Ceslie Armstrong sits down with Bill Shown, Managing Director of Real Estate for Silver Ventures.
Ceslie: I’m speaking with Bill Shown, Managing Director of Real Estate for Silver Ventures. How Are You?
Bill: Glad to be here.
Ceslie: I was just saying that I can’t believe the progress and what’s happened at Pearl. Having grown up in San Antone and my uncle having worked there for fifty years… it was sort of our stamping grounds, running around the brewery as kiddos and look at it now.
Bill: Isn’t it amazing? First let me say that I cannot tell you how many stories we hear from folks that, ‘Oh my uncle worked there for 35 years. My grandfather was there for 40 years.’ It’s like it was a family and it was an incredible history that we inherited when we took this thing over.
Ceslie: Let’s talk about that. First of all, tell our audience about Silver Ventures and what you guys are doing. I know you’re a privately held company.
Bill: Privately held company formed in 1995 when Pace Foods sold to Campbell’s… and kind of a three-legged stool. There’s a typical financial investments portfolio, real estate and food companies. And one food company that we own now is NatureSweet® Tomatoes.
Ceslie: Let’s talk about this because I think you made the acquisition ten years ago?
Bill: Twelve years ago in 2002 and as part of that I need to tell a little story on myself and that is… that I was with a different company at the time and we were partners with Silver on a couple of real estate investments. They called me over and said come look at the Pearl Brewery with us, we’re thinking about acquiring it. The advice that I gave them was, you know, from a real estate perspective this is crazy. It’s got a bunch of old historic buildings that are falling down. It’s on a part of the San Antonio River that was undeveloped at the time and full of homeless people. A forgotten part of the city. Hydro-carbon contamination underground, asbestos contamination in the buildings. I said run away from this. About two weeks later, they called up and said we really appreciate your advice, but we put the property under contract and we’re going to buy it. (haha).
What I learned over the course of working with them first as consultant and now with them… is that this is much more than a real estate investment. There is a vision that I didn’t understand at first about preserving San Antonio history, preserving that great family history that you’re talking about and improving the city.
Ceslie: Is that visionary that we’re talking about Kit Goldsbury?
Bill: Kit Goldsbury, yes its Kit. Kit is a very, very visionary owner. He sees things that others don’t.
Ceslie: Well that’s what it takes. One of the wonderful things about San Antonio is that we do preserve our history and we do that so much through the architecture. The footprint of San Antonio that tells such a story in particularly downtown San Antonio and certainly the Pearl is doing that. Let’s talk about the footprint because it’s quite large and I don’t think the average San Antonian even realizes what a large property this is.
Bill: Yes. The campus itself, Pearl Brewery proper, was about 18 acres and the properties that we own around it on the west side of the river and then on Broadway. I mean I don’t even know what it is now but it’s probably approaching 30 acres in total size.
Ceslie: That’s pretty incredible. So there had to be quite a vision once you make an acquisition like that. Do you sit down and go okay let’s start planning and put a business model behind it? Of course, with a property like this, it’s almost like where do you begin?
Bill: That’s so wonderfully put. When we first started working on it, I said Kit obviously you see something that we don’t. What do you see? And he says I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out. And we did. We set off on a journey that involved years. First of all let me back up and say we had some time to think about it because when we acquired the brewery, part of the deal was… we want everything. And so literally they turned out the lights, locked the doors and gave us the keys and we had ten million cubic feet full of stuff. We had one chance to go through that. It was 72 forklifts, 2 train engines, a bunch of trucks, reams and reams of files and file cabinets… it ran the gambit from things that were 100+ years old to things that were up to date, and we knew we had one chance to sift through it and collect the good stuff.
Then we also needed to clean out some old worthless buildings. So during that time, we did a lot of thinking… a lot of dreaming and a lot of planning. We visited places all over the United States and North America for inspiration and what started to coalesce around that, was an idea of a place that was… number one for San Antonians, because as much as we love our visitors, and we do… we own two hotels here in town and we’re building another. So we love visitors. As much as we love our visitors, our sense was that we’d kind of ceded the central city over to the visitors and we’d forgotten about ourselves. So we said let’s do something at Pearl that’s about San Antonians first. If we do a great job the visitors will love it. So, it was kind of a win- win thing.
Ceslie: That’s a very clear-cut statement right there. So you needed that sort of tent pole to build it around.
Bill: Absolutely. Because… if you’re building for yourself, so many different things happen. You know it’s not a theme park. You know it’s not a tourist attraction. Our sense was it was something real. It was something of San Antonio. So that’s why you see San Antonio shopkeepers and San Antonio restaurateurs and chefs and a lot of residential. Let’s do something that is for us and we started with the Aveda Institute. It was a good friend of mine who had been wanting to do that for a long time. She came and said I want to build a school here and we said we’re not ready for you. We have so much planning to do. So much building to do. Long story short, she convinced us. I can build there and it will work. I don’t need great retail demographics. I don’t need this place to be revitalized yet. I just need a great spot. And so we started with her and then things started to roll from there.
Ceslie: So through that whole progression of cataloging certain items, I mean you really became the gatekeepers and the holders of some great San Antonio history. National history really when you look at the relevancy of the Pearl as a business itself.
Bill: Yes. From the historic standpoint, you’re right. We do really take that seriously. The responsibility of preserving, restoring and in some cases resurrecting some of the history. The buildings are just wonderful. A lot of times we talk about it from the historic standpoint of some of the real beautiful buildings there… our job is simply not to screw them up. There’s so much in the way of bones and beauty there that if we can just keep from screwing them up. So yes, there’s a lot about the buildings. There’s a lot about cataloging the history like we had talked about a little bit before. And other things like… every fall we have what we call an old-timers’ reunion. All of the Pearl employees and their families get together. We collect oral histories. We’ve written actually two written histories of Pearl. It’s been a real interesting journey from the historic perspective.
One thing we decided to do very early on was there’s so much here that if we simply set it out as objects, it could be a little disneyesque and a little artificial. Let’s take everything that we have here and let’s give it a new life. Let’s repurpose it. So when you walk around Pearl, you’ll see those big conical steel things that are traffic ballers. Those used to be feet that held the tanks up. You’ll see there’s a big beautiful thing we call the chain-delier that’s right there in front of blue box. That’s all pieces of the bottling plant. Conveyor belts et cetera, et cetera. If you come to our offices, the table bases are these big massive stainless steel pipe fittings. So we just try over and over and over again to take the things that were there and give them a new life. So they really have a reason for staying and it’s been a lot of fun.
Ceslie: That’s really sort of analogous with how we live in San Antonio. I mean Downtown buildings have been improved and repurposed. We showcase our history rather than hiding it. It’s for the locals as well as visitors who come to San Antonio. To me what you’ve done at the Pearl feels like an extension. It feels natural. It feels like it’s supposed to be there… and whatever’s happening there is just a nice fit. It’s not a glaring anomaly coming out of nowhere.
Bill: I think that’s the best compliment you could’ve given us. It feels natural.