By Mike Lauterborn
(front page Fairfield Sun 7/7)
(front page Fairfield Sun 7/7)
Fairfield, CT – Son learned from father, now father learns from son. Fairfield-based real estate brokers/investors/developers, PPG Properties, is a family-run operation using some creative strategies to attract business to Fairfield and keep the local economy stimulated. Co-presidents, Frank Bowser, 70, and his son, Bryan, 37, along with family matriarch and business “backbone” Rosemarie, took a moment at their 1188 Post Road offices to speak with the Fairfield Sun, about how the business got its start and the difference it’s making in town and the surrounding region.
Begun in boom times
“Back in the early 1980s, I started buying and selling commercial and residential properties, mostly subdivisions, locally and further up in Manchester and North Stonington,” said Frank. “The market and prices were great, the economy was good and there weren’t many For Lease signs or empty storefronts. And banks were lending a lot more freely at that time.”
Son Bryan kept close at hand, absorbing the business. “From the time I was 10, I was around what dad was doing,” Bryan said. “I’d go with him to site locations and always liked the development aspect of the business – seeing an empty lot become occupied by a tenant or structure. There was great satisfaction in that and it helped me make up my mind quickly that this is what I wanted to do.”
In 1992, Bryan started attending Mitchell College in New London, CT, pursuing a business degree. When he graduated, he went straight into real estate, joining his father. The business was already going by the name PPG, an acronym standing for Property Potential Group. “We’ve made it our mission to help people see the potential in a property – whether that means adding on, going up or knocking down structures to put in something consolidated,” Bryan said. “Our clients may not have that vision.”
Bryan was a natural right from the start, bringing both innate talent and his business education to the table. “He has always been an entrepreneur,” mom Rosemarie, an office manager at the firm, said about the Orange resident, who is married with three children. “At 11, Brian was cutting 15 neighbor’s lawns, using their equipment at first, then buying his own.”
“I could have had more lawns but mom wouldn’t let me cross the road,” joked Bryan.
“It went from lawns to car washes to working with his dad,” said Rosemarie about how Bryan progressed over the years.
“When Bryan entered the business, it really drove expansion,” said Frank. “If I said ‘let’s buy one acre, he’d say buy 10, and it was always the right decision. His eyes were always much bigger than mine. And we went much farther out in our scope and holdings.”
Frank cited an example of how the father-son dynamic has worked. “In ’99, I went up to look at and buy two to three acres of land in North Stonington,” he said. “We ended up buying 130 acres and subdividing it into individual lots.”
Bryan liked that the area was flat and didn’t need a lot of site work, and it was close to casinos and the Rhode Island border. “Clients got a lot for their money – you can really live like a king up there,” he said.
Around 2002, PPG started getting involved in more commercial work. As an example, they purchased a building at 2325 East Main Street in Bridgeport, that housed a business that conflicted with neighborhood values. “We repurposed it for an adjacent church as its annex and office space,” said Bryan.
In 2005, PPG partnered up with some other local developers who were focused on the Fairfield area. This was their entree into the local commercial market with regard to development, however, they had been doing additions and framing in the market well before then, with their construction unit.
A new tack to respond to an ailing economy
“When the economy started tanking in 2009, commercial spaces were popping up everywhere,” said Frank. “We were seeing a ton of that, especially in New Haven County, however, Fairfield was not immune. People were downsizing and there were a lot of vacancies along the Post Road and Black Rock Turnpike.”
Bryan said they decided to attack the situation and distinguish themselves as “something other than a commercial real estate broker by opening an office right smack in the center of downtown Fairfield and finding custom solutions for available spaces. That meant evaluating each and every local property and determining what type of business would work best.”
They developed a three-part strategy to their attack. “First, we began approaching existing businesses in southern Fairfield County, like Stamford and Greenwich, to see if there was interest in opening local sister locations,” Bryan said. “The appeal was the cost per square foot, which could be 15-25% less than their existing locations.”
The second strategy was to approach tenants with large spaces that may have become untenable due to economic woes and see if they wanted to divide and split costs with other tenants.
“A third tactic, which has been very successful, has been to bring tenants in from out of state and nationwide who are looking to expand into the northeast and have them fill large vacated ‘box store’ spaces, from 15,000 to 40,000 square feet,” Bryan said. “These were idling because the spaces were too large for local tenants and it was too costly for landlords to subdivide.”
One of their most significant successes with regard to box store spaces is Hibachi Grill and Supreme Buffet, based out of North Carolina with 83 family-owned locations.
“We went down and met with them, discussed their plans and shared our capabilities,” Bryan said. “We ended up contracting with them for 20 spaces in Connecticut, which will roll out over a five-year period. We have already established the first, in Orange, doing the planning and zoning application, demolition and construction, right down to the everyday needs of the restaurant.”
PPG is pushing hard to find Hibachi a location in Fairfield, focusing right now on the Tunxis Hill area. It is also on the space hunt in town for other businesses, like Puerto Vallarta, for which PPG is building a new facility in Orange, and various clients from the Carolinas.
“There shouldn’t be an empty space in Fairfield downtown between Brick Walk and North Pine Creek, or on Black Rock Turnpike from the intersection of Tunxis Hill to Primo’s Pizza,” said Frank. “These corridors should be filled with retail tenants that create foot traffic.”
Frank said PPG is not alone in its mission. “Often, we collaborate with state officials like Catherine Smith, the commissioner of economic and community development, whose interest is bringing businesses to Connecticut.”
Frank said the dynamic between himself and Bryan is key to their success. “My niche is property rental and leasing, while Bryan’s forte is renovation and construction,” he said. “Often, when leases are expiring, clients want to move to new renovated centers. Bryan spurs them to renew a lease by offering affordable renovation solutions. In this way, we prevent vacancies.”
Summing up, Bryan said, “It’s not like we’re controlling the market, but we’re contributing as much as possible with our strategies to keep the local economy chugging along.”
At the core of activity
Landing on the Post Road six months ago, PPG Properties, which bills itself as a commercial real estate broker, investor and developer, employs 18 full-time staff and four part-time employees. The business maintains over three million square feet of property.
One of its current prime Fairfield-based holdings is 2180 Kings Highway, a flat, one-acre piece of land behind Bed, Bath & Beyond. “We purchased it with partners some time ago and have decided to sell it now given its proximity to the new train station and universities in town,” said Bryan Bowser, PPG’s co-president.
The site can accommodate two townhouse buildings encompassing 13 units, each with a two-car garage. “We think this will be attractive to a builder, developer and/or an investor,” added Bowser. “Location is key when it comes to a development like this and these units allow for easy living without property maintenance headaches. The architectural design is classy.”
Helping spur local property development is at the center of PPG’s objectives. The firm oversaw clearing of this particular piece of land and the design plans are all approved. “Advertised correctly and these will sell quickly, bringing in some good revenue to the town,” said Bowser.
The young developer commented that the area is becoming Fairfield’s newest town center, and that PPG is proud to be part of the upswing and activity.
“Our reputation is our biggest asset,” said Bowser. “I wanted to plant our business and build our Fairfield County foundation here, due to Fairfield’s vibrant atmosphere and excellent prospects. The town has an enduring charm and classic presentation.”