EMPOWERING REALITIES IN THE MIDST OF THE RECESSION
Born and raised in the Midwest, and a proud graduate of both Missouri State University and St. Louis University, J.R. Benton understands how to turn innovative thinking into a powerful reality. As a recent graduate, many students find themselves at a critical juncture in their career, often burdened by debt and a level of uncertainty. Benton however, saw graduation as a tool of empowerment and joined the family-owned Taylor Morley homebuilders business straight out of school.
After four years, Benton joined a national homebuilder company called Centex. Three years later, he left Centex and headed to New York and joined an architectural firm where he met his beautiful wife Abena, Benton shared as he happily talked about his family. “We now reside in Brooklyn with our two-year-old son named Andrew,” he added.
The three-person development company where Benton is employed is located in Manhattan NY. East River Partners, until recently have been focused on the renovation of Brooklyn brownstones, primarily in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. Their project size has been between 4 and 10 units that they would renovate and sell as condos. A typical project has been in the $5 - $10 million-dollar range.
In talking about the company and how they got started, the challenges they faced, the sacrifices made, and lessons learned, Benton said that the company came together in early 2010. He was unemployed and looking for work. He answered an ad on craigslist for a position that sounded perfect for him and his background. As it turned out, the company wasn't really a company. “I met with one of the future principals Jody”. In the interview, Benton learned that they basically were in the same situation. They were both looking to start some type of Real Estate Development Company. In essence, the job wasn't much of a job. It was truly a startup with no compensation, no benefits, no projects and no timetable or guarantees.
Benton and his wife Abena left NYC to visit his family right after the interview. They talked about it for about a week, and with a positive outlook he accepted the position and began his journey.
“I'm sure you can remember after the economy crashed in 2008/2009, there wasn't much happening in real estate except for foreclosures”, Benton said. As a startup company, they weren't certain what they were doing. There were many days when they would look at each other and twiddled their thumbs. There was once a point in the spring of 2010 when they thought they landed a great deal in Tribeca, only to lose it two days before closing that summer. It was a trying period for Benton and Abena. “Thankfully,” he said, “she was 100% supportive of this opportunity”.
In the spring of 2011, East River Partners closed on their first deal. It was an eight family brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. They started renovations in November 2011 and completed sales in January 2013. “Finally, payday!” While they had subcontractors working their trades, his wife Abena and himself spent nearly every weekend at the job site addressing some issue or another, all the while with essentially no income or benefits. Benton gives his wife considerable credit for their early success. “If not for her willingness to stay employed at an architectural firm that made her miserable, there's no way I could have maintained a job with no pay or benefits”.
The economic pinch was real for the young company. Development companies depended on debt from lenders to complete deals. In 2010 there was no construction financing available. The credit markets were still locked down. They looked everywhere for deals, but the only deals available were foreclosure sales. The banks would foreclose on a developer, take the building back and then try to sell it at top dollar. They had no intention of just “getting it off their books”.
The company seems to have come together at the right time. While they were figuring out who or what they were, the economy was slowly pulling out of its rut. Just when the company found their direction, it seemed like the economy had started its slow but gradual rebound.
Benton said that the company’s specialty is to locate buildings that are underutilized, step in and re-position them through mid - to high-level finishes and sell the units.
In terms of touching lives, Benton reflects on recently walking past the completed project in Park Slope. “I could see inside and watched one of our buyers decorating her newly renovated home. I saw a baby stroller and a crib. That's when I first felt a sense of accomplishment in the homes we created in that building”.
Benton acknowledges his wife for being an integral contributing factor to where they are today, “I am very lucky my wife Abena and I have had this dream to do just what we are doing for many years. She's a very talented architect who lends her expertise whenever possible. She designed the floor plans of our first project. Buyer's loved her design. But there are sacrifices to be made. Our two-year-old son joins us many weekends to go look at tile samples, furniture for the displays or home depot trips. We try to do as much as a trio as possible. Unfortunately, we don't make it to the movies like before. Much of our free time is devoted to ongoing projects and taking time for vacations is tough”.
Being a small company, everyone is very hands-on, and finding a balance between your professional and personal life can be challenging; but for Benton, this all comes with the territory as he declares, “it was my dream to not have a 9-5 desk job”.
In all of East River Partners’ projects, they try to be environmentally conscious where it's economically feasible. They use environmentally friendly paints and polyurethanes. In all projects, they remove old boiler systems and replace them with a greener electric heat pump system. They always incorporate “Low E” windows and make certain to insulate with the best R-value products. These old buildings are inherently efficient due to the quality of construction, said Benton. By stepping in and adding modern upgrades, East River Partners creates breathtaking energy efficient units.
Being a developer, Benton participates in organizations such as Urban Land Institute (ULI). He is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified (LEED) and tries to be active in a number of local real estate networking groups. He said East River Partners’ first project came out of a contact he made at a networking event he attended. “I met a broker at a small firm one evening who told me about this 8 family building she knew was coming to the market soon. Regardless of the field, I know these organizations can sometimes seem like a waste of time, but you just never know who you'll meet and where that might take you as a professional or organization”, Benton added.
It is the goal of East River Partners to develop family-friendly units. Everything they design with their architect has to have that underlying focus. The company is not trying to design the most modern or “hip” units. They want mothers to be able to raise their children comfortably in the spaces they design. In their planning, they think about things like stroller parking in the common areas. “Certainly we want to stay on top of the trends, but we feel there are certain things families need to be comfortable and to function in their home. We don't think that has to be the highest end range or the deepest soaking tub”.
The company’s three-member team all have an extensive real estate development background but in different areas. None of which were brownstone renovations but they are quick learners and have become quite comfortable now. Preferred projects are brownstones or any historic existing building where they can keep the structure and gut the interior. The company just closed on their first deal in Manhattan and is close to wrapping up on their second.
Information by J.R. Benton
Edited by Janeen Ettienne