R.H. Ledbetter Properties, 106 E. Eighth Ave., in Rome, is a family-owned development business that has been around since 1930.
One of the primary reasons for the success of the company over 82 years, and into one of the most challenging times for developers since the Great Depression, has been the company’s ability to focus on its primary mission and decisions that were made long ago not to stray too far from home.
The company has four major developments in Rome: MidTown Crossing on Shorter Avenue; Etowah II on Hicks Drive; Riverbend Center on Turner McCall Boulevard; and RiverWalk on Riverside Parkway. The majority of the rest of the Ledbetter developments are scattered across North Georgia along with several in southeast Tennessee and a couple in Indiana.
In recent years, the real estate developers have focused on commercial and medical office development.
“First of all, what I studied in college was primarily commercial development,” said Robert H. Ledbetter Jr., executive vice president. “Plus, it’s what my dad was doing at the time. I didn’t think that when I got out of school that it was what I was going to do but I came back (to Rome) and started working.”
His brothers, E. Wright Ledbetter and David D. Ledbetter, also found a home in the family business. David serves as vice president for leasing while Wright serves as vice president of operations.
Bob Ledbetter Jr. said the current economy has made the business more entrepreneurial as opposed to purely being real estate developers.
The Design, Develop, Construct (DDC) Journal, a national trade publication did a spotlight feature about R.H. Ledbetter Properties in its summer issue this year. President Robert H. Ledbetter said, in vintage Bob Ledbetter form, that the company is still a young company.
“We are fairly vertical from acquisition of the land to the leasing of the property,” Ledbetter was quoted as saying in the article. Maintaining as much control throughout the entire development process has been another key to the company’s success.
Ledbetter Jr. said things have changed somewhat during tough economic times. The company has concentrated on acquisitions, “not your everyday buy a piece of property, get a title and develop it, Ledbetter Jr. said. “I’m not saying those days are over but they are few and far between. There was so much retail that was developed over the past 20 years.”
Joe Holmes, the development manager for R.H. Ledbetter Properties, said a lot of deals that got done in the 90s and early years of this century took place under the most optimistic underwriting scenarios.
“When you’re projecting your rents to be $30 dollars per square foot and they only turn out to be $15, and you’ve borrowed money based on $30 per square foot, it’s a problem,” Holmes said.
He said the Atlanta market, which stretches out to include much of North Georgia, is one of the most over-retailed markets in the nation.
R.H. Ledbetter Properties has certainly faced its share of adversity during the economic downtown. “We’ve lost tenants like Goody’s, they’re gone. That’s 100,000 square feet we lost in one fell swoop portfolio wide,” Ledbetter Jr. said. “But we were able to replace them within 12 months which is incredible.”
During the past two years, the company has acquired approximately 250,000 square feet of leasable property between Chattanooga and Marietta. Much of it was from bank debt.
Holmes pointed out that a similar situation developed close to 30 years ago in the wake of the savings and loan crisis.
“If you had some money back when the Resolution Trust Corporation was created (to liquidate assets of failed savings and loans) those were when huge fortunes were created,” Holmes said. “Tons of stuff was dumped super cheap and people who could take advantage of that in the early 90s are extremely wealthy today.”
Ledbetter Jr. said today’s market still hasn’t gotten rid of assets like the RTC.
The company has been able to keep its leasing in the 95-percent range. “It dropped, back in 2009, down probably in the 80s percent (range), but we’re back up now, we’re above 90 percent,” Ledbetter Jr. said.
Holmes chimed in quickly, saying the number was approximately 93 percent. “That’s the good news,” Ledbetter Jr. said. “The bad news is that our revenues are down. We’ve had to work with tenants that have struggled but that’s a two way street.”
Ledbetter Jr. stressed the company has been able to maintain a solid relationship with its primary lenders. “We’ve been as transparent and up front with our lenders about our assets and we’ve tried to be as organized and informed and communicative as possible,” he said.
The company is still very much interested in one of those traditional buy the land, build and lease projects in their home town, the stalled City Centre project off Riverside Parkway.
“The opportunity is still there for it, and we’re still working on it,” Ledbetter Jr. said. “We’re still focused on it. I think it would be a great asset for downtown, a great asset for the community.”