Local developer and commercial real estate powerhouse Jim Howard remembers his first job, working 45 hours per week managing two local gas stations while still going to high school.
Howard, now president and CEO of the Topsham-based Priority Group, LLC, owns 27 real estate holding companies and the operating company that owns and runs the new Rusty’s Market in Topsham. Howard also has been a key player in the redevelopment at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Howard, 49, grew up in Bowdoinham and left home at 15, and ended up staying with his best friend, Glenn Jameson, and his parents, Elaine and Robert, in Topsham for four years.
He worked 45 hours per week all during high school, pumping gas and managing the Aamco Lido station on Main Street in Topsham where the town hall is now, and also managing another station once located at the end of the runway on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
￼ JIM HOWARD ... president, CEO of Priority Group, LLC “And (I) went home, did my homework for school and went to school the next day, and did that over and over,” Howard said. He left that job two months before his graduation to focus on schoolwork, and graduated from Mt. Ararat High School in 1983.
HE INVESTED THE earnings from those years of work into Tri-Sports in Topsham — a familyowned business selling and servicing motorcycles, ATVs, scooters, snowmobiles and power equipment — and became a partner in the business the year after he graduated from high school. He worked there as a sales manager with the owner, Hank Swenson, for nineand a-half-years.
“It was probably one of the best times that I ever had, next to commercial real estate,” Howard said. “It was a lot of fun dealing with customers. I made a lot of friends who are still my friends today.”
Howard was young at the time and Swenson often served as a father figure, encouraging him at age 22 to purchase his first home, “which was one of my first real estate investments that later on would help me borrow the money to do my first real estate deal.”
After leaving Tri-Sports, Howard started a consulting business in Brunswick where one of his customers was Home Vision Video. After working on a couple of projects with the company, he was asked to become the chief operating officer and chief financial officer.
“I went to work with Home Vision and in 36 months we built that company from 12 stores to 58 stores and we were the 10th largest privately owned video chain in the country in 1996 when we sold to Movie Gallery,” Howard said.
BUT HE WASN’T done with video stores. After that venture, for two years he spent four days a week in Connecticut, building another video chain of 25 stores called Video Galaxy he then sold to Video City out of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, he also co-owned Players in Brunswick, which was purchased by another friend and became Pedro O’Hara.
His entrepreneurship took a turn in 1998 when he started Priority Group, with corporate offices at 2 Main St., in Topsham.
More recently, Howard said the name of the company was changed because outside of the Mid-coast area folks didn’t know what Priority Group is, “and we’re doing projects in Rockland, Thomaston, Sanford, Waterville, Scarborough, so we wanted a name that reflected who we were, so we changed it to the Priority Real Estate Group so people would understand in our name who we were.”
“We also own Priority Management Group, which is our company that does construction management,” Howard said. For a long time he was the only customer, but now the company is doing construction for other people, such as the convenience store and car wash it just built for J&S Oil in Lewiston.
Right now Howard said his company is currently the preferred developer for Panera Bread, which it just finished a store for at the Topsham Fair Mall, as well as Tim Hortons and is pretty much the exclusive developer for Shell and Nouria Energy, whom they plan to build projects for in New Hampshire in 2015.
But in the meantime, “We have a lot to do at Cook’s Corner and Brunswick Landing. We’ve made a big commitment out there to really work and focus on redeveloping the area,” Howard said. The company goal is to build five buildings a year.
The former Brunswick Naval Air Station, now named Brunswick Landing, closed as a military installation in May 2011. This reality, Howard said, “put a lot of fear into all of us, the whole community,” because with 5,000 people disappearing there was going to be a substantial impact, and on top of that “the worst recession we’ve seen in 30 years.”
“Real estate development is not an easy thing and you have to have patience and it takes time,” Howard said. “So when you’re talking about 3,200 acres and an airport in a downed economy, for a while it didn’t seem like a lot was going on out there. Now, the economy’s picked up. There have been some very specific and focused plans put in place. We’re really fortunate, for example, (that developer) George Schott came along,” and began purchasing properties and former military housing and filling it up.
Schott served as a catalyst, Howard said, and “made other people like myself pay attention to the property.”
With an improving market, the town of Brunswick and developers are now focused on attracting businesses and filling up the 125,000 square feet of empty retail space in Cook’s Corner. Priority Group built a medical office and field house on Thomas Point Road for Dr. Stephen Katz, and is donating a $500,000 piece of property nearby behind Regal Cinemas to Community Ice to build an ice rink.
“THE SUCCESS of Brunswick Landing plays a big role in the success of Cook’s Corner,” Howard said, “so the sooner we can develop that property and fill it with people that worked there during the day like in the past, the more likely it is that the businesses in Cook’s Corner will stay successful and will attract new business.”
HOWARD’S COMPANY is working on purchasing nine properties at Brunswick Landing and looking at about $27 million worth of projects in terms of the construction value, which will add to the tax base since the property generated no taxes while owned by the Navy.
“We’re starting here shortly with the school for the Providence Service Corporation,” the largest provider of educational services to children with autism and learning disabilities in the country, Howard said. His company is putting in a 36,000-square-foot school in the Navy Lodge and Recreation Mall.
Seeds of Independence will be across the street, Family Focus nearby, and with a Southern Maine Community College campus at Brunswick Landing, “You’re starting to get a campus of services for kids,” he said.
Howard anticipates the school to go up this year and another three or four buildings next year, and in 30 to 36 months, to have all properties built out and $27 million invested in Brunswick Landing. Priority Group has reached out to two brokerage companies in Massachusetts to help attract businesses to Brunswick Landing.
“When our nine properties are done, I’ll go get another nine, and when that nine is done, we hope to go get another nine,” Howard said, “so we see an opportunity certainly for the next decade to be able to continue to build out Brunswick Landing.”
Howard expects to be announcing additional projects outside of Brunswick Landing soon. The projects in Brunswick and Topsham will never be done, Howard said, “because I live here.”
Priority Group doesn’t build strip malls or large box stores. Instead, Howard said, “We tend to go into communities and we build smaller buildings; we build banks and office buildings, Panera Breads, Tim Hortons, some industrial buildings. We tend to do a lot of infill type projects,” such as the new Rusty’s Market on Route 24 in Topsham, and is the kind of development they are doing statewide.
Priority Group follows not only an economic development plan but also a community development plan, “so every time we put up a project we budget at least $10,000,” which goes to the community where the building is built following project completion, Howard said. “Most of the time that goes to food banks and it goes to kids’ programs. Having been a homeless kid at age 15, I have a special place for kids who are at risk and who need help, so we tend to give most of our money to those organizations.”
Howard said there are eight people employed on his team at the corporate office and 125 people through subcontractors that work with Priority Group to put buildings up. For the accomplishments his company has achieved, Howard said he often gets the glory but emphasizes, “I’ve got a great team of people here. There isn’t a person that is a part of my team here that I could be without and think that I could be as successful as we have been as a company without them.”
That team holds monthly staff meetings when they discuss their philosophy and who they are as a company, Howard said. One of the first things they talk about is customer service; then about the community and how to provide assistance through projects, and then they look at the development plan for the year and talk about the economy.
There’s a bucket for every project, folder and binder, Howard said. A white board hangs in his office listing 2013 projects labeled “our blueprint for success” that, “as simple as it looks, that’s our life right now,” Howard said.
When projects hit the board, “this is real,” and it goes up on the board so everyone stays focused on that project.
It’s a job Howard said is fun for him. He is married with a 19-year-old son in college and 15-year-old daughter, who just got her driver’s permit, and says there are “two things I do in my life, work and family time, and there’s not much in between.” He’s up at 6:30 a.m., usually headed for the treadmill or Lifecycle where he listens to books on tapes and spends 30 minutes getting his mind prepared for the day. He then stops on the way to work at Rusty’s Market, the new store he built to replace the rustic old store formerly in its place that was long a gathering place for locals to talk about the latest town news, where one could often have found Howard chatting with the other locals.
There is seldom extra time left in his day but Howard has always made time for his family, watching his children’s sporting events which is one of his non-work activities, along with reading everything he can. He doesn’t talk business at home, where he doesn’t access email, and rarely even brings his cellphone in the house.
Asked what he does to relax: “I love cars,” Howard said. He’ll call a friend or his son, and “we’ll go off and chase cars up and down the East Coast,” and seeking out good food along the way. He watches the Food Network when he can, making lists of all the places he’d like to see, “and I actually go to them.” It may be a cheese steak sandwich in Philadelphia and then off to a Corvette dealer in Atlantic City.
“Work is fun,” Howard said, but he needs some time away every now and then to clear the brain and bring him back to reality.
“I am what I am and what you see every day is just me,” Howard said. His company has been very successful, which he has many to thank for including himself. “Sometimes you’ve got to be careful not to take yourself too seriously, because, we’re fortunate, that’s one of the reasons why we make sure we give back to the community.
“Success to me is loving what you do and getting somebody to pay you to do it, and making enough that you can give back. That right there.”
Howard just happens to have a job where he deals with millions of dollars, but “that doesn’t change who I am. It just doesn’t.”