From the ground up

Twin Rivers Capital develops Family Dollar stores, among other chains.

Millions of people walk into Family Dollar or AutoZone stores every day across America.

Hardly anyone ever thinks about what it took to put the shops in a particular location.

For most of the stores for those two retailers and a few others in the Charleston area, that’s where Twin Rivers Capital steps in.

The Charleston commercial real estate developer searches for sites through five Southeastern states, coordinates with more than two dozen national retailers, secures funding and helps build stores in large and small communities.

Clients include not only the discount store and the auto parts dealer, but huge corporate chains such as McDonald’s, Verizon, Chick-fil-A and Wal-Mart.

In 13 years, Twin Rivers Capital has developed more than 100 properties valued at more than $150 million in the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia and Virginia.

Eighty percent of its projects aren’t in the tri-county area, but its head office is. The two-story building off Maybank Highway employs 14 workers, including founder and president JJ Lamberson.

Started in 2002 with a business partner in a carriage house on King Street, Twin Rivers grew out of Lamberson’s previous 10 years of commercial real estate experience with James Doran Co. of Mount Pleasant, where he mainly worked in apartment and commercial development.

“I moved up the ranks as far as I could go to the glass ceiling,” Lamberson said of the family-run business. “I might have been in the same job if I had stayed there, but I learned a lot in those 10 years.”

Calling himself “very entrepreneurial,” the College of Charleston graduate said he liked to follow his own ideas, so he struck out on his own. His partner was John Orr, now with the Charleston office of Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm.

“We were sitting in the Kickin’ Chicken on King Street having lunch when the (first) Gulf War broke out,” Orr said. “We had been talking about starting our own business before that. We expected during a war would be one of the worst times to launch a real estate development company.”

About 10 years passed before the two joined forces.

A group of friends sitting around drinking beer one night helped Lamberson and Orr come up with the company name, which plays off the Ashley and Cooper rivers.

“We liked boating and water and those types of things,” Lamberson said.

At his previous company, he hadn’t worked with retailers such as Family Dollar or AutoZone, so the two reached out to them.

“That was one of the missions — to do smaller projects and be quicker,” Lamberson said.

It wasn’t easy starting out.

“We more or less begged them for opportunities,” he said. “They threw us some bones on difficult deals so we would leave them alone. That meant we would have them awhile, but we didn’t give up and they were impressed with our work and kept using us. No one’s fired us yet.”

Orr had a relationship with AutoZone, and the two developed a store in Douglas, Ga., and another on U.S. Highway 17A near Summerville.

“Those two deals are what really launched the company,” Orr said. “We weren’t smart enough to quit. We eventually completed those projects and developed a reputation as the guys who could get it done.”

The business kept growing, and in early 2008, before a recession had been declared, Orr sold out to Lamberson to spend time with his family. “It was a lot of fun,” Orr said.

Twin Rivers usually scouts out sites, buys the land and finances construction before finally selling to the retailers themselves or real estate investors.

“We own the land and the building, though we eventually sell it,” Lamberson said. “That’s what makes it valuable. The income stream for a long-term lease is what creates the value.”

He estimates the company has built 40 AutoZone stores and at least 100 Family Dollar shops.

“For those guys, we have done so many, we know the criteria,” Lamberson said. That includes traffic, demographics and spacing between stores.

“Sometimes they tell us where they want to be,” he said. “If they aren’t sending us something to do, we are still out and about looking. They know we have the persistence and loyalty to get it done. We will show them sites to see if they want to be there. Most of the time we don’t own them yet. We just get their feedback.”

Starting the process usually entails letting clients know what is available and finding out what the tenant wants. Economics comes into play if someone isn’t ready to sell. If the price is too high, the retailer will look elsewhere. Other factors such as water and sewer service, grand trees and the physical characteristics of the site come into play as well.

“There are a lot of hurdles to trip on to get something you can build on,” Lamberson said.

It can generally take from nine months to two years to bring an undeveloped tract to a customer-ready store.

Sometimes a site doesn’t work out for whatever reason, such as an unwilling seller or other factors, and Twin Rivers looks elsewhere, but it doesn’t forget the tract.

“We have come back to sites years later,” Lamberson said. “Prices change, the site changes, owners change. There is a lot of patience involved sometimes.”

In smaller towns, Lamberson and staff members set up meetings with mayors or town managers to talk about a proposed project. In larger cities, Twin Rivers deals with planning staffs on the front end.

“We are on the road a fair amount,” Lamberson said.

And while business has been busy the past two or three years as the economy regained its footing following the deep recession, it wasn’t much fun during the downturn, he said.

“During that time retailers were closing stores, not opening them,” Lamberson said. “It was negative 10 stores or negative 25 stores coming from retailers. When they are all closing locations, it doesn’t matter how good you are.”

Twin Rivers dropped down to six or eight employees when the economy tanked, mainly through attrition.

But the recession also had a silver lining. As shoppers flocked to discount stores to save money, Family Dollar kept expanding.

And even with a sour economy and not much money coming in, Twin Rivers never faltered on its loans.

“That’s one of the things I’m proudest of,” Lamberson said. “On every deal, we have an impeccable record with all the lenders. That gave us a positive foothold coming out of the recession.”

Today, Twin Rivers is busier than ever, and trying to diversify with more contracts from a host of different retailers, such as Starbucks and others. It has 50 to 60 active projects and another 200 in predevelopment.

One of those locally is a new Family Dollar planned near Moncks Corner.

Also, Twin Rivers recently completed two other locations for the chain locally — one on Ashley Phosphate Road in North Charleston and another at Dogwood Road in West Ashley.

In an expanding economy, Lamberson said he could be working twice the deals, but because he and his staff prioritize, it helps keep the work in check.

“It feels good to be the decision-maker,” he said. “It helps to mentor and grow people here. It is fun seeing them learn what I think is the right way to do business. When that light turns on in their head, that’s definitely satisfying.”

Lamberson’s career goals changed many times during college, but his studies in architecture, civil engineering, accounting and eventually business administration set him up to run his own company.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said. “None of them was satisfying solely, but you stir them in a pot and you are a real estate developer.”

He concluded, “I love putting a deal together and working through the whole process. I like coming to a town, getting (someone) to sell property and getting the town to help with it. It’s satisfying to see a vision you had and seeing it accomplished.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.