The Real Estate Syndication Show

WS1946 Innovation In Real Estate | Highlights Nelson Marsh

February 18, 2024 Whitney Sewell Episode 1946
The Real Estate Syndication Show
WS1946 Innovation In Real Estate | Highlights Nelson Marsh
Show Notes Transcript

Join Deana Berg for an enthralling episode that takes us beyond the familiar territories of apartments and storage units! This time, we explore the world of unique and irreplaceable properties with the intriguing Nelson March III.

A polymath and self-proclaimed "Lord," Nelson is making waves with his unique approach to property restoration and community revitalization. His journey is one of passion, adaptability, and resilience. From a homeschooled kid who graduated at 14 to a 22-year-old running for city council, Nelson's story is an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs and community leaders.

Tune in to learn:

  • How Nelson turned a credit card-funded dream into the world's largest by-the-glass wine bar, doubling sales every six months for five years!
  • The concept of "redemptification" coined by Nelson's Marsh Collective, transforming over 300 historic properties in Opelika, Alabama, and revitalizing a once-desolate town.
  • Nelson's philosophy of creating a symbiotic relationship between development and hospitality, uniting communities with a shared vision.
  • The power of vision, creativity, and love in transforming not just buildings, but entire communities.

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SPEAKER_01: This is your daily real estate syndication show. I'm your host, Whitney Sewell. Today, we've packed a number of shows together to give you some highlights. I know you're going to enjoy the show. Thank you for being with us today.

Deana Berg : Awesome, Marsh. Welcome to the show. Thanks for being with us today.

Nelson Marsh: Well, thank you for having me from all the way from sunny Opelika, Alabama.

Deana Berg : Man, it is sunny. Before the show, you told me it's a cool 70, balmy 70 degrees there in December.

Nelson Marsh: It is delightful. I admittedly did not get the yard work I was planning to get done in autumn because I spent a month in Italy and so, which was not terrible, but man, we are blessed to have it warm enough to get out there and actually do something this time of year.

Deana Berg : Wow. Well, I'm excited about today's show. You and I met in Santa Barbara recently at the Redemptive Real Estate Conference, the first ever of its kind. And I was sitting at your table and you were the speaker on the last morning. And I was absolutely captivated not only by your blazer and sock and shoe combination, which were amazing. We should talk about that as well, but by what you shared and how You conveyed and communicated what you're doing. It's just so different and unique. And it really stood out amongst the whole weekend. And there were some great speakers there. But I loved what you shared. So I invited you on the show.

Nelson Marsh: Well, thank you for having me. I find that the disco ball sequined tuxedo jacket, mismatched socks, and metallic gold shoes does make a little bit of an entrance at the real estate conferences. It was an amazing event though. I tell you the, so I was speaking there on hospitality and putting hospitality in your business, which is an enormous passion of mine. And I was just amazed how receptive that room was. I mean, if you went and told the lay person that you had a room full of real estate professionals and multifamily guys and asset managers and fund managers, and that they were going to respond to someone you know, kind of rousing them to entertain people in their homes and put hospitality and how they deal with their vendors. I don't think you would find a lot of people who would have expected the response. I mean, I just the whole literally from the time I got off the stage until we left, it was just solid people telling me these incredible stories of putting hospitality and love into what they do and what really is often an unsexy business.

Deana Berg : Hmm. Yes. Let's start with your email signature. Oh, yeah. Nelson March, the third polymath in residence, lead hospitality consultant, Marsh collective. Give us an overview of what all of that means.

Nelson Marsh: Wow. That's a good one. Okay. Well, I bought one of those Lordships online because I've always, I've always thought nobility was a little bit silly.

Deana Berg : What is it for a woman to buy? I got to buy one of those.

Nelson Marsh: It would be a ladyship. I am so impressed. It's like $60. And you know, I mean, the other thing is like, Madonna's name isn't Madonna. Like you can call yourself whatever you want. And I wanted to be a Lord. It looked fancy. And, uh, and now when I book things, people, you know, they're, they're always very prompt and, and on with it. So it really helps with like, with, uh, booking appointments and restaurants. So, um, so anyway, I bought this title and, uh, I did, I just thought it was a lot of fun. And, um, anyway, so I put it on the email signature. I am the polymath in residence, which is a title I gave myself. For anyone out there listening who's in a family business, I am the oldest. I am the kind of the scion or progenitor in our family business. My parents are very, very much first generation wealth and entrepreneurs. And so I have a lot of hats. And it was funny here recently, I had a day where in one day, I wrote this rousing that we have these documents I create called love letters is sort of rousing concept idea to present to somebody. And then I was helping fix a spreadsheet. And then later that afternoon, I was out driving our big diesel truck ripping trees out of the ground. So, so I just finally had to say I do a lot of stuff. And I am the lead hospitality consultant there. So most of my professional experience outside of the family business and indeed within it has been in the hospitality industry. I built and ran the largest by the glass wine bar in the world in my early 20s. And that was an adventure I'm happy to talk about if you want. But anyway, coming back into the business a few years ago, I really just had this heart for tying in the disparity between these capital conversations and construction and development conversations, and then the soup to nuts nature of a restaurant or of a bar. I mean, these are very, very sophisticated businesses. And so what I always tell people is, if you don't think it takes a lot to run a restaurant, imagine this. If I told you I had a $12 million a year business, we had about 100 employees, we changed our whole staff twice a year, We did direct-to-consumer sales. We were in about 35,000 square feet with a tourism component. It was a seasonal business. And we were in manufacturing. We had 55 vendors and everyone's W-2. You go, that's an impressive business. You must be busy. But if I told you that I own the Joe's Crab Shack in Branson, Missouri, well, you'd probably not think much of it. But so that's my job, is bringing those tensions together. The Marsh Collective, for those of y'all who don't know, we are an interesting thing. So, me and my family feel implicated to this little place, Opelika, Alabama. We have, over the last 20 years, restored over 300 historic properties here. We retain about 200 historic properties within 10 blocks in our downtown, and we believed in this town when no one else did. And it's a Lazarus story. You know, when we started, we bought our first building for $12,000, no money down and no payments for a year. I mean, I used to ride my bicycle on the sidewalks because you couldn't hit anybody. And there was less than $100,000 in taxable sales in our entire main street. Just dead as a rock.

Deana Berg : What year was that when you bought your first building?

Nelson Marsh: property? Our first one was in 2002. And so now the first property my parents did was actually the house that I live in now. My wife and I recently purchased it back into the family. It's this great old pre-Civil War home that was built in 1860, this big neoplasmal house. And it was listed right before they had me. The house was listed for $65,000. And they offered them $40,000 and they about tore their arm off. And they said my grandmother cried whenever they moved in because the neighborhood was so bad. But my parents, my dad was building totaled cars at the time. And one car at a time, every week, we lived in a little 600 square foot apartment that had been put in the basement in the 40s because we couldn't live in the main house. Seven years they restored this house. And then And then they mortgaged it to get the money to go in and restore this first other little house that they did. And then, you know, fast forward, here we are 300 properties later, and now we steward an entire city block. That's kind of our current project. And we've had the opportunity to go and help other people. So our clients are people of peace, you know, people that love their towns and normally family offices are or high net worth couples and they've gone and bought either most of or an entire town. So like one of our clients called us, he said, Hey, I've never been a landlord, but I grew up in a town with 2000 people and I bought 80 buildings. Help.

Deana Berg : Oh my word. I just, like, this seems so, uh, Just out there. But that's what I love about Marsh Collective, is you talk about something called irreplaceable real estate. And when someone calls you up, so the Marsh Collective, like the point and the function is that you act as kind of consultants for these folks who call you up and say, oh my gosh, I own a town. What do I do? I mean, where do you even start with them?

Nelson Marsh: Well, normally empathy. Because the funnel is long to get to us. It's very specialized. You can't just go hire people. We're next to one of the best architecture schools in the world and I can't hire anybody. I mean, God, I would love to be able to hire some folks, but it's weird work, right? Because we really speak because we had to do it with our own money and our lives. Like if you go in a restaurant, we've done every job from the dishwasher up through the owner and the developer. We own our own construction. I think we do asset manager and fund management and really even family office work on top of that. That's a specialized thing. But we work in we say that we are dealers in hope. I love I love the Napoleon Bonaparte quote that all all great leaders are dealers in hope. And so what we do is we often take people from something being impossible to being possible to being probable. And we do that by bringing love to the equation. So here's the challenge. What is irreplaceable real estate? Let's say I take you in a historic New England downtown and you have a mass general store. And we all know what that looks like, right? Masonry, two story, you know, about five to ten thousand square feet. wood windows. I mean, as long as you keep a roof on it, it's going to be there forever. Charming, beautiful thing that everyone wants in their town. Well, let's say in that same town, you've got a Dollar General across the street. Well, if they're zoned the same and the square footage is the same and you're getting the same rent on them, the bank says those are worth the same. Obviously, they're not worth the same. If they were, the insurance wouldn't be so much more expensive on the old one. Well, why is that? Because it's built with materials we can't get anymore, by people who don't live anymore, in ways we don't build anymore, and with entitlements you could never ask for. And so that makes real estate irreplaceable. And I always, you know, I always use the great example is within hotels. You probably have a Hilton or a Hyatt near you or something like that. If that thing was fire sold, If it sold for way below its value, you probably wouldn't be very surprised, right? Bad operator, whatever. Do you think anyone's ever going to get a deal on the Waldorf Astoria? No, there's value beyond the building. There are things that you can't get back. And so what we do is we go in and we say, hey, in lieu of taking the regular five-year perspective on these historic buildings that have been there for, you know, sometimes 200 years, We say, what if we took a long-term perspective? What if we said, what can I do that no one could undo in 50 years for the good of our city? And that's what we help our clients do.

Deana Berg : It's amazing work. That is so powerful. So you, I mean, okay, here's a question. How do people find you or do they buy the city after they learned that you did it?

Nelson Marsh: Oh, no. Well, we, uh, we're not, we're not nearly so, uh, so, um, voluminous in our team is to be able to go and take on a whole bunch of extra cities. Although we've never seen something we don't believe in. I mean, it really is redemptive for us. We believe that we don't tear anything down. We think everything can be saved and we only buy problems. In our personal portfolio, if there's stuff that's easy, that's simple, that's paint and a little bit of gutter work or something, that's for someone else. We buy dumpster fires and make them iconic. And so normally the way people come to us is that they've already bought the city and they're sweating bullets. And so they start going and trying to find other people who bought cities. And if you're in the world of people who bought entire downtowns or large portions of downtowns, then you're probably going to end up getting plugged in and having a Zoom call with us or something at some point or coming and seeing us in Opelika.

Deana Berg : Man, I love that. When I was, so I, I told you that the whole family, we got the whole family sequence jackets, I mean, partially inspired by your influence, but I also have a 11 year old who's, you know, very adventurous. And so we all just jumped on board. And so I was telling them about your shoes actually. And I said, Hey, my friend, Nelson has these shoes. And they were like, well, who's Nelson? And I was like, well, I think the definition of Nelson could be anti-disestablishmentarianist, which is one of their first words. So they knew exactly what I was talking about.

Nelson Marsh: Yes, absolutely.

Deana Berg : I mean, that sounds baseline what you are, but what you're doing and what I love about what you're doing and what your story and what really caught my attention was so often in real estate, we're like, man, we're focused on the bottom line. There's no way you can make money restoring irreplaceable real estate. Well, you are making another case for that. You've proven that argument wrong. Tell us a little bit about that, about how you create profit in this and how you create a draw for folks to come and visit. Talk about that.

Nelson Marsh: Well, God, that is this is a conversation I have all the time. So the short version of it is when I'm usually quite fired up about this, Y'all won't believe it, but I am a stoic by disposition. I'm just a passionate one. But if that's possible, I get fired up. I tell people all the time, I say, if you start with an empty lot and I start with four walls and no roof, I am ahead. Right. I have something there. But here's the problem. So why do we end up that way? Well, first, we perish for a lack of vision. Everyone thinks that you're going to get capital and vision's going to follow. That never happens. And if you want to see proof of this, Jeff Bezos has gotten the most expensive divorce in history, is richer than God, and all he's done is copied Pitbull's entire personality. Right? Having massive amounts of capital does not buy you access to creativity. And so, right, it's just everyone's weird uncle, but with a mega yacht and a yacht to follow that yacht. And so, Imagination is often a thing we think we can go out and build without vision. Well, no building is built without vision. You have to look at something that's not there and put it there. And the same thing with adaptive reuse, right? The container that we kind of typically operate in. You got to change the way you think about it. So first you have to ask yourself, is it possible that starting with something historic, which has baked in value that has been depreciated into oblivion, and I could never get back to if I wanted to, is there something there? Is there a way that I could take that baked in value and outperform it? So normally we find that these structures first, because of where we're working, it's shocking. what these things are purchased at. I mean, one of our clients bought 150,000 square feet of really nicely maintained, but not particularly pretty historic structures in their town for between $4 and $12 a foot. And we all know this story, right? These things are albatrosses, people don't know what to do with them. And so first, you can make up a lot in the fact that you can often spend less and acquire these incredible properties. But what we do is we really try and approach it with an integrated perspective all the way through. And so I'll give you a great example. My last iteration of my bar, we were in this beautiful building that I love. We have this historic bank in our downtown, and it was constructed in a very peculiar way. So basically, because it's next to the railroad tracks, the whole floor, the first floor, completely floats. It doesn't touch any of the walls. And instead, it's supported on these columns that are 30 feet tall and go all the way down into the cellar. And it allows it to move and it kept it from shaking it apart. Well, in the 80s, they came and rammed a big staircase through it, chopped it up, drop in ceilings, knocked a couple hundred holes in the ceiling, covered everything up with paneling. And you can see just a little bit of the trim. And they put some offices upstairs. Well, the offices upstairs are rented and they're keeping this asset alive that we have, but we knew we needed to replace that subfloor. So that floor system, I've never seen anything like it, was three layers of two-inch dimensional wood laid across each subfloor, four inches of concrete, two inches of mortar, and an inch of marble. Well, we peeled up the marble, cleaned it, stacked it, demoed all the way down into the cellar, carried it out, five-gallon buckets up a ladder, built a new floor system while the upstairs is running. But what we did is we got to claim that as a repair. So one of the things that's a huge advantage that no one gets in new development is everything you do is an improvement. Well, a lot of our stuff is repair. So when we put the floor back down, if we do it better, is it still a repair? Obviously. All right. Well, then what do we do about the drop ceiling? So we tear the drop ceilings out and A lot of times what we'll do is we'll demo back to beauty. See, people treat demolition like it's this heavy handed thing. We have our smartest guys and our most gentle and attentive people on demolition and sometimes on client work. If we're doing demo work in a really important space, me or one of our other people will go and be there on site, wearing a tool belt, making sure that we preserve the right things, that we stop at the right place. So what we did here is instead of tearing all the way back and going, Oh God, all this plaster is ruined. We got all the drop ceiling out and now we're sitting there in this incredible space, 14 foot ceilings and 22,000 board feet of plaster trim in a 2,500 square foot space. Fabulous, right? Incredible. And so what we did was we took and I couldn't find anybody who knew how to work with the plaster. So we patched all the holes. And then I took and bought a little oscillating tool and made molds and cast just enough of a trim to fix it. Now, we didn't go and scrape it out with a toothpick and all that and be conservators. Instead, we said, what's an appropriate level of stabilization that the building can wear its age, that the asset can perform well, but that it can be preserved into the future? And so we make a thousand of these little decisions all the way through. And what the summation of this is, is that our cost of construction is much, much, much lower. So that job, you know, 2,500 square feet. I know everybody who's doing construction on historic properties, they're just rolling through their head. You know, that job should have probably cost us about $800,000. And we ended up spending total, total, total by the time we were all the way finished about 300 and really built an amazing space. But the reason was we took and approached it with empathy and care and love at every step. And we try and at every single little turn, find the value that would be lost if we went in and we were just heavy handed. And now that's one example, but if you take and propagate that over an entire portfolio, you will be shocked how much money you won't spend doing stupid stuff.

Deana Berg : I mean, that is such a metaphor for so many things which I feel is the reason when you approach an entire city and that is your backdrop philosophy that you're able to be successful. I mean it's just rare, it's very niche and I love it. And I love how that dovetails into the way that you all do hospitality. I think you're starting to talk about that even now without saying that word, but that is very much how you do business. Now, I think we're going to do two episodes. And in the next episode, I really do want you to talk about how you got into this business and your early beginnings. It's an incredible story. But before we go there, the concept of creating a symbiotic relationship with hospitality in your development? I mean, you've mentioned that a little bit, but then getting a whole town behind the vision. I mean, these are high-level questions. A lot of our listeners are passive investors and they're just trying to buy their first deal or their second deal or their third deal. But if you can create a conceptual on-ramp to what you do that anybody can grab hold of, how would you do that?

Nelson Marsh: So I love, there's two sentiments that I love. First is that There is no such thing as a non-impact investment. Every investment makes an impact. Every dollar spent anywhere is a vote and it does something to the world. So it is how you're spending your money aligning with what you believe. But also the thing is implication, right? Look, none of us, there's no such thing as actual passive income. If it is passive, then what you're really doing is you're just paying someone to do the other part of the work. But there is work that comes with every income. Otherwise, people wouldn't get paid to manage properties, right? And everybody cites real estate as passive income. It's not. It's an active form of income. All income is earned. And so what I would say is, if you're looking around and you're saying somebody should do something, you're probably the somebody. And we can all bring our gifts to do this. And maybe you don't, you know, maybe you have You have capital and you have business expertise, but you don't have the social capital, right? So maybe you have the economic capital, but not the spiritual and social capital within your community. I promise those people exist. And it's never one person that changes a city. It's always a coalition of people uniting around a shared vision and loving a place. But if you can do it, if you can bring yourself to be a somewhere person, right to shout it from the rooftops and say, if you aren't here, you aren't anywhere. You can absolutely change your community and then you can live in your investment, which is way, way better than a mutual fund.

Deana Berg : Man, that's an invitation and an exhortation. I love that. So thank you for your encouragement and just for. breaking down the reality of like, you're, you're wearing the tool belt. You're wearing, you said at the beginning, you wear a ton of different hats. And I think the willingness to be adaptable and to do that opens up a lot of, a lot of pathways for, for lasting change in a community. What do you mean by redemptification real estate?

Nelson Marsh: Well, um, any of y'all who know John, who is our fearless leader and my father, We'll know that he's a fan of making up words. And we kept having people say, you know, this is, we're so worried about gentrification. And of course, having, you know, we bought, in our neighborhood, we saved, I mean, as a kid, we bought my first dog from a crack dealer. So like, it doesn't feel like gentrification if you're keeping someone from tearing down an abandoned house and making it into a home with a family. And so we said, well, it's not gentrification, it's redemptification. It's a radical love of place and it's an invitation to create lasting impact. And so we have conversations around that with people from every side you could imagine, from the tenant side to the construction side, landlords, capital, family offices. It's a wonderful time. And we're releasing a series here soon that some of our internal work where Our team gets together and talks about how we think about these things and how we work through them and why we do that. So it's a wealth of information and great conversation.

Deana Berg : Man, I'm going to check it out. And at the end of this episode, you can tell people how to find you on that. I'd love to continue our conversation. You made some allusions about a wine bar that you used to run. Let's back it up before you get into saving cities with irreplaceable real estate. Where did Nelson Marsh go when he left the house, and how did you find your roots as a burgeoning entrepreneur? Was it smashing success right out of the gate, or was it a blaze of glory that the fireball could be seen from miles away?

Nelson Marsh: Oh, Lord. ¿Por qué los dos? Sí, los dos está bien. Yeah. So I was a bookworm kid, and I was homeschooled. I loved learning. uh, graduated high school at 14, spent a year at community college, which I hated because my parents insisted I not move off to school until I, uh, could drive and then moved off at 16. So, uh, the school I went to was real hardcore liberal arts, you know, tiny old liberal arts institution, and they required everybody to study abroad. And, uh, you could either study abroad or take four years of Spanish. I can't speak a lick of Spanish. So, um, I guess fair, but I mean, you know, I can't speak Spanish and I wasn't taking four years Spanish class. That wasn't cool. I was studying physics and art and math and cool stuff. So I said, well, I'm going to go to Italy. Italy sounds great. That can't suck. And, um, everyone cool knows their wine and it's hard to get into. And the school I was going to there, it's a culinary school. I said, so I'm just going to sign up for all the wine classes and then I'll learn something cool. I bet the classes won't be that hard and I'll have a good time. Well, I was 18. I didn't even drink. And so they, I signed up for every class they have. And they send me a message and they go, uh, Hey, these are professional classes for people in the business. And we're worried you're not qualified for them. I said, look, I'm the most wine loving wine guy you ever met in your wine life. I'm going to be teaching you the class. I didn't know my ass from Abraham Lincoln. And so anyway, I flew over there, but I knew that I was a good reader. And they'd expect us to, you know, they'd expect us to take a week, you know, to get acclimated, live in another country. And so I bought all my books, I read them cover to cover, and I leaned in to that great family legacy. My dad at one point, before he was selling cities, was selling wrecked used cars. And so I could sell, right? And I got over there and I just bluffed my way straight into this business. Well, I fell in love with it, but I moved back and I'm only 18. So what do I do? Well, I said, I'm in Alabama. Nobody knows anything about Italian wine. And no one in the world is going to sit and listen to someone, give a talk, and then ID them. So I just started doing sommelier work when I was 18. I'd been selling stuff for three years before I ever got to the point that I could buy it. So fast forward, I'm doing this work kind of on the side. I'd been working back with a family business and, you know, dad, you're not cool. And I had been called back home. I was living in Florence, Italy. And I mean, I just had this incredible moment where I was much to my chagrin, really felt called back to home. And and so I get called back up like, what am I supposed to do here? Well, my dad and another guy talked me at 22 into running for city council, which was brutal. I knocked on a thousand doors in June, July and August on a bicycle. And mailed every registered voter my cell phone number. So my life was crazy. And so anyway, I lost, super contested. I lost by five votes out of a thousand. You're brutal, brutal.

Deana Berg : Oh, just, I mean, I can't believe you got that far. Like to me, that's a smashing success. I'm sure it felt like a horrible loss, but out of nowhere, it would have been better though.

Nelson Marsh: If I would've got 10 votes total, I would have at least been like, nobody wants this. Oh, it was brutal. So anyway, my dad goes, I was like, I have some time. What's going on? He said, okay, you want to run a business. You need to go crash one. You want to do this one thing. He said, why don't you do this? We got this little space in the back of this failed furniture store. There's a little space, and we'll give you a deal on the construction if you can pay the rent and if you can get the money. So I went and put 20 grand on a credit card, built a little five-seat bar, and we started with five wines by the glass, quickly grew to 10. Well, a year in, we're at 100. And my dad had thought like, I go do this for about six months and it would crash and burn. Well, we doubled in sales every six months for five years. So fast forward into year two, we now have 150 wines by the glass. The thing's still 35 seats, no sign. You know, it's me. Occasionally I get somebody to help wash dishes. We didn't have a dishwasher in the beginning. So sometimes my customers would be washing dishes. And it was hopping. And then I run into my first real business problem. The average waste in by the glass wine is 60% on a by the glass wine program.

Deana Berg : What does that mean? People are drinking only 40% of a glass.

Nelson Marsh: That means you only get to sell 40% of a glass. You pour out 60% of all the wine you buy.

Deana Berg : Hmm. Thank you so much. Great time with you today. So interesting, intriguing, and different from what we usually feature apartment buildings and storage units. So this has been an absolute joy and delight. Thank you, Nelson Marsh.

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