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The Fort Wayne office of Northill Corp. only looks formal-green-and-cream marble floors, contemporary furniture and views overlooking a pond and trees. its employees, though, some 250 of them, often stroll through in shirt sleeves instead of three-piece suits.

The lack of pretension starts at the top. On a summer day, Northill's president, Thomas J. Eckrich, is likely to show up in the headquarters of the company he owns wearing a mesh-knit shirt and, perhaps, cowboy boots. But the casual approach stops with dress. There's nothing casual about this developer's growth. Best-known in northeastern Indiana for two projects-a premier apartment complex, Canterbury Green, and Fort Wayne's most luxurious housing development, Sycamore Hills-Northill is spreading its wings. in his southwest Fort Wayne office (in an office complex Northill is building), Eckrich talks of building more golf-residential developments, three or four new apartment communities a year and possible commercial projects. This conversation might seem a little incongruous in a year during which the national business press has been full of real-estate gloom-and-doom.

We stay the hell away from places that got overbuilt,' Eckrich declares. There are no Northill projects in Texas outside the state capital of Austin. Eckrich has no interest in going into California, where the rate of growthand the costs involved-deter him. The firm also has had no problems finding money. Northill's track record has kept lenders interested, Eckrich says, even as banking regulators started looking hard at many real-estate loans.

Eckrich, now 52, started building apartments 20 years ago. For the 10 years followis graduation from Notre Dame University, he worked in production and marketing for the Peter Eckrich & Sons meat-processing company, then owned by his family. Eckrich has said he knew a lot more about bologna than real estate when he founded Northill.

The Fort Wayne native got his start in real estate by working with an established developer, Harold Palmer. The pair knew enough about the city to pick a prime spot for an upscale apartment development. They selected a site on the fast-growing northeast side, adjacent to the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne and a few minutes from U.S. 30, for Canterbury Green, a 2000-unit luxury apartment complex. With a nine-hole golf course, washers and dryers in every apartment and wood-burning fireplaces in many, the complex became and still is-one of the city's top apartment communities.

Northill remained firmly an apartment company until the mid-80's. The company bought and managed some other properties in Fort Wayne. Then, as the economy slowed in Indiana, it expanded to the Sun Belt where it built five apartment communities, three in Tulsa, Okla., with a combined total of 712 units and two in Austin, Texas, with a total of 508 units. Northill also built a 228-unit complex in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Northill began to look at other fields of real estate into which to expand, not so much because of events in Fort Wayne, but largely because of events in Washington. Caught in the 1986 Tax Reform Act were real-estate tax shelters. Even developers, such as Northill, that weren't dependent on investors looking to cut their tax liability, had to refigure the economics of projects because of changes in depreciation schedules. After hearing former U. S. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan discuss the implications of the legislation at a meeting in Texas, Eckrich flew back to Fort Wayne. He met with Northill's then-small staff to begin planning a different strategy.

Eckrich decided to wait out the storm. He would concentrate on managing Northill's properties for a few years. Those now include, besides Canterbury, about 1,635 units in six Fort Wayne complexes, and a 200unit complex in nearby Angola. But the company made its biggest splash in Fort Wayne with its Sycamore Hills development. Building upscale homes around a golf course was not a new concept-but it was new to northeast Indiana.

The centerpiece of the Sycamore Hills development in southwest Allen County was an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. The golf course alone was an attraction, but what really got the town talking were the houses. in a city where a $200,000 house was a big undertaking a few years ago, Northill unveiled an entire development of houses with price tags of $300,000 and up. The layout showed 284 lots, a few of which were set aside for condominiums and villaminiums that would sell at the bottom of that very pricey scale.

The building was fast and furious at first. Although construction and sales of existing houses slowed last year and in 1990, Eckrich isn't concerned. Sycamore Hills is not like a development of $80,000 or $1 00,000 houses that will be built and sold out in a couple of years. Rather, Eckrich says, it could take five to seven years to complete Sycamore Hills.

On Fort Wayne's north side, where Eckrich himself is a resident, Northill has snared two prime, large, undeveloped properties. The company began construction on North Pointe Woods three years ago and began site work on Wyndemere this year. Covington Hollow, on the southwest side, also is under way.

Another residential development with a golf course designed by 1990 U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin is planned adjacent to Sycamore Hills. Site work on Lake of Sycamore, as it is to be called, will start in the spring. Houses in all these developments will be priced below Sycamore Hills, although in the upper range of the local housing market.

Now, Northill's residential lot division, headed by Fort Wayne's first economic development director Karl Bandemer, is ready to take that experience elsewhere. Planning is underway for golf-residential developments in three other locations:

At Catawba Island, a resort near Port Clinton, Ohio, the company is expanding a nine-hole golf course to 18 holes and overseeing the construction of 384 condominiums. * A 700-acre tract in the southwest St. Louis suburbs is slated to be developed with a golf course and, perhaps, a horse stable. * In Birmingham, Ala., the company will be the master developer of a 3,000acre tract. In preliminary stages now, the project eventually could include two golf courses.

Today, according to Eckrich, Northill often gets a first bid for prime development opportunities in Allen County. Now, the company is trying to establish the same sort of presence elsewhere. Northill is looking at what may be called second-tier cities, cities with smaller populations than major metropolitan centers, but with promising futures.

Eckrich has a simple test cities must pass to justify a first look. "If employment is growing," he says, "we go visit that community and learn about it." Eckrich likes to see job growth of 2 percent to 3 percent a year, such as Fort Wayne has experienced for the past several years. Double-digit gains he finds a little scary, too. They maybe a signal that double-digit declines are in the offing, he says.

These guidelines have led Eckrich to places such as Dayton and Toledo in Ohio. No Sun Belt glamour, but solid success for Northill. The company is charting several cities, primarily in the Midwest and Southeast, to track job growth over several years. Nothing spectacular in most cases, Eckrich says, but a nice steady curve.

Northill's immediate goal, according to Eckrich, is to build three or four complexes a year. "We've been aggressively at this for a year and a half," he says. in another four or five years, he expects to have a good network going in several cities so the company has an early chance at prime ground. By then, the division, headed by Bill Bradshaw, should be building five or six projects a year, if plans go right.

Those figures might sound surprisingly optimistic, given the publicity about apartment vacancies and overbuilding in some areas. But Northill has remained fairly immune to that problem. First of all, the company is in few, if any, of those overbuilt markets. Even Tulsa, battered by the oil recession, is rebounding, Eckrich says.

Second, Northill's growth was more conservative than that of developers backed by savings and loans and Wall Street investment bankers. In the early to mid-80's, Wall Street was pumping $1 billion a week into real estate, Eckrich says. The highfliers were committing to four or five projects in a week, 52 weeks a year, he says. But now Northill is ready for the '90s while many of its former competitors have disappeared.

It also is ready for its third role-commercial real estate.

In Fort Wayne, the company has built and is managing several office buildings, ranging from the elegant Pointe inverness, where the company is headquartered, to frame buildings housing smaller companies. The biggest opportunities, however, lie in major projects for corporations, Eckrich says.

The first of those was Tokheim Corp.'s new headquarters at interstate 69 and Dupont Road on the city's north side. The partnership with Tokheim spurred Northill's initial thrust into commercial development. "They're in the business of building gas pumps," Eckrich says of the Fort Wayne-based company. "They're not going to build more office buildings."

But the commercial division's major current project is completely removed from the world of off ices. The company is building Fort Wayne-based Central Soya Co., Inc.'s new 200,000square-foot hog processing plant in Delphi. The project, for Soya's new indiana Packers Co. subsidiary, is state-of-the-art for the meat processing industry and is scheduled to be completed late this year.

That project shows that Northill's commercial division, which is headed by David Arnold, is willing to tackle just about anything. Eckrich describes the division as much more than a general contractor. Northill provides turnkey services, and planning in close consultation with its clients.

The commercial division is the real wild card in the company's growth, Eckrich says. He thinks the Fort Wayne office market can only absorb 50,000 to 100,000 square feet of new office space a year.

The boost for the division will have to come from elsewhere. "It's up to us to develop the skills and sales ability to sell it," Eckrich says. The prize is enticing. He figures two or three big projects a year could add $30 million to $40 million in business.

It would sound nice and well planned to say the three legs of Northill's business are planned to balance one another and provide solidity during real-estate cycles. But Eckrich doesn't think it works that way. 'All three markets have their own energies," he says. We see our biggest downfall in growing too fast."

Eckrich also firmly believes in the local nature of the real-estate business. His key to success is knowing a community as intimately as possible. And the community closest to Eckrich's heart remains Fort Wayne, where he has taken a leading role in the business community. He chaired the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce's fund-raiser for economic development, which is one of his chief concerns. He also has helped in the fund-raising efforts of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

Tom Eckrich is a firm believer in the saying that a community that is not growing is dying. That has led him to butt heads with slow-growth and nogrowth advocates, but there's no sign he's shying away from those battles. Some cities see themselves as growing, thriving communities. Other cities see themselves as status quo," he says. His experience has taught him that the ones that try to maintain the status quo, more often than not, find themselves slipping back.

Eckrich will be found-along with Northill-in growing places.
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Title Annotation:Profile; Northill Corp.
Author:McKenna, Lynne
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:company profile
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Previous Article:Manufacturing entrepreneur: James W. Ake.
Next Article:At the crossroads: Indiana's infrastructure.

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