Industries Commercial Real Estate

A perfect partnership?

Bruce Thompson and John Lawson combine forces to develop some of the region’s high-impact projects

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper
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The Thompson-Lawson partnership is working
on a $126 million, Hilton hotel/conference center
in downtown Norfolk.

It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere on Virginia Beach’s resort strip without seeing the results of a nearly two-decade-long partnership between developer Bruce Thompson and construction executive John R. Lawson II. 

Thompson, CEO of Gold Key/PHR Hotels & Resorts in Virginia Beach, and Lawson, CEO of W.M. Jordan Co. in Newport News, have collaborated on 10 major oceanfront developments since the late 1990s, while separately spearheading other large projects throughout the region. Now, they’re taking on the massive renovation of the historic Cavalier Hotel while extending their combined reach into downtown Norfolk where they’ve broken ground on a $126 million, 23-story hotel and convention center.

For Thompson, an entrepreneur who never envisioned himself in the development business, and Lawson, the former rector of Virginia Tech’s board of visitors, it’s a productive union of creativity vs. discipline, energy vs. perfectionism and casual chic vs. button-down style. The collaboration comes naturally through a shared vision for Hampton Roads and complementary skill sets that they say lend harmony and balance to their projects.

“We each bring something different to the table,” Lawson says. “I bring the construction experience, and Bruce is a great promoter with unusual imagination and creativity.”

“John knows the construction business inside and out,” Thompson adds. “He’s a consummate professional in every aspect of construction. He appreciates quality and is not afraid to invest in it.”

They grew up in the same time and place. Both were born in 1951 — Lawson is older by three months. Both are Hampton Roads natives — Thompson was raised in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, while Lawson grew up in Newport News.  Both attended Virginia Tech — Thompson left before graduating after opening a sub shop that he later sold to pay debts, while Lawson earned a degree in geophysics.

Both started out at the bottom of the ladder and climbed their way to the top. Thompson worked at a Virginia Beach hog farm during the day and tended bar at night before getting into the hotel business in the 1980s.  Today Gold Key Resorts employs about 2,500 people and had about $180 million in revenue last year, according to published reports.  Lawson worked his way up in the family business. His father co-founded W.M. Jordan Co. in 1958, and he began as a laborer pouring concrete on construction sites.

These days Thompson and Lawson are firmly ensconced in the executive offices at their respective companies. Last year, Gold Key moved into sparkling fifth-floor corporate offices at 31 Ocean, a mixed-use project that Thompson developed and Lawson built. Sweeping views of the Virginia Beach oceanfront predominate in airy, spotless offices where employees are not allowed to eat at their desks. (A company café is provided as a gathering place.)

W.M. Jordan has 300 employees in four offices in Roanoke, Richmond,  Wilmington, North Carolina, and Newport News where its sedate headquarters in a tidy, brick building has been located on Jefferson Avenue since 1960. Behind the headquarters is a community garden where fruits, vegetables and flowers are grown for employees and residents of a nearby group home for developmentally disabled adults.

Thompson and Lawson met more than 20 years ago as Thompson was pursuing hospitality projects along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. “We had development opportunities, and W.M. Jordan is a successful builder,” Thompson says. “John and I realized we both have a real commitment to quality people and communities. It was only natural we form a strategic relationship that grew into a wonderful business relationship.”

Joking that he brings the “cool factor” to the relationship, Thompson says Lawson’s thorough knowledge of the construction industry drives projects to their completion. “I get a big kick out of a visualized property with a hotel and restaurant on it. I can take that vision to an architect, and he’s the intermediary. From there it goes to John, and he builds it.”

Lawson offers similar praise for Thompson. “I’ve always been attracted to quality, and his properties are the best at the beach from landscaping to customer service,” he says. “He’s always thinking, and he comes up with unbelievable ideas. He’s pulled off some things that have caused me to scratch my head and say, how can that be done?”

Like rehabbing the 87-year-old Cavalier Hotel. Last year, Thompson, Lawson and other investors formed Cavalier Associates LLC to purchase the 22-acre hotel site for $35.1 million. They’re preparing to renovate the historic structure and construct about 100 homes, while rebuilding its newer, sister hotel into the city’s first full-service Marriott and the first Marriott in Gold Key’s portfolio. The city has agreed to kick in $18 million for the project, which is expected to take two years to complete.

“It’s a great way for us to give back to the community,” says Thompson. “We both appreciate the history of the area and being able to look in the rearview mirror and influence the way development takes place in the community in which we were raised.”

Thompson didn’t realize how much people revered the stately hotel until a liquidation sale of its contents. “Six thousand people stood in line three days in a row to buy a doorknob, a room key, pieces of wallpaper, a Gideon Bible,” he notes. “That’s how important the building is to the community. It’s a big responsibility, and we’re taking it very seriously.”

There could be some new amenities. Thompson wants to bring horses and a bourbon distillery to the property. The multi­­­­­­­­­­­faceted project offers a set of challenges neither partner has encountered before. “The Cavalier is as tough as it comes,” says Lawson. “That’s a tough building to conserve and restore, but we’ll get there, and it will be something everybody can be proud of and admire.”

As scaffolding goes up on The Cavalier, Thompson and Lawson also are overseeing construction on the new hotel and convention center in downtown Norfolk, a public/private initiative. Slated to open in 2016, the 294-room Hilton Norfolk at the Main will offer 24 luxury suites, views of the Elizabeth River, a 120-foot-tall atrium and parking in a 600-space garage. Revenue from the parking system will cover the cost of the garage while a 1 percent tax on meals and lodging will cover the debt service on the conference center.

Other perks? Convention-goers will meet in one of the most technologically advanced meeting facilities in the country. Exchange at the Main, as the meeting center will be called, will be designed to accommodate government and defense contractors’ strict security specifications. It will include a 50,000-square-foot ballroom to accommodate 1,500 people, the largest meeting space in Norfolk.

In their free time, visitors can relax in a rooftop entertainment venue, a seafood bistro on the first floor or an Italian-inspired restaurant on the second floor with a wine lounge and piano bar.  A reclaimed chandelier from the Cavalier Hotel ballroom will hang in the restaurant’s dining room.

“It’s far more than a hotel and conference center,” Thompson says of the project. “It’s both a place maker and a market maker. The city sees this as a transformational element at the corner of Granby and Main.”

The project’s design, from the Atlanta-based architecture firm of Cooper Carry, will preserve the facades of adjacent buildings — a byproduct of Thompson’s creativity, says Lawson. “He’s very visionary and innovative. He’s always thinking.”

So much so that Lawson frequently receives emails from Thompson long after most people have retired for the night. “I can get an email from him at 2 in the morning as easily as 5 in the morning.” He doesn’t mind, though. “We push each other to get better and find new ways to build projects and add unique features while adhering to difficult budgets.” 

That, says Thompson, is the key to the duo’s success. “We don’t nickel and dime jobs. We both believe the customer sees and realizes quality and is willing to pay for it. Every project we’ve done, we’ve pushed ourselves and raised the bar to another level.”

Hampton Roads business leaders welcome new developments from the duo. “Everyone I know in the business community is thrilled to have world-class, high-end, mixed-use properties throughout the region,” says Scott Adams, regional president of CBRE. “The quality of what they’re doing raises the bar and shows other potential investors in Hampton Roads what’s happening.”

Some people in the local hospitality industry are concerned that the new Norfolk Downtown Hilton will take away business from other nearby hotels. Such concerns aren’t unfounded, notes Adams. “Nice and new generally wins. But it will set a higher-level option that may attract clientele that wouldn’t previously have come to downtown Norfolk.”

While new projects get underway, Thompson and Lawson’s latest venture — the 168-room Oceanfront Hilton Garden Inn — is enjoying its first summer season. The $50 million hotel opened for business Memorial Day weekend. “It’s truly the nicest Hilton Garden Inn in the franchise,” Thompson said of the Atlantic Avenue hotel at 33rd Street which includes two swimming pools, two restaurants and a parking garage.  

Thompson and Lawson’s previous hotel under the Hilton brand — the 31st Street Hilton — opened in 2005.  To date, it’s Lawson’s favorite of the projects he’s completed with Thompson.  “It was an asphalt parking lot,” he recalls. “We turned it into a high-quality, full-service hotel and park and donated the King Neptune statue and stage to the city. It increased visitation and created additional revenue for the city. That was an absolute homerun.”

Their first project was Boardwalk Resort & Villas. Their most challenging, according to Thompson, was 31 Ocean. “It was a mixed-use project on a small site and a tight schedule in Virginia Beach in the middle of the summer. However, he adds, those challenges will likely pale in comparison with The Cavalier’s renovation. “I believe it will be trumped by the old Cavalier Hotel.”

While Thompson and Lawson have had a golden touch with most of their projects, Virginia Beach City Council cast aside their latest high-profile plan to shape the oceanfront. W.M. Jordan had submitted a public/private proposal to build a sports and entertainment arena, with the city and state paying $187.5 million of the costs and the city liable for the facility’s $262.5 million annual debt service over 25 years. However, council opted to go with a privately financed bid by United States Management, contending that it would pose the least risk to taxpayers.

“If they don’t reach an agreement with them, we hope they’ll come back to us,” Lawson says. “It’s appealing to be financed by the private sector, but the city loses a certain amount of control in operating it. If the city owns it, it can create its booking and entertainment policy that would work for the city and the region.”

Aside from working together, Thompson and Lawson each continue to scope out major projects. Thompson is pursuing real estate opportunities on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and has expressed interest in developing Rudee Loop at Rudee Inlet, which he calls the most valuable property in the mid-Atlantic region. He believes that construction of an arena will spur development of the parcel, and whatever is built should bookend The Cavalier. “We need to have a first-quality unique development at each end of the oceanfront district. The vision has to be broader than just building a hotel, time-share and restaurant, but if that’s what they (the city) want to do, I’ll compete for it.”

Lawson, meanwhile, is overseeing construction of the $250 million Tech Center at Oyster Point, a 44-acre, mixed-use development in Newport News next to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. On this project, W.M. Jordan is partnering with Virginia Tech, Jefferson Lab and the city of Newport News. “This will be something that will have lots of area for thinking and congregating to get these very bright people to share ideas,” he says. Tech Center is nearly 90 percent leased with restaurants and stores such as P.F. Chang’s and Whole Foods.  Monarch Bank also plans to locate its Peninsula office there. The first stores are expected to open in July 2015.

With the marriage of research and entrepreneurship, Tech Center represents a new kind of development for Hampton Roads. “The ultimate satisfaction in business is having a dream and seeing it become a reality,” says Lawson.

So far, for Lawson and Thompson, those dreams have included oceanfront developments, the chance to rehabilitate a grand old dame and the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy in downtown Norfolk, undoubtedly catalysts to continue their profitable partnership.

Or as Lawson says, “Construction and development is the ultimate team sport.”

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