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The Billion-Dollar Man
Tom Fidler, SVP/Principal, Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Services

March 2012

“I refuse to lose,” says Tom Fidler, referencing the tumultuous journey he conquered getting national retail giant JCPenney to a signed lease as the second anchor at the Boulevard at Box Hill. “When you know it’s the right transaction, the right opportunity, the right tenant, you make it happen.” Fidler’s tenacity in deal making and keen sense of the marketplace created the perfect recipe to ensure his success in the commercial real estate business.

Cutting His Teeth

Born and raised in Baltimore City, Fidler worked full-time in the construction business while he attended Calvert Hall College High School in Towson. A 1991 graduate of Towson University, Fidler studied business management in college. “I knew I always wanted to be in business management, project management, construction management. I just had a knack for that.”

His 21-year career in commercial real estate began at Kiddie Academy, a national educationally based childcare provider headquartered in Harford County. Kiddie Academy had just received its FTC approval to offer business franchises and hired Fidler as a real estate manager to research and scout franchising and real estate opportunities across the country. “Mr. [George] Miller asked me, ‘How do you feel about a part-time job?’ because they didn’t know how this was going to go. On my third day on the job, I was on a plane to Dallas. I didn’t know anything about real estate, but here I was traveling the country developing childcare facilities. I really cut my teeth there.”

The franchise concept was successful and Fidler traveled extensively over the next few years. The impending birth of his first child in December 1996 prompted Fidler to look for a different opportunity.

“It was time to grow up when I found out I was going to be a father. Traveling wasn’t enough. I left Kiddie Academy on Nov. 30, 1996 and started with Mackenzie on Dec. 1. My son was born Dec. 15. I went from a steady paycheck every two weeks to full commission and no base salary. I still remember looking at my checkbook that night. I had $231.78 to my name. But we made it. We struggled, but there are no regrets.”

 

Creating the Brand

The timing was perfect. Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Services was rooted in Baltimore County and had no real presence in Harford County at that time. Fidler’s contacts from his years at Kiddie Academy kept him networked locally and the country was coming out of the economic downturn from the early ’90s. “I think [the principals at Mackenzie] thought to themselves, ‘Here’s a young guy, lives in the market, has a family. Let him go and see what he does.’ I knew Harford County was going to grow. The residential explosion of 1996-97 had already started. My task was to build a brand for myself and for the company.”

Fidler’s first substantive transaction was the procurement of the Silver Spring Mining Company that opened in March 1998 at the corner of Bel Air and Tollgate Roads. “I was having dinner with my parents at Silver Spring’s location in Perry Hall. I liked the concept, so I asked to speak to the owner. Two weeks later, I was in the car with Gary Reisling showing him potential locations. Back in those days, you could sell a property on just the population numbers. Today it’s much more complicated and precise with customer spending levels, attributes, etc. Gary is still a personal friend.”

As Harford County grew, so did Fidler’s portfolio. He has worked on the Upper Chesapeake Health Ambulatory Care Center and Medical Arts Buildings, Bel Air Plaza, Swan Creek Village Center, Greenbrier Shopping Center and the Plaza at Beards Hill to name just a few profile projects. Including his transactions from around the region, Fidler has sold or leased more that 2.4 million square feet of real estate while at Mackenzie. In 2000, he received his first of eight “Heavy Hitters Awards” in real estate by the “Baltimore Business Journal,” the latest in 2011 for brokering Upper Chesapeake Health’s purchase of 70 acres in Havre de Grace to expand Harford Memorial Hospital. Fidler became the youngest partner at Mackenzie in 2002 and was named one of the “40 under 40 – Greater Baltimore’s Emerging Leaders” by the BBJ in 2003.

In addition to his large commercial work, Fidler has recently established Mackenzie Main Street Consulting, providing advisory services for Main Street revitalization groups like those in Taneytown, Mt. Airy, Ocean City and Bel Air.

 

Mr. Harford County

If you ask Tom Fidler to show you a picture of his “pride and joy,” don’t expect to see photos of grandchildren. He’s too young for that. What you’re more likely to see are photos of three Harford County projects that he’s most proud of: the future expansion of Harford Memorial Hospital, the Village of Forest Lakes and the Boulevard at Box Hill.

(L to R) Trish Gottesman, Research and Communications Manager; Tom Fidler; Katy Hayes, Marketing Manager; Laura Christou, Fidler’s partner on Harford County assignments; Matt Felton, Managing Director-MacKenzie GIS; Lance Dorn, GIS Specialist

“We were putting together a deal to sell over 70 acres of property in Havre de Grace to JDH Capital for development. Just as we were preparing to finish the deal, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. JDH had to abandon its plans for the property and the value of the property continued to fall.”

A 10-year board member for the Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation, Fidler knew the health care provider was interested in expanding its ambulatory services at Harford Memorial Hospital and in the Havre de Grace area. “I knew about this available property and I knew about UCH’s future plans. I knew this was an opportunity, so I reached out to Lyle Sheldon (UCH President/CEO) and Joe Hoffman (Chairman of the Board). Everyone was telling me there was no way it was going to happen. There was too much baggage with the property, the landowners, debt service and legal matters. Well four months later, we settled.”

According to a July 2010 press release from Upper Chesapeake Health, “the site will be master planned to eventually include an acute care hospital in the 150-175 bed range, which would relocate and rebuild Harford Memorial Hospital as a larger and more modern facility.” Fidler confirms that those plans should start to see progress sometime in 2015.

Reflecting on why this transaction makes his pride and joy list, Fidler states, “Here I was a city kid, not part of the county, not part of the old boys network. But yet I’ve touched some of the most substantive, economic, employment, capital-intensive projects in the county. So I’m proud of that.” Continuing he adds, “Then you have to take a step back from the transaction. I have no intention of going anywhere. I’ll probably be buried up there [in Harford County]. But to know that you were part of something that will give back for 100 years to the community is pretty cool.”

Tom Fidler Projects
Upper Chesapeake Health
Klein Shop Rite Markets
Kohl’s Department Store
Chick-fil-A
Applebee’s
Silver Spring Mining Company
BBT Bank
Bed Bath & Beyond
Jordan Thomas Salon
PNC Bank
Salvo Auto Parts
Swan Creek Village Center
Thomas Hayes Building
Dairy Queen
Carrollton Bank
Hickory Self Storage
Riverside Station Grille
Huntington Learning Center
Bill Bateman’s Grille
MacPhail Center
Freedom Federal Credit Union

Another pride and joy project that is growing up before our eyes is the Boulevard at Box Hill. Fidler was asked to a meeting in 2006 to discuss the future of the project with Bob Ward, who was developing the site as a corporate office park. “BRAC was just starting to ramp up, and we knew additional corporate office space was being developed closer to APG. We looked at the property and advised Ward to move into a more retail focused environment to take advantage of its regional location.”

Convinced of this new direction, Bob Ward was interested in acquiring Wegmans as an anchor. Unfortunately, Wegmans already had Harford County on its radar, but at a site closer to the Festival in Bel Air. They were just waiting for rezoning. “I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve lost deals and made the same deal,” Fidler chuckles. “I lost Wegmans because they said they were going to a different location. Then I lost it again because of changes in rezoning.” Finally, after a few stops and starts, Wegmans reached out to the Ward family. With Fidler’s help, Ward was able to show how the Boulevard at Box Hill site would draw regionally, so Wegmans would not just be a Bel Air store. Fidler relied on Mackenzie’s extensive marketing data that positioned the trendy grocery store smack in the center of a high concentration of affluent households with children and steep discretionary incomes – a proper site for their brand.

Securing the second anchor would be just as bumpy, Fidler says. “The Ward family told us not to cherry pick other projects. Don’t encumber our community by creating a vacancy somewhere else. Bring in something new. How often do you hear that from a developer? That’s how committed they are to the community.

“We sent our first letter to JCPenney in July 2008. It was touch and go for two years. First, they weren’t interested. Then they were interested, but the economy was bad. Then, they appointed a new president in October 2011 and the project almost stopped again. We really had to cultivate the relationship. Finally, everything fell into place and we signed the deal. With their new logo and branding plan, this will be one of only two or three new stores approved in 2012 and will be their prototype going forward.” The new store expects to open this fall and employ 200-300 local residents.

“With the acquisition of JCPenney, it’s been a catalyst for us to start conversations with other brands, like Ann Taylor Loft, Chico’s and White House/Black Market that need a strong co-tenancy and volume to survive. We also have local merchants who are approaching us saying they’re ready when we are. It’s a challenge to create the right mix of local and national brands, but we’re not in a hurry. We’re not developing for the next 18-24 months as we tweak our strategy. We don’t expect to be at the 99 percent completion mark until the fall of 2013. We want to do this right.”

 

Good for the Goose

While his children were attending elementary school and his wife started her teaching career, Fidler completed a five-year volunteer term on the Harford County School Board, including a year as president. He managed the $450 million budget and helped usher the system through a contentious redistricting. “It was a fabulous opportunity because it gave me access to executive level networking that would turn into great professional and personal relationships. But it also created many long nights and struggles within my young family.” Pointing to his head, he adds, “I attribute most of this gray hair to those years.” He did not seek reappointment when his term ended.

Fidler asserts that he is responsible for $1.86 billion in economic impact in Harford County and that makes him very proud. “When it takes 30 minutes to get from the gate at APG to 95 and know that you had an impact on that, yeah, I kick and scream a little, selfishly. But the bright side is that I know I’ve created jobs for a county that desperately needed it. I’m an active participant in the economic growth of my community. I take a lot of pride in that.

“Remember, I live in Harford County. I spend more than 50 percent of my time at my office in Bel Air. My wife is a teacher at Abindgon Elementary School, and I’m raising my two sons here. Therefore, I have a personal interest on how everything I develop impacts the county. I’ve turned down projects that I didn’t feel were a good fit for our company or the community, whether it was the capital funding or some other reason. Most of them did not move forward with a competitor, so I think I have a pretty good idea of what to touch and not touch.”

What does the future hold for Tom Fidler after the last parcel of development-zoned land in Harford County is gone and he leaves Mackenzie? Fidler smiles and says, “I’d like to try my hand at my own business, be an entrepreneur.” What kind of business? “Something in Harford County of course. Stay tuned.”

 

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