Charlotte: Smoky clears
Superlatives come easy in describing the sale of Bissell Companies’ Ballantyne Corporate Park to New York investors Northwood Group. With a purported price of $1.2 billion, it’s the largest real-estate transaction in state history. It also was the biggest payday for a real-estate investor in state history, because Chairman H.A. “Smoky” Bissell controls most of the company’s equity, people familiar with the business say. (The company declined comment.) It also involves what some national real-estate analysts have deemed the most successful master-planned corporate office park in U.S. history.
That’s what can happen when a shrewd businessman sees potential in undeveloped farmland, benefits from growth patterns and works incessantly to attract businesses that had plenty of other options for office space. To be sure, Bissell started on first base. The family of his late wife, Sara Harris Bissell, had owned considerable south Mecklenburg County land for generations. When first announced in 1991, Bissell’s better-known brother-in-law, Charlotte developer Johnny Harris, was out front promoting the project. It helped that North Carolina opened the first stretch of Interstate 485 adjacent to the property in 1990, accelerating the Charlotte area’s sprawl into Union and South Carolina’s York counties. The Harris family’s clout helped spur the building of the road.
Still, when Bissell bought 414 acres from Harris and his brother, Cameron Harris, in 1996 for $20 million, few expected that within 25 years, Ballantyne would sport more than 4 million square feet of office space, four hotels, a golf course and a bustling retail center. (The retail area is not part of the Northwood deal.) For years, Charlotte traditionalists questioned why anyone would drive 15 miles from downtown to work and play. With a tenant list including MetLife, Premier and Snyder’s-Lance, few wonder that now. For many employers, a suburban site with free parking tops Charlotte’s more congested center city or SouthPark areas. In the process, Bissell grew into a 600-employee company.
Last year, with real-estate values surging to record levels, Smoky Bissell decided it was time to cash in. (The Yale grad turned 80 in March.) Northwood Investors, which has developed apartment projects in the Charlotte area in recent years, won the bidding. The company controls $6 billion of real-estate assets and is led by John Kukral, the former CEO of Blackstone Real Estate Advisors, among the world’s largest property investors.
Bissell CEO Ned Curran, the former N.C. Department of Transportation board chairman who now runs the business for Northwood, expects to stay busy because the park has little vacant space and plenty of land for more buildings, apartments and homes. Moreover, Kukral emphasizes the need for Ballantyne to stay relevant to younger workers, given the increased popularity of denser, walkable commercial districts. That’s ironic, considering that the first newspaper story about Ballantyne in 1991 quoted Johnny Harris as saying, “If I had a dream, there would be a traffic jam every Saturday and Sunday, but it would be bicycles” instead of cars.
Alevo plans to invest $251 million and add more than 200 jobs over five years at its Concord plant, where the company makes its GridBank utility-scale batteries. Switzerland-based Alevo acquired the 2,100-acre former Philip Morris cigarette factory in 2014, with plans to eventually employ as many as 2,500 people. The average annual salary for the new jobs will be $56,327, about 50% higher than Cabarrus County’s $37,808. The company could receive up to $2.6 million in state grants, plus local tax incentives of more than $10.5 million, if it meets hiring and investment goals.
CHARLOTTE — SmartSky Networks raised more than $66 million in a private stock offering, according to an SEC filing. Started in 2009 as Jetpool Ventures, SmartSky provides in-flight Wi-Fi service for airplane passengers. Haynes Griffin, founder of Vanguard Cellular Systems, which was sold to AT&T in 1999, is chairman and CEO.
CHARLOTTE — Electrolux will acquire Anova, a San Francisco kitchen appliance company, for about $250 million. The Swedish company employs about 850 people at its North American headquarters here.
CHARLOTTE — Industrial-equipment manufacturer SPX Flow named Robert Hull Jr. chairman. Hull was chief financial officer of Mooresville-based Lowe’s from 2003 until his retirement in March. He succeeds Chris Kearney, who is retiring.
SHELBY — Clearwater Paper will invest $330 million in an expansion of its local facility, adding 180 jobs to its 264 over two years. The average annual wage for the new jobs will be $40,791. The Spokane, Wash.-based company makes private-label tissue products. Clearwater could receive more than $2.6 million in state grants if it meets hiring targets.
MIDLAND and NEWTON — Corning Optical Communications will invest $67 million and create 210 jobs in a new optical-cable plant in Newton in Catawba County. The company, a division of New York-based Corning, also plans a $109 million expansion of its Midland plant, in Cabarrus County, adding 200 jobs. Corning, with sales topping $3 billion last year, employs more than 3,000 people in the state.