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Trading up.

Trading Up

Some people are born hungry. You know the type. They're the kids hustling magazine subscriptions at eight, throwing two paper routes at 12, peddling vacuum cleaners door to door for college money. By high school graduation, their fat bank accounts often dwarf the holdings of their own fathers. T.J. (Juddy) Tolson -- real estate investor, self-described horse trader and dealmaker -- is a prime example.

A story told by Carolyn Ward, part owner of Real Estate Central/Ward-Gibson, testifies to Tolson's youthful exuberance. He came to Ward-Gibson in the mid-seventies fresh from Arkansas Tech in his hometown of Russellville, where he had earned a business and economics degree. He was a real estate appraiser with the highway department, but he'd read all the books -- the ones whose collective message boils down to one generic title: "How To Strike It Rich in Real Estate." Ward-Gibson gave the eager youngster a chance, and Tolson worked hard for his mentors. He also began acquiring properties on his own -- as Ward's partner, J.L. Gibson, discovered one day when he overheard the receptionist answering the phone, "Tolson Investments."

"What?" Gibson asked, alarmed. "How are you answering our phone?"

The receptionist explained. "Juddy told me when I answer on this line up here, to just say `Tolson Investments.'"

Brash? Some might say so. Cocky? Single-minded? Tolson's level gaze and blunt conversational style, tempered by good manners the likes of which only Southern mothers instill in their sons, make no lie of that assessment. He seems younger than his 37 years, an image created by his red-headed, boyish good looks and his "yuppie casual" style of dress -- freshly-ironed jeans and color-coordinated shirts and sweaters. Vitality is his aura, and ideas click rapidly past his eyes, like the numbers in an old-time cash register. Sitting behind his European-style desk (the sign in front of his heart-of-the-Heights office reads, legitimately now, "Tolson Investments"), and pointing to a framed rendering of the property out west that he will develop one day (his IRA, he says), or surveying the site of the newly-purchased $400,000 home he's renovating on prestigious Edgehill Road, he's forever figuring, always looking for the deal behind the deal.

Tolson concentrates his considerable energies on rental property -- single family dwellings and apartments in the Heights. He buys first and second discount mortgages and does all his own financing. But, he says, "I invest in anything, from automobiles to stock, silver, race horses...I'll go to auctions, garage sales, I'll buy 50 refrigerators at one time, or 50 bicycles."

Some might dismiss Tolson as just a small trader in the large pond of central Arkansas investors. But, Gibson is quick to defend Tolson.

"What's wrong with that?" asks Gibson, bristling at the criticism of her former protege. "He's quick to spot an opportunity and he's quick to seize on it. A lot of people are afraid to do that."

Longtime pal and fellow wheeler-dealer, Municipal Court Traffic Judge Bill Watt -- who runs his own operation, William W. Watt & Cos. Real Estate -- speculates that such censure arises from a lack of understanding by members of the business community who built their holdings from a strong financial base.

"When you don't have that to start out with," says Watt, "the only way you can ever get to a point where you're financially stable is to work hard and to trade."

Watt illustrates his point: "If I trade you an apple for an orange, then take that apple and give you two bananas, and then take those two bananas and trade you back for three oranges, I'm making a profit. And if I'm a trader, then I'm a trader. And some people have difficulty with that way of doing business, simply because they don't know how to do it. Juddy will out-trade you very quickly, if you don't pay attention to what you're doing," concludes the judge.


What Tolson does is hustle the market. "I've been doing it for 15 years, and I stay on top of everything that's going on," he says. One Tolson tactic is to research the owner of a visibly deteriorating house and make them a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

"I put the fire to people's feet. Usually I give them one hour to make a decision, or it's history."

Tolson has grand plans for the Edgehill Road property, including a waterfall and kidney-shaped pool. In just two weeks, his crew has transformed its gutted rooms and redesigned the exterior; already they are unrecognizable from Tolson's "before" pictures. He will occupy the house with his wife, Barbara -- a decorator who designs the interiors of his houses -- and their baby girl, Francesca.

Occupy it, that is, until the day an interested party shows up with the right price. It will be "history" then. It's the Tolson philosophy: "Everything's for sale."

Tolson is undeniably driven to succeed, but insists it's the deal he covets and not power and influence. Real estate appraiser Bek Kaiser, who has known Tolson since their highway department days, believes Tolson is "too independent" to throw his hat in the ring with the city's movers and shakers.

Watt thinks, "What Juddy has an interest in doing is...making sure that he's comfortable and that his family is well protected -- and then that he has enough money to where he can make deals. Making deals is the fun that we have."

About the property he acquired five years ago -- out past Chenal Valley in the Ferndale area -- Tolson's content to bide his time. He's a patient man, but he doesn't believe in procrastinating when it comes to long-term investments. The meek do not inherit the deal. In his fast-paced, no nonsense clip, he delivers one final exhortation.

"You have to do it, and get in over your head, and worry about swimming later."

Did he make that up? "Yeah, just then," he says, smiling, pleased with himself...clearly very pleased with himself. Letha Mills is a freelance writer living in Little Rock.

PHOTO : T.J. Tolson, self-described horse trader, is slowly clawing his way to the top of the Little Rock residential market with little overhead and lots of sweat equity.
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Title Annotation:horse trader T.J. Tolson
Author:Mills, Letha
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 12, 1990
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