Chuck Fuhr's approach to land acquisition doesn't just show up in the dirt he purchases. First, it's the currency of trust he builds up among sellers and potential sellers; then, it's the way he finds money to fund those deals. It started in Costa Mesa, Calif., where he worked with the Warmington Group of Cos., one of the first companies to partner with Hearthstone and California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) on land deals.
That spirit of innovation stayed with Fuhr when he moved to Atlanta to join Ryland. Bill Blanton, a former banker for Fuhr, said no one had ever done a tax improvement district in the city–that was until Fuhr came to town.
In Atlanta's Princeton Lakes development, he formed an improvement district, and eventually sold the project to Pulte. "He got the entire infrastructure built through bonds," Blanton says. "He got the property much cheaper than he otherwise would have and did a much more high-profile development than he otherwise would have accomplished."
In Newton County, Ga.'s Gross Lake development, Fuhr obtained sewer taps from the county. "No one really realized what the value of those sewer taps were," he says. "The free sewer taps came when property was zoned for 22,000 units. Water and sewer taps had gotten significantly more expensive since they [originally] got those entitlements. That was worth a substantial part of what we paid for the land."
Fuhr didn't start out in land acquisition. He began as an accountant, but that set the stage for some of his financial wizardry on future deals, according to Patrick Malloy, owner of Atlanta-based Patrick Malloy Communities, a builder who has conducted deals with Fuhr.
"He is very quick," Malloy says. "A lot of land guys just ride the market because property appreciates in good markets. They look like they were smart when they really weren't. [Fuhr], very intuitively and very quickly, grasps the financial repercussions."
Fuhr's first taste of the building industry was with single- and multifamily builder CDM Construction (which also builds under the name Carmel Partners) in Denver.
After CDM, Fuhr moved over to Richmond American. He started in Denver, but the builder transferred him to California. He ended up at Warmington, where he says he gained valuable experience from people who survived in previous down markets. When Ryland came calling and offered its divisional president spot in Atlanta, Fuhr had to go. He's now been there for 14 years.
For a land guy like Fuhr, this is a tough market. Ryland hasn't bought dirt in Atlanta since May 2006. But that doesn't mean he's not looking for land.
"The downturn will always end," Fuhr says. "We want to be the first one in the market when the time is right. We've been keeping our hands in everything we can." Fuhr wants investors to buy land–that won't go on Ryland's books. "We see deals today that are priced right," he says. "So what we're doing today is finding someone else to buy it and bank it for us until the market gets better."
And why will people be willing to take these risks for Fuhr in a bad market? One reason is that he'll offer them increased profits, but they can also trust him. "He's done a great job of finding investors and people in Atlanta who will take aggressive risks, and they're willing to do so because he's such a great land guy and he's a trustworthy guy," Malloy says. "That's the reputation that helps people take that risk."
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.