Punta Gorda brokerage prides itself on unconventionality
The first thing Chuck Thomas wants you to know about his Maxim Commercial Real Estate LLC is that “everything we do is unconventional.”
Unconventional as in the decision to start a commercial real estate brokerage firm in 2009, in the midst of the worst economic recession in the U.S. in seven decades.
As in locating it in Charlotte County, the smallest commercial real estate market along the Gulf Coast.
As in electing a month ago to move the business inside an RV sales and repair complex in Punta Gorda, which Thomas bought after listing the property last year because it was “such a good deal.”
“Looking back, yeah, it was the worst time in the world to start a brokerage, and it’s a small market, and the economy was bad and no one knew when it would recover,” says Thomas, 56.
“But at the same time, there was no one else really focused exclusively on commercial real estate in Charlotte County, and even though when I started I didn’t have any listings, I knew how to beat the pavement.”
That skill could increasingly come in handy if Charlotte County continues to attract residential development and commercial interest, after decades of economic malaise.
Today, the Punta Gorda Airport deplanes as many passengers as does that of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Developments like Babcock Ranch are gaining traction — and buyers — after surviving the last decade’s recession. Cheney Bros. Industries put the area on the corporate map when it opened a major distribution center in the county just off Interstate 75 a few years back.
New apartment complexes are being planned, for the first time in nearly two decades, and retailers and lodging companies ranging from Wawa to Burlington Coat Factory to Holiday Inn and Dick’s Sporting Goods are building.
Thomas is poised to take advantage of the pending influx, though he has no plans to stop making his own listing signs, a skill he taught himself how to do “because that way I know they’re right.”
The lack of convention also extends to Maxim’s marketing director, Margeaux Vallee, a dancer and Maine transplant whose parents ran a 500-seat restaurant when she was growing up, and to Thomas, as well, who prefers to wear shorts to work (“I’m more comfortable this way, so I get more done”) and who is outfitting a former garage inside Horner’s Auto Repair Inc. into his primary office.
(For the record, Thomas maintains his primary office is, and will remain, his pickup truck, where he keeps an iPad fired up for research and to track appointments and a post-hole digger to plant signs.)
“I want to be the only person anyone calls for commercial real estate in Charlotte County. I need 100% of the business — and I won’t be happy til we get there.” — Chuck Thomas, Maxim Commercial Real Estate
Behind the eccentricities, though, Thomas has a solid commercial real estate pedigree, and more than three decades of industry experience.
That experience dates to 1985 when, shortly after graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Thomas landed a job with grocery giant The Kroger Co.’s real estate department.
There, Thomas completed a dozen sale/leaseback deals, developed a 220,000-square-foot distribution center in Tennessee, renegotiated a lease on a 1.1 million-square-foot manufacturing plant and leased 100,000 square feet of company office space to third parties.
Nine years later, Federated Department Stores hired Thomas as one of five real estate managers nationwide, where he was tasked with selling surplus properties or renegotiating lease deals from San Francisco to New York.
While with the parent of Macy’s and other department store chains, he also sold a 1.8 million-square-foot distribution center in Massachusetts and built a corporate data center in Atlanta.
But Thomas felt burned out and constrained by corporate life. In 1999, he earned his real estate broker’s license struck out on his own.
“I knew I didn’t need to make a million dollars a year, but what I did need was personal control,” Thomas says.
Two years later, he and some partners developed a 28-acre tract outside Cincinnati into a $55 million retail project containing a Sam’s Club warehouse store, Target and a Meyer grocery store.
Business was good, but Ohio had what Thomas considered a major drawback: He could only use his boat a small part of each year.
So in 2004, Thomas picked up and moved to Charlotte County, a place his grandmother and mother had lived for a time and where he had come on more than one Spring Break getaway while in school.
It didn’t take him long to fall into the rhythm of Punta Gorda.
“Here, it’s a small town. You actually get to know people,” Thomas says. “And traffic in places like Tampa or Miami? They can keep it. Plus, I can use my boat almost year round. I just kinda stuck.”
Thomas has become involved with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary, and since 2010 has been a member of the City of Punta Gorda’s Planning Commission.
He doesn’t like, or use, voicemail, if he can help it. Clients seem to appreciate his down-home approach combined with his big-city real estate acumen.
“He’s a very professional broker,” says Buz Berson, head of Berson Properties, who retained Thomas and Maxim to lease a 14,000-square-foot industrial project the company had developed last year.
“He’s very thorough and I respect his ability to get the job done.”
Thomas remains somewhat ambivalent about Charlotte County growth. He enjoys the small-town flavor of his newfound community, but he’s also practical is assessing its sustainability.
“We definitely need more people here,” Thomas says. “You can’t just have all retirees; we need people who work, too. And we need some element to attract and retain young people here, especially because there’s no beach like a lot of other areas have.”
Whether all the proposed development comes to fruition in Charlotte County and draws people with it remains in question.
By contrast, Thomas’ goal for Maxim isn’t. In fact, his plans for the next five years are downright corporate — and uncharacteristically a bit conventional.
“I want to be the only person anyone calls for commercial real estate in Charlotte County,” he says. “I need 100% of the business — and I won’t be happy til we get there.
“I want to be the Barry Seidel of Charlotte County,” he says, referring to the founder of American Property Group of Sarasota Inc., a successful commercial real estate brokerage firm.
Thomas plans to open a second Maxim office, too, possibly in North Port, or Venice.
“That’s where all the younger people are, and that’s because it’s still very affordable,” he says. “You look at the (Atlanta) Braves complex that’s being built and the growth of Thomas Ranch, and I just know that area is going to do well.”