says.
“Reaching them then and there is a tremendous selling opportunity—different than when they are cooking dinner, having a conversation or watching a ball game. When a person is alone driving, connecting them with a billboard message can be very powerful, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” he continues.
Adams has long-standing clients that use outdoor advertising as the foundation of their media plans because of this dynamic. Madrzykowski cites the ability to continue to develop new out of home advertising experiences, given the restrictive and in some cases outdated regulations in effect, as the company’s biggest challenge.
Recently, the North Carolina legislature addressed the contradiction that existed between state and city regulations, which according to Madrzykowski, “resulted in a scenario where we could remove little to no vegetation on property under NCDOT’s jurisdiction. These are vegetation concerns that did not exist when the billboards were originally constructed.”
“This duality created an environment where we could not maintain our assets properly,” says Madrzykowski. “For a business that survives by providing advertisers exposure on high-trafficked roadways, visibility is a must.”
The passage of Senate Bill 183, which pertains only to NCDOT Right of Way, alleviates some of this conflict by approving selective vegetation removal.
In addition to being an industry leader in the Charlotte region, Adams maintains a strong commitment to the community. Says Madrzykowski, “Adams is privileged to annually contribute over $1.5 million in advertising space to local non-profit organizations, community interest causes, schools, and municipalities. Additionally, many employees donate their time volunteering with these organizations.”
Madrzykowski sees a bright and dynamic future for the out of door advertising segment as it keeps stride with the social/technological developments across the rest of the spectrum.
There’s the old saying, “Timing is everything,” but the folks at Bissell Hotels have proved that wrong on a couple of occasions, when the timing couldn’t have been worse.
H.C. “Smoky” Bissell and his team were putting the finishing touches on a new luxury hotel in their Ballantyne master planned community in southCharlotte. After years of planning and construction, the hotel was just weeks from opening. Then the world changed forever on September 11, 2001.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, hotels worldwide saw occupancy rates plunge as companies curtailed travel plans amid security concerns and an economic downturn. Although a very challenging time to launch a new hotel, just two weeks after 9/11 Ballantyne Resort opened for business as the first true luxury-class property in the Charlotte region.
Even before the events of 9/11, many had questioned the viability of a luxury class hotel in what was still a relatively new, emerging south Charlotte business park. But Bissell and his team had a crystal-clear vision of what Ballantyne would someday become, so despite the challenges and the risks, they were committed to moving ahead and making the project a success.
Today, The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge is the flagship of the Bissell hotel portfolio in Ballantyne. Along with three sister properties—Courtyard by Marriott, Staybridge Suites, and the Aloft—Bissell now owns and manages nearly 600 hotel rooms providing a variety of service levels and price points for Ballantyne clients and visitors.
Joining the Bissell Family
Bissell Hotels is the hospitality division of The Bissell Companies, an organization specializing in commercial real estate development, office leasing, property management, real estate investments, and hotels. Bissell also has ancillary interests in golf, spa, and media businesses. The company is most noted for two of the Southeast’s most successful mixed-use communities—SouthPark and Ballantyne.
Leading Bissell Hotels is President and COO Joe Hallow. Born in Charlotte, but raised in eastern North Carolina, Hallow returned to his birthplace in the early 1990s as a sales manager for Lanier. Subsequently, he joined medical device manufacturer Boston Scientific and spent the next decade traveling the country in a variety of sales and management roles.
“Working for a Boston-based company, it was hard to stay connected locally and to get to know the city,” recalls Hallow. “I was a Charlotte guy on the weekends, but I was gone during the week.”
So when father-in-law Smoky Bissell invited him to join The Bissell Companies in 2003, he decided the time was right to get off the road and work for a Charlotte-based organization.
Hallow’s first six months or so with Bissell were spent evaluating the business and getting to know the team. But with the rapid growth and early success of Ballantyne came a realization that more vertical focus was needed on some of their assets.
“I certainly didn’t know how to check anybody into a hotel, but we made the decision that I would move into hospitality, and with the help of a great team, we began to evaluate our assets and our position in the market,” explains Hallow. “We wanted to make this a self-sustainable, thriving business unit within The Bissell Companies.”
When Hallow assumed leadership of the hotel team, Bissell was operating four lodging properties—three in Ballantyne, plus The Park Hotel at SouthPark. But in March 2006, they sold The Park to Marriott to help create capital for office expansion in Ballantyne.
“It was very tough for the Bissell family to divest The Park Hotel,” admits Hallow. “It had been a part of the family since the mid-1980s.”
With 200 guest rooms, 14 suites, a 35-room Lodge retreat, a four-room Cottage, and 30,000 square feet of meeting space, The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge is Bissell’s flagship luxury property. A part of Starwood’s The Luxury Collection and an AAA Four-Diamond award winner, the hotel focuses on the corporate group market, corporate travelers, and the social wedding market (the hotel has already booked a record 59 weddings for 2012).
The rustic Lodge retreat, which opened in 2002, focuses on hosting private groups, corporate team building, and corporate board meetings.
The Ballantyne Hotel is also home to Gallery Restaurant and The Spa at Ballantyne, both Forbes Four-Star recognized establishments. The Golf Club at Ballantyne is one of the top daily fee golf courses in the region and has been rated 4.5 stars by Golf Digest. Golf Magazine has also consistently rated Ballantyne’s Dana Rader Golf School as one of the top 25 schools in the nation.
The hotel opened in 2001 without a major global affiliation, making it difficult to sell to corporate travel offices in places like New York and Atlanta.
“They had no idea who we were,” concedes Hallow. “But we needed these larger feeder market travelers to help make The Ballantyne Hotel a sustainable asset.”
So Hallow’s first order of business was to make sure quality and service levels were equal to what these travelers experienced at other luxury hotels. Next, they needed a connection to a broader worldwide marketing organization, and Starwood’s The Luxury Collection seemed like the perfect fit.
“Our target travelers were staying in New York or San Francisco the night before, so there could be no drop off when they arrived in Charlotte,” Hallow continues. “And with Starwood, we liked that we would be in a collection of unique hotels like The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona; San Francisco’s Palace Hotel; and Hotel Danieli in Venice, Italy.”
Originally called Ballantyne Resort, the hotel has now been rebranded as The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge.
“Clearly 2008 and 2009 were challenging years for most businesses,” explains Hallow. “There were quite a few of our larger customers that could no longer meet at resorts, so if ‘resort’ was in our name, it became a challenge in that environment. But while that triggered the change, we had actually discussed making the move as early as 2005 or 2006 when we first affiliated with Starwood. They always felt ‘hotel’ might fit better with the markets we serve.”
Bissell owns and operates all of its hotels under franchise agreements with the hotel brands, and each property is targeted at market segments that complement the Ballantyne area. The first hotel in Bissell’s Ballantyne collection was the 90-room Courtyard by Marriott, which opened in 1998. The Courtyard caters to the business traveler, the weekend traveler, and the overnight wedding market.
The Staybridge Suites opened in early 2001 and targets the extended stay traveler with its 118 studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom suites.
The newest hotel in Ballantyne is the Aloft, a 136-room LEED-certified property with a youthful, modern, and energetic ambiance that opened in November 2009.
“If the worst time to open a hotel was two weeks after 9/11, maybe the second worst time to open a hotel would be the fall of 2009,” laughs Hallow. “The Aloft struggled out of the gate and didn’t approach the pro-forma that was built for it in 2006-2007. But it quickly became financially sustainable after that first year, and this year it has really exploded. So far, 2012 looks like a really robust year for the entire portfolio and our 12-month backlog looks much more promising today than it did a year ago or a year and a half ago.”
As Ballantyne grows, so will the need for more hotel rooms. A recent rezoning will allow over one million additional square feet of office space, 600 residential units, and 200 more hotel rooms. It is important to Bissell to stay ahead of the market, ensuring that Ballantyne has adequate hotel capacity.
“We have already started evaluating what hospitality product will be next for Ballantyne,” says Hallow. “We’re a live, work, stay, play concept out here. If our tenants have guests coming to Ballantyne and they have to stay five or 10 miles down the road, that is probably not a good thing for us.”
Though Bissell’s core business is development, Hallow and his team have turned Bissell Hotels into a major player in the Charlotte hospitality business.
“Joe has demonstrated great leadership and tenacity during one of the most challenging economies in history,” says company founder Smoky Bissell. “His energy is such that sometimes many who work side by side with him do things that they never thought themselves capable of achieving. Joe has truly elevated our hotel portfolio, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for us in hospitality.”
Hallow has a unique perspective on the state of the tourism industry inCharlotte as the chairman of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA). The CRVA is responsible for marketing Charlotte as a tourism destination and managing Charlotte’s public assembly facilities—Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte Convention Center, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Bojangles’ Coliseum, and Ovens Auditorium. The CRVA CEO is Tom Murray, a 30-year veteran of the hotel and hospitality business who came on board last December.
After struggling through some lean years during the recession, Hallow says the Charlotte hospitality industry seems to be on the mend.
“We were gaining inches through 2010 and 2011, but in 2012, we’ve gone vertical,” he says with confidence. “Our occupancy rates are up considerably, but our average daily rate still lags that of the other large markets we compete with. We have grown so fast, but the larger markets had a major head start in the development of higher-end lodging properties.”
“Our primary competitors for conventions used to be more third-tier cities,” explains Hallow. “But today, we’re competing with more first- and second-tier cities like Boston, Atlanta, and Baltimore.”
Hallow attributes Charlotte’s elevation to three primary factors: rapid population growth combined with a culture that accepts newcomers and encourages them to become engaged in the community; strong leadership shown by the banks and other Charlotte business and civic leaders who made amenities like Time Warner Cable Arena, the Convention Center, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame a priority; and the connection that our airport and US Airways has given us to the rest of the nation and the world.
Major events like the Wells Fargo Championship, the CIAA Basketball Tournament, the Belk Bowl, the recent NRA Convention, and the Democratic National Convention are also important engines for the tourism and hospitality business in Charlotte.
“Those types of events don’t just help our businesses thrive; in many cases they help our businesses survive,” says Hallow. “We do not have the transient base of travel in this city that Atlanta has, so we need to embrace major events.”
The Democratic National Convention (DNC) is an example of how success in hosting major events breeds more success.
“You don’t just go from the kind of conventions we had in the early 1990s and all of a sudden get a DNC,” says Hallow. “You’ve got to show a pattern of success and deliver a quality experience. The DNC is a huge win, but now we must be successful with that event to win even more opportunities.”
He says hotels and motels throughout the Charlotte region are booked solid for the Convention, with some impact extending as far away as Columbia andGreensboro.
The Next Level
Whether it is ensuring that guests are greeted with a smile when they check into a Bissell hotel, or helping to chase the next big tourism event for the Charlotte region, Hallow is always looking to take things to the next level.
“In hospitality, having a quality product is great, but it is secondary to delivering an exceptional experience for our guests; and that comes from our people,” he explains. “If you make a great first impression in the first 15 minutes after the guest arrives, you have a great chance at getting them to come back or give you a referral. We’re very fortunate to have top quality general managers in all of our hotels to help make that happen.”
For the city of Charlotte, Hallow says the key to competing at the next level is teamwork between the hospitality industry, other business leaders, and elected officials.
“We don’t have a mountain range or breaking waves like some of our competitors do,” he concludes. “So we win when we work together. With the leadership of this team now, I think we can begin taking it to an entirely different level. It’s fun to be in this city and to get work with so many great people.”
For five days in early September, the eyes of the world will turn to Charlotte as the 2012 Democratic National Convention comes to town. It’s perhaps the most significant national event to ever come to the Queen City, with over 35,000 delegates, government officials, celebrities, media, and demonstrators expected during the week of Labor Day.
With all of this attention comes a host of challenges, not the least of which is providing for public safety and convention security. Thousands of demonstrators are expected, and as the nominating convention for a sitting president and vice president, the DNC will require an even larger security apparatus than the Republican Convention being held the week before in Tampa.
The point man for security is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe. For the last three and a half years under Chief Monroe’s leadership, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) has seen crime rates fall to their lowest levels in decades. Now with the DNC coming to town, Chief Monroe has a whole new responsibility before him—ensuring a safe and trouble-free convention.
Accountability and Community Involvement
A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Chief Monroe is a 34-year veteran of law enforcement. After becoming a police officer in 1979, he served for 21 years with the D.C. police force before moving on to become the chief of police in Macon, Ga. In February 2005 he was named chief in Richmond, Va., where he served until he was appointed chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in June 2008.
In the three and a half years Monroe has been in Charlotte, crime has dropped by over 30 percent to the lowest rate in more than 20 years. The improvement is across the board, with all categories —homicide, robbery, rape, auto theft, larceny, aggravated assault, arson, and burglary—showing significant decreases. By comparison, other large cities have seen decreases in the 4 to 8 percent range. CMPD also boasts an 88 percent closure rate on homicides, compared to a national average closure of only about 50 percent.
Chief Monroe credits the improvements to a more accountable organization, new technology, and a concerted effort to get local communities involved as the eyes of the police force.
“When I first came to Charlotte, I attended a number of neighborhood meetings where the same themes kept repeating themselves,” he recalls. “People felt they didn’t see enough police officers and they believed we had strayed from a focus on property crimes.
“While violent crimes often get the most attention, the most common crimes are the ones that affect people’s homes, business, and vehicles. I wanted to bring more focus to those crimes and get more personnel back onto the streets,” the Chief continues. “We looked at every assignment in the department, did a lot of restructuring, and were able to put 100 officers back into the community.”
Monroe points out that key to managing crime is being able to measure it. “You have to know where and when it is occurring and who is committing the crime,” he explains. “So we created a robust crime analysis capability so we could get in front of crime rather than just responding to it.”
The department now has a predictive crime analysis system utilizing up to seven years of crime data that allows police to pinpoint locations, times and even weather conditions where crime is most likely to occur. Resources are then be deployed to the right places at the right times.
Monroe also wanted a greater sense of accountability at the community level. “Police officers work shifts, so once your shift is over you tend to forget about what has gone on until you come back in,” admits the Chief. “But we wanted somebody to be responsible for every piece of real estate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
To accomplish this, Monroe created 39 response areas and designated a Response Area Commander for each. Each commander is like a mini-police chief and is responsible for his geographic area 24/7. Weekly review meetings and monthly planning sessions ensure that everyone stays results-oriented.
This community-based approach has allowed CMPD to engage the local communities and solve cases more successfully, something Monroe credits for the high closure rate on homicides. “No case happens in isolation; somebody knows something,” he says. “If you can gain the community’s confidence they will come forward with information, knowing that you’re going to act on it and get that person off the street.”
Communities also must become more involved themselves. “If you are a community that comes home, pulls into the garage, shuts the door, and then gets back in the car the next morning, you’re going to have problems,” he suggests. “But if you know who lives in your community, who belongs and who doesn’t belong, and you call the police when you see suspicious activity—that is a community where a criminal can’t come in and arbitrarily prey. Someone is going to say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”
Ensuring a Safe Convention
When Charlotte was chosen as the site for the 2012 Democratic Convention, some questioned whether a city with little experience hosting large national events could effectively manage the high level of security required. Chief Monroe says that’s not an issue for Charlotte.
“As soon as the announcement was made in February 2011, we began reaching out,” he explains. “We reached out to other agencies and to our counterparts in the cities that have hosted a convention recently. There are plenty of blueprints across the country to help us position ourselves to handle just about anything that comes about.”
One of the first orders of business was establishing an executive steering committee to oversee security led by CMPD and the Secret Service. Other participants include the FBI, the Fire Department, FEMA, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the State of N.C., and many more. There are also 21 subcommittees covering everything from air support, to civil disturbances, to logistics, and dignitary protection.
As the DNC host city, Charlotte is receiving a $50 million federal grant to defray the cost of convention security. The money is being used for equipment and technology purchases and will also fund several hundred additional police officers traveling from around the state and nation to supplement CMPD’s existing force.
“We’ll have officers from Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and many others,” says the Chief. “You’ll see a national flavor to law enforcement inCharlotte.” The state legislature provided CMPD a one-time waiver to allow out-of-state officers to be temporarily sworn as North Carolina Peace Officers. Additional resources from the Capitol Police, governors’ details, and the Secret Service will supplement the force.
The grant also funded the department’s $1.7 million command center that was completed late last year. The new center will operate 24/7 during the convention and will house representatives from all of the local, state and federal agencies involved in convention security. A wall of video screens provides access to hundreds of video surveillance cameras and the center is equipped with a sophisticated communications system, allowing resources to be monitored and dispatched directly from the command center.
“We’ll be able to communicate with all of our partners and we will have a very robust group of decision-makers so we can get decisions made or resources assigned,” explains Chief Monroe. “We will have those resources right at our fingertips.”
CMPD will purchase an undisclosed number of surveillance cameras, but existing cameras will play a major role in giving the command center its eyes. “We have hundreds of private cameras already in uptown,” explains Chief Monroe. “Technology is evolving so we’re focusing on trying to tie into those existing cameras and in some cases to even be able to control the cameras. We already have the ability to monitor CDOT, CATS and government building cameras, so now we’re just trying to tie all of that together.”
Unlike most political conventions, DNC 2012 will use three separate major venues—Time Warner Cable Arena, Bank of America Stadium, and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Security needs will inevitably cause disruptions near each venue, but through a combination of one-on-one meetings and a variety of community forums, Monroe’s team has been listening to concerns and keeping nearby businesses informed.
“Things are going to be different,” says Monroe. “Streets are going to be closed, some areas are going to have limited access, and people may have to go through security checkpoints to get to certain places.” The highest level of security will be for the venues themselves, continuing on out to perimeters for pedestrians and perimeters for vehicles. No specific details are being released until much closer to the convention.
Accommodating Peaceful Expression
Political conventions always attract a variety of demonstrators, and the Charlotte DNC 2012 will be no exception. Whether it is a small group wanting to stand on a street corner with signs or a group of thousands hoping to hold a more formal parade, Chief Monroe says the security team wants to accommodate all peaceful expression.
“Other than the secure perimeters established for each of the venues, every other part of the city is open for individuals to express their First Amendment rights,” he explains. “They can’t block the thoroughfares and they can’t block the sidewalks, but other than that, it’s an open environment.”
Larger groups will be able to schedule formal parades to present their point of view, and CMPD has already received at least 25 or 30 inquiries from such groups. They will soon be asked to register for specific dates/times.
“We’ll close the streets down for a specific route and we’ll provide them with a speaker’s platform so they can get up there and talk about whatever it is they want to talk about,” Monroe says.
The security team is preparing for groups of all sizes with new training on handling crowds and civil disturbances. “It may take one approach to handle a group of 500 people who just want to peacefully stand and hold signs,” explainsMonroe. “It may take a very different strategy for a group of people who might want to try to do something a little more aggressive. In either case, we’re going to try to give the people the opportunity to express themselves, but we’ll also expect them to abide by the law and do things in a manner that does not cause harm or disruption to the convention.”
The Bank of America shareholders meeting last month attracted several hundred protesters to uptown, giving CMPD a preview of what to expect during the convention. The meeting was designated an “extraordinary event” under a new city statute enacted for the DNC, giving police expanded authority to ban certain items and search bags as needed. Protest groups such as Occupy Charlotte also say they plan to increase their visibility in the months leading up to the convention.
More Work to Do
Despite his success over the last three and a half years and the short-term focus on the DNC 2012, Chief Monroe believes more can be done to reduce crime.
“We need to do a better job expediting trials and we need more district attorneys, more judges, and more courtrooms to hold offenders accountable,” he says. “We need more police officers on the street and we need to do a better job with drug treatment because a lot of crimes still revolve around drugs. We also need more positive opportunities for our young people to counter the negative things they get involved with—drugs, gangs and guns. We have to continue to find ways to reach them.”
As each day brings it closer, Chief Monroe feels the scrutiny on the department and the mechanisms in place to ensure that Charlotte hosts a safe and orderly Democratic National Convention.
“I’m very comfortable that we have taken the necessary steps to be prepared,” he concludes. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I’m confident we’ll be ready to handle whatever comes our way.”
When Harry Shapiro came to Charlotte from New York City two years ago, he was looking for a new home for his tattoo and biker magazine Skin & Ink—some place that would have a big-city entertainment feel like you can find in the Big Apple. The Queen City soared on his list of prospects when he walked into the NC Music Factory.
“This is it,” he said. “This is the spot!”
That instant emotional response is common among prospective tenants looking at the Charlottevenue for the first time. As a result, NC Music Factory office space is fully sold out, and its entertainment space attracts big-name tenants like The Fillmore, Wet Willie’s and Butter NC (run by the same innovators who made them sensations in New Yorkand Las Vegas).
At 210,000 square feet, with another 20,000 under construction, NC Music Factory boasts Butter NC, a high-end nightclub that attracts high-spending celebrities, Small Bar, a dive bar where folks can wear flip-flops and buy $1.50 beers, and Halo, a hip and happening nightspot with an edgy atmosphere.
For lunch and dinner, visitors choose from Osso, a lusciously designed Italian restaurant, The Saloon with down-home pub eatery, VBGB Beer Garden with 30 craft beers and brats, or locally inspired fare at Bask where the Johnson & Wales-trained chef offers a constantly changing menu. There is even Mattie’s Diner, an original New Jersey 24-hour diner relocated to the NC Music Factory.
Combined with live entertainment venues including The Fillmore, TWC Uptown Amphitheatre, and the Comedy Zone, plus Silver Hammer Studios housed across the street, the district delivers a powerful multi-purpose punch with something for everyone.
Filming of parts of The Hunger Games and hosting an episode of The Bachelorette barely make a ripple in the constant flurry of activity at the Factory, which includes the comings and goings of NW School of the Arts students (many of whom also apprentice in Richard Lazes’ onsite art gallery), nightlife and after work special events around the Fountain Plaza, and practice jams by any of the property’s several band tenants.
NC Music Factory represents yet another success for developers Noah Lazes and his father Richard Lazes. The two have been 50/50 partners in a long string of entertainment and restaurant ventures around the world. The NC Music Factory concept was founded on principles derived from their work in other highly successful entertainment districts including the French Quarter in New Orleans and Miami’s South Beach.
“What these districts have in common,” says Noah, “is they are a little off the beaten path, not in the center of the city but just slightly off-center, often right up against an inner belt. Usually they’re in older buildings with ground level access and some outdoor space—the more outdoor space the better.”
The off-center location allows for easier access and parking and attracts a wider array of traffic. Older buildings provide an ambience that is impossible to recreate in new construction. Ground level access encourages foot traffic and also keeps CAM (common area maintenance) charges low for tenants, removing the need for expensive common equipment like escalators and elevators.
The formula translates to a venue that attracts movie stars, athletes and other celebrities from around the world who think, as Harry Shapiro did when he saw the NC Music Factory, “This is it!”
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Richard Lazes was living in a modest area of West Virginia at the time of Noah’s birth, working as a carpenter, remodeling kitchens to make ends meet.
“I learned the value of hard work,” says Richard, who discovered he a natural knack for solving problems in inventive ways. “I was diligent and disciplined and learned that not every project is a success, but if you stay in there and you believe in it, you can make it a success.”
Those qualities, combined with ambition and a wide-ranging mind, eventually led him to New Orleans where he began taking gigs as a concert promoter and then broadened to other promotional endeavors. His demonstrated success brought new business opportunities. So, when a friend approached him with a design for a digital oil pipe thread gauge, he immediately recognized its potential and promoted it to oil companies, quickly building a highly successful and profitable business around it.
The thread gauge success opened more doors for Richard in the oil industry, where he continued to invent and market new products, developing over a dozen patented products including AutoBoom, an oil containment device used in 45 countries for cleanup efforts after ocean oil spills. His knack for developing profitable partnerships multiplied the benefits of his efforts.
The income from Richard’s entrepreneurial efforts allowed him to continue pursuing other opportunities that interested him. In addition to concert promotions, Richard has become an accomplished artist with a body of sculpture and other art forms shown in galleries all over the United States.
“My eclectic career is rather unusual,” admits Richard, “But in general, business is business and you follow the same principles regardless.”
Those business principles formed a significant portion of the upbringing he offered his son Noah, who recalls keenly how open his father was about risk, reward and the financial ins and outs of business. As a result, Noah was imbued from a young age with a strong sense of what it takes to be successful.
When Noah began looking at colleges, his first thought was that he would become a civil engineer. He was good at math, had a bit of his father’s knack for invention, and it seemed like a logical path. Among his choices was UNC Charlotte, where he met with the Engineering School’s Dean Smith.
Smith asked a question that would change Noah’s life—and initiate his lifelong commitment to Charlotte: “Tell me something,” Smith said, “Do you really want to be an engineer? Or is there something else that you would rather be doing?”
Noah admitted that he wanted to be an entrepreneur like his father. Smith encouraged him to think about his college plan in that light. “Charlotte’s going to be a real city,” he said. “If you want to be where the entrepreneurial spirit and energy is, Charlotte’s the place for you.”
Coming of Age
Noah worked in the food and beverage industry throughout his tenure at UNC Charlotte. In his senior year, when the Charlotte Chamber turned Tryon Streetinto a weekend-long entertainment district called “The Street of Champions,” Noah took his savings with a matching investment from father, and opened a temporary version of the well-loved Fat Tuesday Restaurant that had closed down the previous year.
The Street of Champions weekend was an “out of the ballpark” success for Noah, whose Fat Tuesday venue grossed more than all the other venues combined.
The success was so great that the Fat Tuesday franchisor asked him to re-open the permanent venue in the restaurant’s old location. The deal called for a $100,000 investment, a fraction of what it would cost to start a restaurant from scratch, and just the amount Noah and Richard had in hand after the successful Street of Champions weekend. Thanks to the minimal investment, Fat Tuesday was soon profitable for Noah and Richard.
Basking in the enormous success of Fat Tuesday, Noah and Richard rolled their earnings into a new venture at City Fair in 1993. He was about to learn the most significant lesson of entrepreneurialism: failure. He converted the food court into a concert hall at night, with a temporary stage, lighting trusses, sound system, and roll-down murals to cover the food vendor stalls.
He called it World Mardi Gras and booked an entire year of big-name music acts out of New Orleans. The venue costs were low, only $375 a night, thanks to Noah’s inventive use of the space, and with their only significant investment in the bands, Noah figured he would be multiplying their money in no time.
But World Mardi Gras taught Noah a hard lesson—how it feels to lose $10,000 in a single night and, know that you will be losing another $10,000 week after week for the rest of the year. Turns out that Noah was ahead of the times.
“Charlotte was not a sophisticated music market at that point,” he explains. “Night after night people came to the door saying, ‘The Radiators? Who’s that?’ ‘The Neville Brothers? Never heard of them.’ And no one wanted to pay $10 a head for a band they’d never heard of.”
Noah turned to his father partly for sympathy and partly for advice, and distinctly recalls Richard’s unexpected response: “I’ll give you every dollar you’ve got in the deal—every dollar—if you want to go take your shot at being an engineer and working for somebody else.”
“Or,” continued his father, “you can honor your commitments, play the rest of these out, and then figure out how to make it work. Business ain’t easy. Nobody ever said it was easy.”
So Noah played out the year, and figured out the music that the Charlottemarket was willing to pay for—taking his cue from the bands that were getting played on the local radio stations. Noah booked a new year of acts, and with his low overhead, it did not take long to turn it around and become profitable.
World Mardi Gras had another lesson in hand for Noah: The rewards of sticking with it. Richard had trained Noah to constantly seek beneficial partnership opportunities because “50 percent of $20 is a heck of a lot more than 100 percent of $5.” Partnership is a big part of every Lazes project, and, as it turned out, one of their biggest partnership opportunities arose out of the World Mardi Gras adventure.
Noah explains that executives at Simon, the S&P 100 company that is the world’s largest real estate company, developers of Mall of the Americas and also SouthPark Mall, had seen the World Mardi Gras and were fascinated by his inventive use of the space.
They asked if he could do something similar for a new project they had in mind—they wanted a live music venue and food court in a new mall inIndianapolis called Circle Center.
After that successful completion, they offered him an opportunity to own and operate five entertainment venues and 50,000 square feet in another new mall with very minimal capital investment.
Noah credits that deal, and the Lazes partners’ ability to keep Simon happy, with jump-starting their rise to prominence in the food, beverage and entertainment industry. With Simon on their roster of satisfied landlords, nearly everyone wanted their services, and were paying for the privilege. Their various operating entities are referred to as ARK Group (yes, Noah’s choice!) and operate out of Charlotte.
The father and son team and other partners in ARK Group have been involved in numerous ventures including deals with celebrities like Prince, who shut down his nightclubs in South Beach allowing the Lazes partners to scoop them up and re-open them; Michael Waltrip, who had the Lazes partners help him build the huge interactive NASCAR shop in Cornelius; and big entertainment names like Live Nation and HBO.
NC Music Factory
“Working with Noah is a challenge,” admits Richard. “He’s fastidious, detail-oriented, and sometimes we bump heads. Nevertheless, the good outweighs the bad. We also share common goals and inspiration, and what distinguishes us from a lot of other developers is that we are long-term goal-oriented.”
Long-term goal orientation was critical for Richard and Noah when, in 2000, they purchased a large tract of land just inside the I-277 loop. A dilapidated old textile mill on the vacant property had once employed a few hundred people. The hardwood floors and exposed pipes were long abandoned and access to the sprawling building was limited by crisscrossing railroads and private property lines.
Twelve years and millions in investment later, the same complex—NC Music Factory—employs over a thousand people and entertains many thousands more, while also paying taxes on its estimated value of several tens of millions of dollars.
But when ARK Group purchased it, many people had a hard time believing the transformation could be possible. Walking through the undeveloped basement area (designated for the Mega Club LABEL to open in late summer), it’s easy to see why. The damp smell of hundred-year-old must infuses the air, gritty gravel crunches on the bare concrete floor, and ugly metal posts break the space into a hundred dreary sections. Five years ago, the entire property looked this way.
The building itself wasn’t even the biggest challenge. In order to make the Factory viable, it would need to be accessible from Graham Street, right off I-277. That access required negotiation with every stakeholder in the surrounding area: the city, county and federal governments; Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads; Arthur Daniel Midland (whose historic building would require demolition); Duke Power; and five private property owners. It was six years in the works.
Once the road was complete and construction crews moved in, rehab proceeded at a swift pace. The NC Music Factory debuted with a big bash concert in June 2009.
All venues in the Factory are constantly improved and upgraded, and new space renovated to grow the footprint. A covered patio is under construction for The Saloon, and LABEL in the once-dank basement will soon be transformed into a marquee venue never experienced before in Charlotte with lights, sound and video rivaling the best operations in major A markets.
Construction crews currently are hollowing out the floor and removing pillars to clear room for the two-story, 16,000 square foot nightclub that will feature a 28-foot-wide video wall and elevated performance stage.
Not Yet Finished
Throughout their careers, Noah and Richard have seen the poshest spots in the biggest cities. Both are convinced thatCharlotte is “The spot.” Richard describesCharlotte as a “city on the cusp of greatness,” and both men have faith in—and commitment to—its growing arts and business environment.
The NC Music Factory entertainment district with restaurants, pubs and clubs; a 2,000 capacity indoor live music venue and 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater; office rentals and residential condominiums; as well as studios, parking and the 1930s Mattie’s Diner, is situated on approximately nine acres of what Noah and Richard are marketing as Uptown Village.
The property still has another 21 acres available for development inside the inner loop of Charlotte. Noah says it’s probably one of the only contiguous pieces of land its size available in any large city in the U.S.—and it is accessible by its own 4-lane entry drive and visible with over a half mile of road frontage from Charlotte’s most heavily travelled Interstate 77.
ARK Group plans an apartment complex and a hotel, both with stunning skyline views, plus 60,000 square feet of banquet room with ready access to Silver Hammer Studios. For the remaining acreage, they would like to attract a big name corporate campus, like Apple or Google, to Charlotte.
If all goes according to plan, that company will see all that the NC Music Factory has to offer and agree with Noah and Richard: “This is it. This is the spot!”
Alongside lawyers and politicians, car dealers feature as the villain in many a bad joke. But Dick Keffer has always had a knack for seeing potential where others haven’t. And to him, being a car dealer means an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.
From promoting women and minorities into leadership positions, to taking underprivileged children to the beach, his successful automotive career has been accompanied at every step by quiet acts of benevolence.
Cranking the Engine
Like many young men, Dick Keffer always loved cars. Growing up in
It was September of 1961, in the midst of a promising career in insurance, that he announced that he was leaving his to pursue a job in car sales. His father was not a happy man. Keffer Jr. chuckles at the memory and adding, “He came around later though, when I started sending him a new car every six months.”
Whatever his father’s reservations may have been, Keffer knew from his first day at Ammon R. Smith Auto Company that he wanted to spend his life in a car dealership. He excelled there and moved up quickly through the ranks.
Ambitious and determined, he set about setting specific goals for himself and then striving to achieve them. He set a date by which he wanted to be managing a dealership, and a second date by which he wanted to own one.
He met his first goal on time when Ammon Smith offered him a management position.
As manager, Keffer immediately began looking for potential where others didn’t see it. He looked for talent and intelligence in people regardless of gender or position in life. One of his most important choices for management was a woman.
“You have to understand,” Keffer explains, “times were different. That was the early l970s. Lots of people thought women couldn’t handle management.”
Keffer was the exception: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, male, or female,” he says. “All I care about is whether you can perform.”
And the person Keffer had in mind for the job had already proven she could. Her name was Bonnie Hunter. Keffer had hired her as a clerk after her father asked him, as a favor, to give her a job.
“She came in and started doing in half a day as much work as any two other clerks could complete in a full day,” he remembers. He knew she was capable of more, but at the time there was nothing more he could do about it.
He also knew it was time to start looking for his own dealership.
Navigating the Potholes
Keffer loved the Carolinas coast, and was pleased to find a buy-in opportunity at a dealership in
So Keffer packed up and moved to
In the new dealership, Keffer immediately began making changes. He called the office manager into his office and asked him for sales numbers. The manager informed him that they would be ready by the middle of the month, but Keffer wanted to see the numbers by the third of each month. The manager told him that if he wanted his numbers that fast, he would have to find a new office manager.
So Keffer did. He approached Hunter with the opportunity. She accepted and packed up and her husband and moved south to accept the new position.
Thanks to Keffer and Hunter’s management, the
As profits continued to increase, Reich, still the dealership’s majority owner, became increasingly aware of the potential of the operation. One day he called Keffer into his office.
He looked uncomfortable as he broke the news: Now that the dealership was turning a profit, he no longer wanted to sell more stock. He expressed regret and said he hoped Keffer wouldn’t hate him for the decision.
Keffer pauses in his retelling of the story, recalling the bitter disappointment. He hitches his hands into his belt loops, and gazes into the distance.
“Well,” he said to Reich, “I certainly am disappointed. But I don’t hate anyone and I guess you have your reasons. I hope you’ll understand that I’m going to have to look for another dealership opportunity.”
So in 1974, Keffer set his sites on
Hunter shared his confidence. Keffer told her that as soon as he had his dealership, she would be hearing from him. And it was just three months later that she did, packing up her family and following him to
Getting a Lift; Giving a Lift
The city lived up to its promise. In
Johnson also funded Keffer’s purchase of a dealership, allowing Keffer to pay him back gradually out of the profits of the business.
Keffer immediately welcomed Hunter into the dealership and within a few years, she had earned her way to the presidency, where she has continued leading the company ever since.
From the arteries of
All are known for quality and outstanding service, as one might expect from a company run by a man like Keffer, who has spent his entire career looking for opportunities to boost other people.
Keffer’s philosophy, and philanthropy, is unique—he seeks out promising individuals to train within his organization, and then helps them get set up in their own businesses. The process begins with identifying high-performing individuals within the company and gradually promoting them through the ranks. When he sees that they are ready, he helps them locate potential ownership opportunities.
Then, he purchases the dealership and puts them in charge, with the option to buy him out of the business gradually from profits.
Hunter says Keffer Management is unique in not being a consolidator but a finder of stores for managers who share equity as principals.
“We have had as many as 25 dealerships in the portfolio, but sheer growth is not our basic goal as much as profitable management. We do get a lot of phone calls, that’s for sure,” she says.
Over the years, Keffer has set up 10 individuals in this manner, with 10 others currently in process. In the same way, he started two of his own sons, who now own and operate dealerships in
“They are doing so well; I am really proud of them,” Keffer exclaims.
Keffer says that some dealers see this activity as a form of abetting the competition. Rather than train new owners, they might purchase multiple dealerships and hang on them. Keffer says that’s a fine way of doing business, but for him it’s more important to help others reach their potential.
Unfortunately, for all the success Keffer has seen in this community, he has seen his share of sorrows too. He doesn’t worry too much about the economy—he has seen it go up and down enough times to know how to get through it. But the collapse of General Motors was a blow.
“It crushed me,” he says, shaking his head. “I thought they had more money than God. I thought that could never happen.”
One of his dealerships, where he was training a manager to take over, was pulled by GM. Keffer knew the dealership was underperforming, but he wanted to give the manager more time and opportunity to prove himself—time that GM didn’t have to offer.
Giving Wings—and Wheels—to Dreams
Despite the sorrows and challenges, Keffer has never stopped reaching out into the community and looking for opportunities to help people. One of his best-known successes is the annual Beach Blast for underprivileged middle school children, organized through the Charlotte South Rotary Club and funded by Keffer.
Inspiration for the program came to him more than a decade ago while on a family vacation. He and his wife and children had watched a rickety school bus pull up, and a group of children descend upon the beach. It quickly became clear that these children, who lived 50 miles away, had never seen the ocean.
“Their eyes were as big as saucers,” he remembers. “I thought, ’Holy cow! There must be a hundred thousand children in
For two years, he organized and coordinated and overcame obstacles and with the help of the Charlotte South Rotary Club and several individuals, creating a program that takes more than 500 underprivileged children to the beach every summer. The total number of children served by the program now exceeds 12,000 over the last 20 years.
Keffer says he has watched every single one of those children get off the bus at the beach for the first time. “Their eyes just pop out of their heads,” he says. “The want to know everything: ‘How big is this pond? Why can’t we see
“Monday morning, they inundate their teachers with questions,” says Keffer, understated joy emphasizing his words. “‘Show us where we were on the map! Show us the cities we went through! Tell us more about jellyfish!’ Some of these kids were bumps on a log in class, and now they are asking questions.”
Although Beach Blast is one of Keffer’s favorite accomplishments, it is only one of the remarkable thing he has done. He originated Give Kids the World, a program that takes terminally ill children to
When asked what he will be doing next, Keffer pauses for a moment. “Well, I’m 78 years old,” he says. “Some people would say that if I had any sense, I would retire and stay at my home in
Keffer’s main dealership on
|Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.|
This is a year of celebrations for Louis Romero. As the native Ecuadorian enjoys his 20-year high school reunion with fellow Myers Park High School graduates, his company, Charlotte-based Network Cabling Systems, simultaneously celebrates its tenth year in business.
Romero, 39, started working at a very early age, eight or nine, and hasn’t quit. What has changed is that he is now his own boss, setting his own goals and developing the business strategies for his company atop the business he loves, structured cabling. His best strategy so far has been to build strong relationships with his clients.
In 1971, Louis Romero’s parents came to Charlotte from their native Ecuador in search of opportunity, prosperity and the American dream. They found what they were looking for. For 30 years, Louis’ parents have owned and operated a successful lawn care and service business in Charlotte. Fortunately for Romero, he inherited their strong work ethic, keen eyes for long-term opportunity and entrepreneurial spirit.
His business, Network Cabling Systems (NCS) provides voice and data network design and installation, as well as local area network/wide area network design and installation. Clients include small businesses, mid-sized companies, and Fortune 500 corporations. Although the products NCS installs are on technology’s leading edge, Romero considers his business to be a trade that is more heavily tied to the construction industry. He equates what NCS does with any other part of the architectural and construction process. “You hire a plumber to install the pipes to carry water, you hire an electrician to install the wiring to transmit electricity and in today’s world, you hire a network cabling specialist to install the infrastructure required to meet your technological needs.”
Of course, not all cabling systems are created equal, and NCS has established its niche by focusing on business sectors with critical data requirements.
The company installs cabling systems for financial institutions, banks and insurance companies, manufacturing plants, healthcare facilities and educational institutions. By concentrating on specific industries, Romero reasons that his technicians and designers can approach each project with a better understanding of the clients’ needs. Better cabling design upfront ensures a better performing network with fewer hassles and lower costs in the future. As Romero says, “Like many aspects of a new building, you get only one chance to build it correctly.”
Following graduation from Myers Park High School, Romero completed an electronics apprenticeship through Central Piedmont Comunity College. His training led him to a position with IBM as a network technician managing corporate network cabling installations. In 1991, following in his parent’s entrepreneurial footsteps Romero decided to strike out own his own and established his own company.
He originally operated the company from his home with a small staff. After two years of consistent growth, he moved the business to the current Griffith Road location near Tyvola Road and I-77 started to expand NCS’s services and its workforce. Today, NCS has 45 employees and technicians who each manage from 16 to 21 cabling projects at a time, both regionally and nationally.
Romero attributes his consistent growth to a few key factors, the most important of which is customer satisfaction. He and his employees have developed strong relationships with their clients. The company focuses on providing a high level of customer service and emphasizes building long-term relationships.
“As long as we have been in this industry, cable has always been cable. Copper and fiber optic wires are lazy until we install them and put their technology to work,” says Romero. “What makes NCS different is the close-knit relationships we maintain with area architects, construction firms, and IT managers.”
The strategy works well in an industry where technology is constantly changing and clients continually need to increase their cable productivity.
“Our number one relationship strategy is to maintain personal connections in an otherwise impersonal industry,” adds Romero. “Design and construction is a tough business.”
Because NCS has done well with assignments for large companies that have a reputation for demanding excellence from their vendors — such as Bank of America and Equitable — NCS has not only earned their call for repeat business, but has been able to consistently attract new clients as well.
“Our marketing strategy is really a relationship strategy. We employ a simple concept, centering on the people within our industry who trust us to be their cabling provider,” says Romero. “And we always consider the end-using companies who will live and work in the buildings and facilities we wire, long after the work is completed.”
When the key players in town know your company is really looking out for them as real people — in positions of critical and logistical respons-ibility — your work and service become more valuable to them than any gold.”
NCS has provided cabling services on several large projects that Gary Peacock & Associates (GPA) has designed and managed. GPA is a local technology consulting firm that specializes in the integration of technology and real estate projects, including cabling systems. According to Gary Peacock, “NCS consistently provides a quality system with zero defects and one that even looks great. NCS’ customer service during and after the project has been excellent.”
Romero also believes that the booming economy in Charlotte and the Carolinas has contributed greatly to the success of NCS. “For years I have envisioned our relationship strategy to include customer projects throughout North and South Carolina. From a business networking perspective, thinking of North and South Carolina as a unified marketplace has been a wise move. We live and work in a very tight-knit region. I have always kept my mind open to thinking regionally,” Romero says enthusiastically.
Another contributing factor to the success of NCS is overall growth in the technology industry. While many technologies and technology companies are facing a recession in growth and development, NCS is experiencing quite the opposite. As the technology in structured cabling continues to improve, the need for the company’s’ services is also on the rise. NCS has even been involved in some wireless projects. “Originally the word made me cringe, but it is amazing — every wireless device needs a wire and the need for our services is still there,” says Romero.
Finally, Romero admits the success of his 10-year old company boils down to doing great work, performed by great people. “In this industry, design knowledge and installation skill are collectively how business is won,” says Romero. “We accomplish this by hiring the most experienced technicians, researching the most reliable technology, and by hiring the most experienced technicians. Did I mention hiring the most experienced technicians?” In addition to experience, Romero’s employees have ‘stickability.’ “They love their job and the work is always challenging. In this industry it is difficult to retain good people and even tougher to retain great people, but I respect my employees very much and have been fortunate to experience low turnover, year after year.”
Focused on the Future
Looking toward the future, Romero vows to keep customer service and satisfaction the number one goal. Additionally, he would like to grow the management team and the client base.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary NCS redesigned its logo and invested in a promotional race truck. The new logo reflects the changes and improvements in technology, while the race truck represents the increased speed of data transfer via cable.
When asked about obstacles Romero has faced in owning his own business, he just smiles. “I have been extremely fortunate and NCS has been such a positive part of my life,” beams Romero. He adds reflectively, “It has been an exciting ride; the highs are higher and the lows are lower, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”