Banking & Finance

Equicor playing it 'cautious': Small projects fueling firm's steady growth

April 28, 2008

As one of a few local developers that pursues both commercial and residential projects, Equicor Cos. quietly has built a portfolio of properties totaling more than $150 million.

Among those under development is its most ambitious to date, Promenade of Noblesville, at State Road 32 and Little Chicago Road. The 153-acre mixeduse development features retail and office lots, as well as 280 homes.

Yet, the 16-year-old north-side company has been absorbing its share of "bumps and bruises" as of late, particularly given the weak housing market and slumping retail sector. Equicor is responding by selling some land it had slated for development and is eyeing less expensive deals.

"We're being really cautious," said CEO Greg Small, 48. "We're trying to take care of our existing properties first."

Small projects and steady growth, though, are the two main ingredients in the recipe for Equicor's success. It is developing 116th Street Centre in Carmel, a mixed-use urban development featuring town homes and commercial space, and has finished Olio Pavilion in Fishers and Southport Pavilion at Southport Road and Interstate 65.

The office parks it owns include Waterplace Park near Meridian and 96th streets, where Equicor is headquartered; Fidelity Keystone Office Park and Fidelity Keystone Tower, both in Carmel; and Northeast Office Centre at 56th Street and I-465.

Much of Equicor's growth can be traced to a decision made about five years ago to beef up operations by combining retail and production housing projects. Mixed-use developments had become the rage, Small said, partly because they give developers the chance to be more flexible with their land.

Change in direction

Two years ago, as the housing bubble began to show cracks, Equicor started pulling back and became more selective about projects. The restrictive lending climate has spooked Equicor from launching another large development such as Promenade, Small said.

A plan to expand its portfolio to $250 million within the next five years is still on course. But the credit crunch from the residential market is beginning to trickle down to the retail sector. One retailer told Small its plan to open 20 stores in Indiana has been reduced to seven or less. For Small, that means securing "A+" locations will be essential.

Equicor's decision, however, to expand its holdings to include residential and commercial bodes well for the company, said Brian Mann, managing partner of Mann Properties, another local developer that courts both types of projects.

"For both of our sakes, it's good to be diversified," he said. "I know a lot of people who are strictly residential developers who are understandably struggling now."

Interestingly, one of Equicor's residential projects became the crux of an Indiana Supreme Court case. The firm won a fouryear legal battle in 2001 with the Westfield-Washington Township Plan Commission over a plan to build 81 homes on 27 acres at State Road 32 and Moontown Road.

At the heart of the developer's argument was its contention that commissioners disliked the petition, but could think of no good reason to deny it other than a technicality over parking-one they failed to give Equicor an opportunity to correct.

A Hamilton Superior Court ruled in favor of the commission. But the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the decision. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that it failed to give Equicor a chance to correct the technicality.

The firm ultimately sold the property to another developer.

"Nobody wants to sue a municipality; you want to be good neighbors," Small said. "But the fact of the matter is, we were clearly wronged."

Company origins

Small founded the forerunner to Equicor, Epic Properties, in 1992 with Richard Block, who departed a few years later to launch Paragon Realty Cos., a developer and property manager.

Small since has brought aboard his older brother, Dann, a banking veteran who handles financing, and COO Glen Meinecke, as partners. Small, too, has a banking background.

"Greg has brought in some people like that who have helped his firm and the professionalism grow," Block said.

A native Hoosier who grew up in Nashville, Small earned a degree in business administration, with an emphasis in finance, from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill.

After completing training at the University of Wisconsin's Graduate School of Banking, Small went to work at the former Bloomington National Bank, a forerunner to Fifth Third Bank. Small later transferred to a Greenwood office and rose to vice president of commercial lending. The job piqued his interest in development.

He and Block, who had left Greenfield Builders Inc., developed English Crossing, a subdivision in Warren Township. A few of the subsequent properties it acquired at "pretty decent prices" were salvaged from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.

"We made some pretty phenomenal returns," Small recalled. "I have no complaints about that."

He still enjoys the business, despite a few recent adjustments.

"I feel fortunate; I've never wanted to be something like Lauth [Property Group]," he said. "I've enjoyed keeping [Equicor] on a smaller scale and having a good time."
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