Behind the scenes on Ballantyne’s $1.2 billion sale: ‘A deal that wanted to be made’

Ballantyne Corporate Park.
Ballantyne Corporate Park.

When Charlotte developer Bissell Cos. decided to sell Ballantyne Corporate Park, the company’s top executives knew a few things: They wanted to keep the sale quiet. They wanted a buyer who would take the whole company, and keep most of the employees. And they wanted someone with a vision.

After months of quiet negotiations, Bissell sold Ballantyne Corporate Park to New York-based Northwood Investors in a deal that closed last week. The private real estate investment company paid about $1.2 billion for Ballantyne Corporate Park, the biggest single real estate transaction in Charlotte’s history by a factor of four.

The sale ushers in a new owner for the most prominent development outside of Charlotte’s core, a virtual new city that’s sprung up on the city’s periphery in the past 21 years under the unified planning of Bissell.

“To be able to find somebody who might want to step into those shoes, that would be exactly what we want,” Ned Curran, longtime CEO of Bissell, told the Observer in a plush meeting room at the Ballantyne Hotel. He’s staying as president of Northwood Office, the name of the new entity running Ballantyne Corporate Park, and most of Bissell’s 600 other employees are staying in place as well.

When it comes to vision, Northwood Investors CEO John Kukral said his company is going to explore how to make Ballantyne a denser, mixed-use community that appeals to the coming generations of corporations and employees.

“Will people want something different than the classic office building of the 80s? I think so, and that’s what we’ll have to deliver,” Kukral said. “We’re just at the beginning.”

Northwood’s planning will involve everything from looking at building more shops, housing and new hotels, to bringing more public transit to Ballantyne (such as bus rapid transit or a train) and planning for a future where the acres of parking lots that surround most of Ballantyne Corporate Park’s buildings might not be necessary.

“Fifteen years from now, will everybody be in a driverless car?” Kukral asked. “If you don’t need all this parking out here, what do you do with all that space?”

Curran said the ability to plan for Ballantyne’s future with a single, unified owner is one of the main reasons they wanted to avoid breaking up the corporate park and selling it piecemeal.

“It’s fun to hear this kind of vision,” said Curran. “If they just owned three buildings, they couldn’t really impact the totality of the property.”

The total amount of property Northwood acquired in Ballantyne is enormous: Office buildings totaling 4.2 million square feet (Bank of America has the option to purchase one of the buildings it occupies), an 18-hole golf course, four hotels totaling almost 600 rooms, and the entitlements to build another 1.5 million square feet worth of office space.

Tenants at Ballantyne Corporate Park, which covers 535 acres, include MetLife, SPX, Wells Fargo, Snyder’s-Lance and TIAA. Some 15,000 employees work at Ballantyne Corporate Park. The office park is still growing: In October, Wells Fargo leased the newest and largest building at Ballantyne, where 1,600 employees will work.

Bissell Cos., founded by Charlotte developer Smoky Bissell, has long developed and managed the corporate park. Bissell bought the first 414 acres that would become Ballantyne Corporate Park from his brother-in-law, developer Johnny Harris, for just over $20 million in a handshake deal, according to the company’s history.

When Bissell decided to sell, they wanted to keep it quiet. Brokers approached selected buyers, rather than advertising the deal.

“We were discreet in terms of evaluating interest in the marketplace,” said Curran. “Very early on, Northwood was identified as someone who might have interest.”

Northwood Investors isn’t as familiar a name to many in Charlotte as Bissell and Harris, but the company has been active locally through its subsidiary Northwood Ravin. That company focuses on apartments, and owns the 51-story Vue apartment tower uptown. Northwood Ravin is building another apartment tower totaling 20 stories on Stonewall Street, as well as more apartments on Providence Road and at the Village at Commonwealth on Commonwealth Avenue.

Marshall Nevins, managing director at Northwood, said Bissell advisers first approached them in late August. The week before Labor Day, Northwood executives flew down and met with top Bissell executives.

“Things heated up through September,” said Nevins.

Curran said the executives hit if off quickly, and Northwood’s interest in buying the whole property was what Bissell was looking for.

“It didn’t take long at all to say this is the right fit,” he said. “It was a deal that wanted to be made.”

By the third week in October, the companies had a handshake deal. After that, it was just a matter of lining up the financing and working through the complexities of buying more than four million square feet of real estate held by dozens of different corporate entities.

Curran and Kukral both said there weren’t any major celebrations when the deal was finally, officially done at midnight on Feb. 28. Asked what he did to celebrate, Kukral quipped, “Take a nap.”

Curran said there haven’t been major changes on the ground yet.

“We’ve already integrated so well together that it’s business as usual,” he said. “It’s really just roll up your shirtsleeves and go.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo