In a builder deal flow era that's become big data stalking high finance, never underestimate the power of a good old fashioned relationship to prove that off-market, hand-shake deals can still be the win-wins of the sector.
Last week, El Paso, Tx.-based CareFree Homes, a top-ranked home builder in 14 or so new-home neighborhoods to the Southeast, North, and Northwest of downtown, sold for upwards of $50 million to a father and son team that has known, done business with, and competed with for all of its two-plus decades' existence.
The seller of CareFree--running as a going, market-leading concern under the more than able operational guidance of president Shawn Gray since 2010--was the estate of the late Sally J. Thomas, which had local accountant John Bock of Bock & Associates as executor.
CareFree had started operations under the brand name of its founder, the late George Thomas, starting in the 1980s. As he got his business up and running, George found himself doing land acquisition and development deals with Robert Bowling Jr., who'd started operating a home building firm in the 1950s under the name Nugent Bowling Homes, which evolved when Jr.'s son Bobby (Robert III) took over and formed Tri-State Homes.
Bobby, now 67, recalls that George Thomas and his father became quite friendly as they worked on development deals together, and that "George looked up to my dad, who was about 15 years older, and had gotten an earlier start in the business. Later on, in the 1980s, I did the same thing. I looked up to George as an example of how to do things right."
So, the buyers in this case, Bobby Bowling and his son Greg, come with an unusual resume, local intel, and reputation in the market. In fact, the father-son team recently parted ways as principals at another local El Paso power builder, Tropicana Homes, which has had Bowling family members at the helm now for three generations. Bobby, the son of the founder, has three sons, two of whom--Robert IV and Randy--continue to run and operate Tropicana, while the third son, Greg, joins Bobby as the new owners of CareFree.
Bobby III, and son Greg will focus primarily on land deals and lot and community development, while operations and day-to-day management will be left to Gray, who's staying on in his role as president of CareFree.
"The good news is that 70 employees will get to keep their jobs, and the bank relationships will all stay in place, which is not what would have happened if one of the big publics or even a big regional player came in and bought CareFree," Bobby Bowling told us Monday morning. "This is an especially good deal for the community of El Paso."
Still, as a consequence of the deal, Bowling Sr.--Bobby--and his son Greg will now be competing in the marketplace with the company Bobby's dad started and his namesake Bobby IV runs.
Bobby (Robert III) and his son Greg parted Tropicana late last year in the wake of a "family feud" style dispute that settled out of court and awarded the father with significant financial resources.
"Tropicana would have been competing with CareFree Homes one way or another," says Bowling, the father. "I only wish my sons the best of success in their efforts," he says of the two who continue to run Tropicana.
One of the interesting parts of the transaction--which, according to Greg Bowling amounts to two-years' supply of finished lots in 13 operating communities at an annual pace of about 300 to 350 homes a year, and five to 10 years of undeveloped land--is the way it moved off-market, from one party to the new owners for a full value offer. Timing, one may say, played a strong hand.
Michael P. Kahn & Associates received a call from CareFree Homes' executor John Bock late in 2015. Before the asset even went officially to market, Kahn received a call from Bobby Bowling, fresh off the out-of-court settlement from departing Tropicana Homes. Bobby and his son Greg were interested in CareFree and its semi-custom, move-up brand Definitive Homes.
Kahn and his team proceeded with a deal, closing with the help of local attorney Larry Baskind, "and it went about as smoothly as any deal in all of my career," Kahn told me. "Everyone behaved like absolute gentlemen, and the buyers paid full market value."
Part of the terms of the purchase agreement leave Shawn Gray, vice president and chief financial officer Rick Aguilar, in place. About 75 members of the CareFree team keep their jobs.
"We couldn't be more pleased with the outcome."
Off-market, relationships-based land and company acquisition deals may play an important role in some of the more precision-plan fueled transactions that we can expect this year.
"Everything fell into place," Greg Bowling says. "It seems like a win for everybody concerned."