A Statement from The Catalyst
A Statement from The Catalyst
Avilution recently broke ground at Huntsville International Airport for its facility to produce groundbreaking avionics software.
“We are really excited to be here, celebrating Avilution – and the groundbreaking technology that will transform the aviation industry,” said Rick Tucker, CEO of the Port of Huntsville.
“Huntsville International Airport is proud to be home to Avilution,” said Tucker. “Being that we are an airport and the software being developed by Avilution is avionics framework, we couldn’t think of a better location for the facility. We are excited to see world-class software that is shaping our industry being developed right here in Huntsville.”
Founded by Mark Spencer, Avilution got its start in 2010 and has been focused on the avionics industry since 2015.
Spencer said Avilution approaches avionics as a software problem rather than as a hardware problem, which gives them a lot of flexibility and allows them to bring products to market more quickly than a more traditional approach.
“Our customers are innovative pioneers who are building the next generation of general aviation aircraft,” said Spencer.” “We are working to provide customized solutions that fit the aircraft’s mission and unique requirements.”
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong were also on hand to celebrate the groundbreaking.
Battle spoke of the importance of having entrepreneurs – serial entrepreneurs, in particular, “that drive the local economy by starting business after business. Spencer is that kind of entrepreneur,” said Battle.
“Mark not only has a bright mind, but makes an effort to help people,” said Strong.
The avionics framework developed by Avilution is called eXtensible Flight System (XFS). This framework allows for the rapid development of robust and future-proof avionics that free the consumer from vendor lock-in and obsolescence.
Avilution’s first packaged commercial offering, the Unpanel, is an avionics package tailor-made for VFR pilots. The new facility will house up to 24 employees and the facility is slated to be completed in late October.
“Mark is going to change the industry by transforming the world of avionics,” said Tucker.
“Strong Coffee, Strong Women,” The Catalyst’s widely popular breakfast and networking event, features inspirational stories from successful businesswomen that focus on professional growth and successfully overcoming challenges along the way.
This particular event was no exception as Sonia Robinson, a breast cancer survivor and the executive director at BIO Alabama, spoke to a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd.
Robinson was very candid about sharing her breast cancer survivor journey.
“I do not miss a chance to talk about my boobs,” she said.
In 2017, Robinson was at the peak of her high-intensity career: 36 years old, divorced and raising two boys, then 4 and 8. To Robinson, going for her routine gynecological exam was just that, routine; another self-care box to check off between meetings and an otherwise busy workday.
As the nurse did the manual breast exam, she suggested that Robinson get a baseline mammogram.
Robinson initially declined, thinking to herself, “My career was on fire. I was 36 years old and never had had a baseline mammogram. I don’t have time; I’ll do it when I’m 40. Had I waited until I was 40, my story would have been very very different.”
The nurse practitioner felt a palpable lump in Robinson’s breast and asked her, “Have you ever felt this?”
For Robinson, monthly self-exams were not on her radar, so the answer was “no.”
Even after the nurse practitioner sent her for a diagnostic mammogram, Robinson saw it as another item to check off the to-do list. She assumed that the lump would be benign and she would be back to work without skipping a beat.
When the mammogram was complete, the technician told Robinson the radiologist wanted to speak with her on her way out.
“I thought my radiologist just had really good bedside manner and stopped to chat with all the patients afterwards; she’s good, but not THAT good,” said Robinson.
The radiologist told Robinson, “It looks suspicious. I’ve already spoken with your gynecologist.”
The next step was a surgical biopsy. When her surgeon called Robinson to discuss the results, he said the words she never expected to hear: “Sonia, we have a little cancer.”
As she processed the news and discussed the treatment options, Robinson slowly walked to her bedroom and lay down on the bed.
Sensing the news was bad, her mother lay down beside her as the conversation with the surgeon continued.
The cancer was likely Stage 1. A double mastectomy or a lumpectomy with radiation would be the options given.
Before making a decision, Robinson wanted a better understanding of what she was dealing with. Her surgeon gave her four weeks to research, gathering as much information she could.
“What does life look like on the other side of this?” Robinson wanted to know.
Robinson opted for a double mastectomy. During surgery, it was discovered the cancer had spread to one of the lymph nodes, which immediately put her into Stage 2, which became a game-changer.
When the oncologist told Robinson that chemotherapy was to be scheduled, “I told him, “No,” said Robinson.
She advised the audience, “We are to question; we are to ask, to research. Y’all have to fight for your health.”
Robinson still believed that everything would be ok without chemotherapy.
“I felt that maybe I should have Dr. Harriman just ‘clear the margin’ and I do nothing, no chemo,” said Robinson. “As the words left my mouth, I thought how irresponsible that was.
“I had an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. I wanted to be their mommy for a long time. When you’re given a diagnosis like this, it’s not just you, it’s we.”
After four weeks of research and consulting the medical community and breast cancer survivors, “I was told, ‘Sonia, you’re in a gray area’,” said Robinson. “You have to be happy with the decision that you make. Ultimately, I made the decision to move forward with chemo.”
Once the decision was made, Robinson threw a “Shave Party,” inviting forty of her closest friends and family members. The event included a champagne toast and a bouncy house for the kids.
After her head was shaved, she reveled in the new look.
“Try it, shave your head,” said Robinson. “It changed my life.”
Then, there were reconstruction decisions, such whether to keep one’s nipples or get tattoos. Robinson decided to keep hers. “Nipple tattoos, it’s a real thing, y’all,” said Robinson. “I want y’all to look at these,” as she sent images to friends, male and female, to get honest feedback. “Our boobs are so important to us as women,” said Robinson. “I really needed that feedback. I was 36 years old and single.
“Had I been older, I may not have made the same decision.”
Robinson’s fourth and final round of chemo came just 6 days after her 37th birthday. That came with the expectation that life would return to what it was, pre-cancer.
“Chemo is over, Sonia is well,” said Robinson. “That’s when the real work started.
“In order to be your ultimate self, guess what you have to do? Put yourself first. The most selfless decision you can make is to put yourself first. Try it. It will change you.”
Joanne Randolph has been known to champion entrepreneurs in this area.
Now, she can officially be known as the champion after receiving the Entrepreneur Champion of the Year Award at the fifth annual Entrepreneur Awards ceremony and luncheon.
Randolph, the founder and CEO of The Catalyst Center, has been at the forefront of entrepreneurship and small business ownership while leading the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama and The Catalyst Center.
“I have loved working with entrepreneurs over the last 25 or so years,” said Randolph. “Many of you are in this room. I’ve celebrated with you when good things happened and I was saddened when they didn’t.
“We learn so much more from our failures; which is why many very successful entrepreneurs have a failure or two under their belt.”
Randolph planned to retire in 2019 but The Catalyst board appealed to her to stay on, for just one more year.
“Joanne has been with The Catalyst, formerly the Women’s Business Center of North Alabama, when we were just an idea,” said Leigh Christian, project manager for TechRich at the Catalyst. “She has led our organization for 20 years and has coached, counseled, and championed hundreds – maybe thousands – of entrepreneurs through the years. The Catalyst staff and Board of Directors chose this year to honor Joanne as not only the Entrepreneur Champion of the Year for 2020, but of all time.
“In honor of this, we are renaming the award the Joanne Randolph Entrepreneur Champion Award.”
The award was the grand finale to the event at The Stone Center and wrapped up this year’s Innovate Huntsville Week.
Kevin Hoey, Chairman of the Board of the Catalyst, provided opening remarks and Kenny Anderson, the Multicultural Affairs Officer for the City of Huntsville, served as the emcee.
Here are the 2020 winners of the Entrepreneurial Awards:
YOUTH ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Caleb Wortham, owner of Caleb’s Cookie Cutters.
This award is given to a school-aged entrepreneur who started their entrepreneurial journey at a young age and is working toward their dream.
When Caleb was in the first grade, he became fascinated with design and technology after listening to a TED Talk on 3-D printing. He was so inspired, he asked his parents for a 3-D printer for Christmas, along with saving up his own money to help them purchase the printer. Enrolling in Mindgear Lab and Endeavor Learning Lab, Caleb learned everything he could about 3-D printing technology.
Caleb’s older brother Joshua started Peaceful Pastries when Caleb was 10. Helping out with the bakery, Caleb soon realized that cookie cutters can be costly. Additionally, Joshua often received unique cookie orders that often required special shapes. To meet the needs of his brother’s successful business venture, Caleb collaborated with Joshua to become Peaceful Pastries and Sweets Bakery largest custom cookie cutter supplier.
EMERGING ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Chanda Davis, founder and owner of Chanda Davis Real Estate and Superior School of Real Estate by Chanda.
This award is given to an entrepreneur that’s been in business for less than 3 years and has a proven track record for sustainability with room for growth.
After leaving a successful career as an educator, Davis entered the world of real estate. After 3 years of being a full-time agent and two years of teaching real estate classes, Davis decided to establish her own company. Along with Chanda Davis Real Estate, a flourishing real estate company with over 60 agents, Davis’ Superior School of Real Estate by Chanda boasts one of the highest passing rates in the state.
CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Lady Vowell Smith, owner and founder of The Snail on the Wall bookstore.
This award goes to an entrepreneurial venture that focuses on the retail, arts, entertainment, or culinary industry and has a proven track record for sustainability.
As a book aficionado with a Ph.D. in literature, Smith is no stranger to books. Smith felt there was a lack of small independent bookstores North Alabama —a place where readers and authors could meet and share ideas.
Beginning with a pop-up store at Randolph’s Under the Christmas Tree market in 2017, she has formed a large, loyal customer base by recommending books through social media. Her store has hosted pop-up bookstores at local businesses and has brought bestselling authors to Huntsville for events. Says Smith, “The spirit of entrepreneurship is embracing experiments and new ideas, and when local businesses brainstorm together, it benefits the community as a whole.”
NONPROFIT ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Anne Caldwell, CEO of Greater Huntsville Humane Society.
The Nonprofit Entrepreneur of the year is a new category for 2020. Although different than for-profit ventures, nonprofit leaders still require an entrepreneurial spirit to grow and develop their organizations.
Caldwell’s life and career path changed forever six years ago, when she adopted Randy, a terrified little Chihuahua from Huntsville Animal Services. Caldwell said she was astonished by the problem of overcrowding at the shelters and became involved with several animal welfare organizations before taking on her role as CEO at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society last year.
Through a variety of innovative programming, Caldwell has increased the number of adoptions, lowered length of stays and return rates, in addition to cutting costs and raising donations.
FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Amber Yerkey James, founder and CEO of New Beginnings Family Law.
This award is given to an outstanding female entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region. The winner of this award will be submitted to the Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year Award National Award by the Women’s Business Center.
In 2012, almost six years after starting her own law practice James realized that she wanted to do something more than just process divorce and custody cases, she wanted to make a difference in the lives of her clients and in her community.
New Beginnings Family Law works with clients to plan for life following divorce and other family law situations. The goal is for clients to have the knowledge, skills, and insight to truly have a new beginning.
VETERAN ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Kris McGuire, founder and CEO of Victory Solutions.
This award is given to an outstanding military-veteran entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region.
As one of the first women assigned to the Air Force Special Weapons Center’s maintenance squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base during the Vietnam War, McGuire understood the importance of supplying the military with effective systems and supplying troops with the right tools. In 2006, with this experience in mind, McGuire started Victory Solutions to help save the lives of soldiers.
McGuire’s success has resulted in having some 130 employees and subcontractors working on projects ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles to missile defense to missions to the moon. She attributes this success to a continued focus on supporting fellow veterans, women, and other small businesses.
ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Sandra Brazelton, president and CEO of Advanced Innovative Management Solutions
Awarded to an entrepreneur who has been in business for over three years and has a proven track record for sustainability, strategic direction, future growth and community involvement.
Brazelton’s journey has been one of overcoming obstacles, including gender and racial barriers. While working as an engineer, Brazelton started a real estate business. When buying her first two houses, she was steered to low-income areas. This experience fueled her mission to build a business that would educate, empower, and help others while building generational wealth.
Her goal is to leave a legacy in business and in character that would make her children proud. Her daughter, Alex, is also her business partner, helping to create a legacy.
PEOPLE’S CHOICE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Jerry “JD” White, owner and president of JD Productions, Inc.
Al.com hosted a link on social media for this award. The winner was selected by voters.
After reading books on the topic, coupled with hands-on experience by working the audio/visuals at a variety of events, White finely honed his skills. White said collaboration has been lost in the entertainment industry; he believes that JD Productions will revitalize the entertainment industry, making it a better place to do business.
Coming from a variety of backgrounds and business ventures, there were 68 finalists competing for the nine categories. These entrepreneurs represented 11 communities and 21 ZIP codes in North Alabama. 46 were women, 22 were men.
Combined, they provide jobs for 2,269 employees; in 2019, they accounted for more than $270 million in economic development dollars across North Alabama.
This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features Lisa Williams. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures, with tips for upcoming business owners.
The business world is her passion, driven by a need to honor the American soldier and veterans who have and still are, fighting in many unsavory parts of the world. Lisa Williams’ business consulting company, the Soldier 1 Corporation, is all about paying tribute to veterans, and especially to her late father, who brought her and her mother to the United States after the Vietnam War.
“I vowed never to squander the unique opportunities I have as a result of my father, who was my hero, making the sacrifices he and so many others make, so I can live free and be successful,” she said.
Lisa and her husband, former State Rep. Phil Williams, started 3D Research, a defense engineering company during the mid-1990s from the back bedroom of their home. They sold it 10 years later so Lisa could spend more time with their son.
But because business is in her DNA, she still wanted to stay in the game, and today she is helping to build a culture where she can work with veterans to help them build their businesses, so they can hire more veterans within their company.
Tell us about Soldier 1 and your current consulting work.
I am a kind of CEO/president-for-hire. When companies face hard issues like whether to expand, whether to sell, whether to buy or merge with another business; or if they face unforeseen problems like suddenly losing their CEO with no succession plan; those companies can bring in someone like me who has the mentality of what a president or CEO should be doing in terms of running the company.
The president is the face of the company and sometimes while they are out there shaking hands, kissing babies, planning and strategizing for future growth, someone still needs to run the company.
I have built a business from the beginning when there are only one or two people doing everything. I have worked 24/7 to grow it into a lucrative business. And I have been there in the later stage of a business where I had to make decisions about selling, and about what comes after that.
I know how hard it is to run a company; what kind of sacrifices business owners make: the financial risks; the family risks; the health risks. If I see that an entrepreneur has what it takes to be successful, but they need some guidance along the way, I can help because I am somebody who has been there and done that through the entire lifecycle of a company.
What does it take to be an entrepreneur? Do successful entrepreneurs have a set of innate traits or qualities?
It’s always risky to start a business but true entrepreneurs take calculated risks. Meaning if you are going to jump off a cliff, you need to know whether the drop is five feet and you will need a good new pair of cushiony shoes, or is the drop five miles and you’re going to need a parachute.
In working with entrepreneurs, I find that the successful ones know what needs to be done, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it because they haven’t done it.
An entrepreneur knows they must save money. They know they must have funding, but they don’t know how to get it. They know they need a business plan, but they aren’t sure what should be in it. They know they must go out and get business, but they aren’t sure how to get out there and go after it.
Entrepreneurs risk everything, but they prepare. They know they need a business plan. They usually know their own strengths and weaknesses, but in writing the business plan, everywhere they leave it blank, that’s where their weaknesses lie, and they aren’t always sure how to turn those weaknesses into strengths.
An innate entrepreneur will sense they need to do certain things, for instance they know they need to lease a building or office space, but they don’t know what to look for in a contract.
When I mentor businesses, I am very blunt. I will hurt your feelings, I will call your baby ugly, but the important thing is you aren’t going to have time to try something just to see what happens.
You have to feel so strongly about what you are doing that you are either open to advice from someone who has been there, or know with all your body, your heart, your soul and your mind that what you are doing is right.
And entrepreneurs surround themselves with honest people who will pick them up if they fall.
What do you need to start a small business?
You need to do your research. I was a test engineer and knew I wanted to own my own business right out of UAH, but I had to uncover what it was I was going to sell. I spent two years just researching.
Know what kind of financing you will need.
Understand that you will need an accountant and a lawyer. These are mistakes people make because they think, like I did, accounting makes me want to slash my wrists – right, but that’s even more reason why I needed one.
I thought, why do I need a lawyer? I’m going to do business the right way, I won’t get sued. But in business, you can and will get sued, so you need lawyers.
Here in Huntsville, you may need security clearances, and even if you have a personal clearance, you have to get one for your company and that requires a company sponsor, and that takes time.
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
Build up a reserve of money to live on before you start your own business. It would be great if you can save a year’s salary, or if you can’t do that, have enough for the rent, a car payment and food several months in advance.
Keep your overhead as low as possible. If you are pursuing a service business, you are selling brain power, so you don’t need a luxurious office to show off. Take your brains to their office and work out of your home for as long as you can until you hire enough people to need and can afford an office.
If you are starting up a product-based company building a widget, then you will need money up front and may need a line of credit. Many commercial companies bring in investors, which is whole other process.
Look for opportunities to team up with other companies. It’s safer when you are getting started. It’s important to be on a growth trajectory but you don’t want to go into debt and partnerships can help with that.
Do you recommend collaborative workspace, which is less expensive than office space and usually more flexible?
I would love to see the numbers on how many successful companies really come out of a collaborative work environment.
An entrepreneur is going to make it whether they are in a collaborative environment or whether they are in their garage because it’s all about the persistence, the passion, the perspiration, and how badly do you want it.
It’s nice to have a collaborative environment, but at the end of the day, you have a plan in place; you still have to make those phone calls to potential clients; you still have to get out there and meet the people you need to meet. I always say, it is not really as much about who you know, but about who knows you.
And you have to do all of those things no matter where you are.
What is the one piece of advice you would give a young entrepreneur opening a small business?
It’s a simple, but tough question – how will you make money? You need a very clear plan and full understanding of how you will make money.
If you are going to build and sell widgets, how will you make money selling them?
People say, “I want to do this because I feel strongly about it. I want to help kids or help people.”
And I say, “Okay. We all want to help people and fill a need, but if you don’t have a plan for making money, you will go out of business.”
At the same time, if you want to open a coffee shop that sells pastries – okay. But if there are 15 pastry shops in the area, how will you be different enough from the others to make money selling coffee and pastries?
I don’t mean making money is the only thing in life, but money is what drives a business and, if you fail, you can lose everything.
The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology has launched a mentoring program to help strengthen biotech and life sciences entrepreneurs as business leaders in North Alabama, capitalizing on the wealth of business talent in the region.
The program, called Navigate, was established last fall and is modeled after MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service program which has been mentoring entrepreneurs for more than 20 years.
Through careful, thoughtful and deliberate selection, Navigate matches growing entrepreneurs with teams of c-suite executives, experienced entrepreneurs and subject matter experts from North Alabama to provide them a group of confidential and conflict-free advisors.
“HudsonAlpha founders Jim Hudson and Lonnie McMillian were both serial entrepreneurs and mentors to countless entrepreneurs, including some of the Navigate mentors,” said Carter Wells, vice president for economic development at HudsonAlpha and director of Navigate. “Navigate is a way for us to bring the entrepreneurial and mentor spirit that created HudsonAlpha to entrepreneurs looking to grow in the life sciences community.”
Navigate’s first class of mentors includes a who’s-who of business executives, serial entrepreneurs and civic leaders. The current mentors are:
“I’ve been involved with HudsonAlpha for a number of years as a board member and ambassador, and I’m excited for the opportunity to bring my experience as an entrepreneur and business leader to the innovative companies at the Institute,” said Irma Tuder, founder of Analytical Services Inc.
After completing its pilot phase, the program will be available to companies across North Alabama. Companies must be involved in biotech or life sciences for consideration. For information, email email@example.com.
Businesses tend to equate marketing with “koozies, pens and assorted trade show swag.”
“I can’t tell you how many companies we’ve worked with who believe that the only role of a marketing department is to order t-shirts and set up the next tradeshow booth,” said Megan Nivens-Tannett, founder and CEO of Flourish, a marketing and public relations firm based in Huntsville.
“Marketing needs to be very thoughtful, very intentional and very strategic. It needs to be measured. It needs to be validated,” said Nivens-Tannett. “You also need to understand your market – and your competitors – to ensure your tactics will resonate.”
Flourish, founded in March 2018, represents a variety of clients across the Tennessee Valley, providing strategic marketing, public relations and digital media support.
In less than two years, the growth trajectory has skyrocketed for the small business startup.
Last year, Flourish was nominated as an Emerging Business of the Year for the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce Small Business Awards.
Today, the four-person firm has more than 15 clients across North Alabama – serving industries such as aerospace and defense, public safety, healthcare, finance, telecommunications, entertainment and music, and health and wellness. Flourish also provides volunteer support for nonprofits in the military and entrepreneur communities.
Nivens-Tannett and her team make it look effortless, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, life’s biggest setbacks can often challenge one to forge a new path.
After being laid off from her job, Nivens-Tannett was at a loss. As a single mother striking out on her own following a divorce, Nivens-Tannett knew she had to do something.
Her 11-year-old daughter, Madison, suggested, “Why don’t you start your own business?”
Not wanting to let her daughter down, that’s exactly what she did.
“Madison came up with the name and designed the logo,” said Nivens-Tannett. “After getting that first taste of entrepreneurship, it opened my eyes; I never wanted to work for anyone else again.”
And now there are four.
In April 2019, Nivens-Tannett hired account manager Logan Moore; by November, account manager Alex Hendrix and account coordinator Presley Price were added to meet the growth surge. All four are self-professed “Doer of All Things,” which complements their “Work hard, play hard” office culture.
The synergy among the team is dynamic and allows for an opportunity to shine; showcasing each woman’s skills and talents.
“The work culture aligns with our personalities,” said Nivens-Tannett. “Every day is a new adventure and, so far, it’s been a really fun ride.”
This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features developer Louis Breland. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures.
Tell us about your very first touch with Town Madison and how you got involved.
We had developed a lot of property on Madison Boulevard that we still own, and we used to have offices out there.
I was looking out the back window one day at a gorgeous tract of land I had my eyes on for a while. I knew Intergraph founder Jim Meadlock owned it and he didn’t need to sell it. But this day there was a tractor clearing trees! I’m thinking, “Holy smokes! I should have been calling on this property!’’
I knew Mr. Meadlock was a really nice man and I had his phone number, so I called him up and said, “Mr. Meadlock, did you sell that property because I see a tractor over there?”
He said, “No Louis, it’s just some farmers clearing trees for me. Do you want to buy it?”
I said absolutely, and negotiations started there.
It looks like such a huge and complex development. Did you know that going in?
Town Madison is actually a relatively simple development. Except for having to put in interstate ramps and things like that are complicated and takes a long time, but Breland has always done fairly large residential communities. My first Huntsville development, Autumn Ridge, is probably 800 homes.
I’ve watched cattle farms turn into major cities, so I recognized that Town Madison is in an incredible location – 2½ miles of interstate frontage and a gateway to the city. It had everything you could want in terms of a location. Town Madison started out as just a great piece of real estate at a great price.
Jim Meadlock and Intergraph owned most of the property and the rest was smaller parcels owned by four or five individuals, so we had to arsemble all of it.
You mentioned Autumn Ridge as your first Huntsville development. You came to Huntsville from Mobile?
I started a homebuilding company in Mobile in 1976 and we were building throughout Mobile, Gulf Shores and Baldwin County on the eastern shore.
A friend invited me to come to Huntsville around 1982 or 1983, to see all the activity. President Reagan had poured money into the Huntsville and Madison County market to support the military buildup for Star Wars.
The market was just exploding! The market is really good now; it was better then. There was very limited competition and there was room to put in subdivisions and build houses. And buyers were lined up.
Within the week, I decided to move here, and we closed our Gulf Coast operation. By comparison, the coast was a very tough market: in Baldwin County, you could barely sell a house.
From the day we started in Huntsville it was on fire – successful from day one. You had a tough market nationally but here there was a shortage of housing and lots of land available for development.
To get started in the development and home building business, do you just start buying land?
Correct. Within just a few months we bought a 400-acre tract of land on South Parkway (Autumn Ridge) and a big tract of land at Zierdt Road where the Edgewater community is now.
You have been involved in this part of town for a long time.
Wayne Bonner of Bonner Development developed Edgewater, but I was one of the first to buy land from him to build houses. Lady Anne Lake was just a bunch of trees back then.
Mountainbrook was one of the first developments at Edgewater. I bought 100 lots that became Mountainbrook and Heritage Woods.
What has it been like being in the homebuilding and commercial development business and still come out on top, with all the volatility over the years?
You have to remember, back then, interest rates and energy were not predictable. Oil goes from $50 a barrel to $150 a barrel; inflation starts in, the Feds raise interest rates and you go from 8 percent to 10 percent to 12 percent, 14 percent and then back to 10 percent. There’s nothing in the real estate business – nothing – predictable. It is always changing. But the difference between then and now, I believe, is that 100 percent of energy came from the Middle East and we had no real energy policy in place.
It was just crazy what fluctuations in energy and interest rates would do. It was always a roller coaster.
And interest rates are like oxygen for a homebuilder and interest rate volatility is very hard on us. It cuts off your oxygen and the higher the rates go – it starts choking you and you have no control over it – period.
But despite this, we thrived here in the Huntsville market. We probably had 30 to 35 percent of the homebuilding market here – 30 to 35 percent of all homes sold were Breland Homes. We were by far the largest builder here.
Has the business changed much?
Back then there was no one to buy lots from. We bought 100 acres, built the lots, developed all of the infrastructure like roads and utilities; built the homes, sold homes, and we financed them. So we were very integrated – from raw dirt to turning on your stove for the first time at move in.
Now, if you just want to be a homebuilder and not get into development, you can just go buy lots from someone.
How did you survive the financial and real estate collapse back in 2006 through 2008?
I’m old school.
That housing boom was not real world. In the world I grew up in, you had to have real credibility. You had to have real equity and real money which meant you had to put 30 sometimes as much as 50 percent in cash down to get a deal to make a development happen.
I did not participate in that because I could never understand how somebody who couldn’t qualify to borrow $100,000 could borrow $100 million.
We saw some of it coming.
We owned one of the largest privately held self-storage companies in Alabama, Mississippi and South Florida.
In 2006, we sold it for almost $100 million, so we were very liquid. When it collapsed, we had a lot of inventory, but we were liquid, so we bought over 100 communities in great land locations out of bankruptcy at giveaway prices. And we did not go back into the market.
I told everybody here, “This is either the most incredible buying opportunity in real estate, or the largest sucker hole we’ll ever go through – but we’re going to go for it!”
A mixed-use development, including a 100-room hotel, is planned for the site of a former motel and small businesses on Governors Drive in Huntsville’s growing Westside.
The property, some 13 acres of land on Governors Drive near the intersections with 13th and 14th streets, will be developed by The Beach Company. Construction is planned to start this summer.
According to an announcement from The Beach Company, the community will feature multiple buildings totaling approximately 26,000 square feet of office, retail and dining space in addition to 260 multifamily units, 14 townhomes and a 100-key hotel.
Residential amenities will include a pool, a fitness area, a clubhouse and ample green space with a dog park.
The planned project will complement the nearby Stovehouse development and will feature pedestrian walkways between them.
“This community addition will help continue the momentum of growth along Governors Drive through increased walkability and connectivity,” said Ned Miller, development manager with The Beach Company. “The project was thoughtfully designed to enhance the experience of the growing number of residents and businesses expanding to Huntsville’s flourishing Westside.”
To accommodate for the new community, approximately 620 parking spaces will be made available to residents and visitors in addition to garage storage available for apartment and townhome residents.
The Beach Company has developed the Sixth South mixed-use community in Nashville and Chattanooga’s River Rock community.
MADISON – If you’ve wanted to work for a professional sports team, here is your chance.
The Rocket City Trash Pandas, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, are holding a job fair Saturday, Jan. 25, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Bob Jones High School cafeteria. The school is at 650 Hughes Road in Madison.
“We are building a team of passionate, energetic, and driven individuals to deliver the best experience in Minor League Baseball,” the team said in a statement.
The Trash Pandas will be hiring for more than 100 positions in more than 30 game-day roles. Positions include ticket takers, ushers, servers, bartenders, vendors/hawkers, concessionaires, warehouse, cooks, housekeeping, production room, camera operator, concessions stocker, parking lot attendants, promo team member, game-day runner and more.
Candidates are urged to bring a completed application to the job fair. Applications can be found at www.trashpandasbaseball.com.
Anyone looking for an internship can also interview at the job fair and are encouraged to bring resumes.
Representatives of the Trash Pandas will be on hand to provide information and answer questions.
The Trash Pandas’ home Opening Day is April 15 against the Mississippi Braves at Toyota Field. Season tickets, mini plans and group outings are on sale now. Visit www.trashpandasbaseball.com or call 256-325-1403.