In a business that sometimes requires cutthroat tactics, James Brearley, with a non-conflict personality, has risen to the top.
Atlanta commercial real estate investor Jay Weaver needed some help leasing a 300,000-square-foot industrial park project, Peachtree Square, in 2004. Through his then-girlfriend, now wife, Weaver met James Brearley — a recent Georgia Tech grad who was an odd combination of laid back, chilled, Zen-like philosopher and ambitious, focused, goal-oriented nascent developer.
Weaver sized up Brearley, armed with his bachelor’s in civil engineering-construction. He offered him a deal: Weaver would pay Brearley either $3,000 up front or 1% of the profits in leasing the 16-unit complex, with buildings ranging in size from 13,000 to 26,500 square feet.
“I was just out of college,” Brearley chuckles some 15 years later, “and I thought hard about taking the cash.”
'I’m a people person. I like everyone to be happy, probably to a fault. But with this project I didn’t do either: I couldn’t make people happy and I couldn’t avoid conflict.’ James Brearley
But Brearley, now 40, thought bigger, and better, of it. He took the 1%. It was a major score, both financially — “It was a much better payout,” he says — and in lessons learned about real estate. A decade and a half later, Brearley has carved out a unique place in development in the region through his firm, JB Holding Co. Projects he’s worked on range from land mitigation banks to housing developments to, most recently, turning a deserted gas station on Longboat Key into a restaurant.
Brearley’s zigzag path befits someone who speaks with a surfer’s relaxed vibe, pauses often before answering questions and quotes Mickey Singer, a former WebMD executive and now nationally known mindfulness guru outside Gainesville. Even with the turns, Brearley’s career maintains one straight-on theme: He does projects he finds intellectually stimulating. “I don’t know if I call myself an entrepreneur,” Brearley says, “but I know I’ve never really wanted to work for anybody else.”
Weaver is of many in Brearley’s orbit not surprised by his success. “I knew he was going places,” Weaver says. “He got all the concepts very quickly. And he was such a good people person that when he didn’t get something he figured out how to talk his way into an answer.”
Brearley, in some ways, looks at his career as almost a happy accident. “People ask me a lot for advice on how to do commercial real estate development and I tell them, ‘Find a specialty, be great at it ,and then you will become the guy people call when they need help,’” Brearley says. “But I’ve never done that. I’ve done a lot of one-offs. I’ve done almost everything.”
If not totally everything, it’s pretty close. A partial list of projects and people Brearley’s has worked with include:
• Buddy Brew Coffee: Through a friendship with the company’s founders, Dave and Susan Ward, Brearley has helped develop and open several locations. That includes the flagship store on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa and one in downtown Sarasota.
• Oxford Exchange: Through another friendship, this with third-generation McDonald’s franchisee Blake Casper, Brearley was the point man on the high-profile Oxford Exchange project in downtown Tampa. Now a restaurant, bookstore, co-working space and more, the genesis of Oxford goes back to when Brearley and Casper lamented the lack of gathering spaces in Tampa.
Davis Islands neighbors in 2010, Casper posed a question to Brearley: What would an engaging place for business professionals to meet look like that was aspirational, yet not stuffy and fun, but not overly-hipster? “We would compare growth stories of cool places — the Ashevilles, the Greenvilles, the Charlestons — and we’d say, ‘What can we provide as residents of the business community and as citizens of Tampa that would contribute to making Tampa a great place?’” Brearley told the Longboat Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer, in an August 2016 story, about another project. “And the culmination of all of those thoughts landed us at the Oxford Exchange.
Brearley led conversations with neighborhood groups, worked with city officials and eventually found tenants for the Oxford Exchange.
• Willow Hammock: Working with another young Tampa area leader, Armature Works and the Heights developer Chas Bruck, Brearley helped put together the north Manatee County housing community.
• Land mitigation: First in Georgia and later in Florida, Brearley worked with Atlanta-based land mitigation specialist Alan McRae on a series of wetlands mitigation credits for developers and the Army Corp of Engineers. Projects include the North Tampa Mitigation Bank, the Scrub Conservation Bank in Central Florida and am endangered species land mitigation project in South Florida.
Like Weaver, who met Brearley in Atlanta, McRae says the young developer had an uncanny ability to both hyper-focus on details while concentrating on the big picture — a key to land mitigation. “He’s one of the best young real estate guys I’ve ever known,” McRae says. “He’s smart and insightful. He could see how things work before they happen and what things won’t work.”
“I know a lot of people in real estate,” McRae adds, “but I don’t think I know many people who could pull off that endangered species project other than James. It’s a tricky and risky type of business.”
Get back up
Brearley knows the risky side of the business, having been involved in some projects that didn’t work out. One example: a hotel in the north end of Longboat Key, near the current gas station-turned-restaurant, Whitney’s. Brearley, working for yet another prominent area developer, Floridays, spent more than a year working with neighborhood residents and area officials to make the hotel work. The vocal opposition surprised and sometimes stung Brearley.
After multiple comprises and changes, the project never got off the ground. Brearley has other projects with Floridays, including another hotel, and he looks back at the one that didn’t make it with newfound perspective. He went into that project, he says, like most others: to make people happy and avoid disagreements.
“I’m a people person: I like everyone to be happy, probably to a fault,” Brearley says. “But with this project I didn’t do either. I couldn’t make people happy, and I couldn’t avoid conflict.”
Brearley’s next project turned out to be Whitney’s, a casual joint at the corner of Broadway Street and Longboat Key’s main thoroughfare, Gulf of Mexico Drive. Like most other Brearley projects, the partners are first rate, including Tampa Bay restaurateur David Benstock, Longboat chef Jose Chicande, and USAmeriBank founder and Tampa businessman Joseph V. Chillura.
Whitney’s has a dedicated to-go area, a bodega and surf shop — something akin to trying to please a wide swath of people.
"We've been very deliberate with menu items and bodega items to make sure that if you're on the island as a tradesman or as a worker, you feel comfortable here,'' Brearley told the Longboat Observer. "But at the same time, if you're a homeowner, and you're here for a great piece of fish, it's the best piece of fish we can find in Cortez. I think there's something really cool about places that are, maybe, especially today, democratic where you meet the entire community.''