Call Stuart Lichter, president and CEO of Downey, Calif.-based Industrial Realty Group LLC a deal-junkie — as some colleagues do — and he takes no offense. “My wife keeps Googling for ‘Deal-Junkie Anonymous’ to find someone to help me,” says Lichter. “I’m like the sick man who runs toward a plague everyone else is fleeing.”
Industrial Realty Group, a specialist in the redevelopment of excess corporate real estate, feeds its deal fixation with remnants of American manufacturing’s detritus as major manufacturers shed old plants, headquarters and even research centers around the nation, especially in Ohio. The privately held company uses strategies it has honed since 1988 when it purchased the former B.F. Goodrich Corp. headquarters in downtown Akron. The 1 million sq. ft. complex was transformed into a business park called Canal Place that is now home to 120 companies, ranging from law firms to plastic pallet makers.
Over the last two years, Industrial Realty purchased the Hoover Co. headquarters and factory in North Canton, Ohio and Ford Motor Co.’s former van assembly plant in Lorain, Ohio. In those transactions and others, Lichter and his Ohio business partner Chris Semarjian, a senior vice president at the NAI Daus brokerage of Beachwood, Ohio, snapped up 8 million sq. ft. of industrial property in the state.
Ohio accounts for a third of Industrial Realty’s national portfolio of 80 projects, some 70 million sq. ft. of mostly industrial and office properties. Why the Buckeye state? “We’ve done really well there,” says Lichter. “Ohio has a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. There are a lot of companies that need space. There also have been a lot of plant closings, so we have a lot to work with.”
A decline in the manufacturing sector has led to widespread layoffs, raising Ohio’s unemployment rate to 6.3% in May compared with 5.5% nationally. The losses have cut deeply. Ford furloughed or transferred 3,000 workers in 2006 when it shuttered the Lorain plant. The U.S. subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Techtronic Industries that owns the sweeper maker sold Hoover’s North Canton complex after moving the sweeper maker’s headquarters to Cleveland and sending 800 factory jobs to Mexico.
Robert Bowman, Akron deputy mayor for economic development, says that Lichter’s style suits his gritty undertakings. “Stuart is no ‘Music Man’ or real estate pitchman,” says Bowman. “He’s very straight-forward — and very successful in our area. The good thing is that [Industrial Realty] upgrades the space to make it suitable for other users. Some buyers just purchase the properties for resale.”
Part of Industrial Realty’s formula is paying rock-bottom prices. For example, Industrial Realty paid $5 million for the 1 million sq. ft. Hoover plant on 88 acres in North Canton. The old Lorain Ford plant, a 4 million sq. ft. building on 300 acres, cost $2 million.
Low purchase prices, Lichter emphasizes, is one of several criteria Industrial Realty requires to manage environmental liabilities, the biggest risk in industrial sites. Then the company offers space to tenants at low rents. “You can always rent space at $1 a square foot,” is the way Terry Coyne, director of Grubb & Ellis Co.’s industrial unit describes Lichter’s projects.
Lichter seeks returns above 15% to compensate for the big risks these redevelopment projects entail. “There is a lot of brain damage in these deals,” Lichter said. ”It’s not as easy as putting a tenant in an office building, or a new renter in an apartment.”