by Jon W. Sparks
Bob Loeb will take a moment to point out who’s who in a series of remarkable images hanging on the walls of Loeb Properties.
The framed newspaper advertisements offer the sort of nostalgia that brings a smile to Memphians of a certain age. Bob and his siblings were prominently featured in the decades-old ads that touted the enterprises of their father, Bill Loeb, who put the entrepreneurial family’s name on stores all over the region, selling, among other things, laundry and dry cleaning services, and Loeb’s Tasty Bar-B-Q (“The Best Little Pig on the Market”).
The family business started almost 130 years ago and would get involved in more than a dozen ventures. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bill Loeb expanded his laundry, convenience store, and barbecue operations into strip center buildings throughout the city.
That was how Bob started, with summer jobs doing whatever needed doing from sales and service to janitorial. But it took a while for him to get into the family business. “After college, my first job was a startup business venture in the then-Memphis State area, a saloon that brother Lou and I ran. That might have been work avoidance,” he jokes, “but we did it for a couple of years and did pretty well.”
He also picked up some real estate experience working for Phillip McNeill and Dan Stewart before going into his father’s business. But he only stayed a year — he still wasn’t committed to being part of the fourth generation to carry on the business. He went to Southern Methodist University to get his MBA and figured he’d stay in Texas. But the 1986 oil crash left Texas limping and Memphis, meanwhile, was looking better and better.
Bill Loeb had essentially retired and Bob’s brother Lou was focusing on the company’s real estate management. “I joined brother Lou and he and I got out of the retail operations and focused on real estate investment and development,” Bob says. “That was a very transformational time in the company.” The retail operations weren’t doing so well, “and the future looked worse than the present, so we figured how to navigate from being a retailer to a real estate investment company. Over a five-year period of time we transitioned and it was a good move.”
Since then, Loeb Properties has continued to make good moves.
“We were generalists, buying up and fixing up old stuff,” Bob says. “The tax code favors exchanging from property to property and deferring your gains, so we played the trading game, trying to upgrade a portfolio of properties and expand into different areas and learn what would be attractive areas to be in.”
One attractive area the company had long been interested in was Overton Square and when it got the opportunity, it grabbed it. Bob’s vision of what it could be was shaped by the notion that, as he says, “Marketing 101 is giving people what they want.” With that, he held community meetings to get those details and determine which ideas were compatible and sustainable.
Bob saw to it that the buildings were fixed up as well as the spaces between buildings. Tenants were carefully chosen and the area was opened up to public events.
Loeb Properties has also committed to being part of the remarkable changes going on around the University of Memphis campus. “My high school classmate Cecil Humphreys drafted us into it saying, ‘Bring some of that Overton Square stuff to the University District,’” Bob says.
The company has joined the nonprofit University Neighborhood Development Corp., acquiring and improving most of the property in the old Highland Strip. But it’s much more than that. “You can’t kid yourself,” Bob says. “The paint-up/fix-up is the easy and fun part. The intensive property management to keep it safe and clean is the important part.” Hence its active role in making it a more livable community with support for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as the commercial development in the area.
Another area Loeb Properties has boosted is along Broad Avenue, where it owns some industrial space. “A group of merchants were redeveloping that place and it was really obvious that we ought to partner with them and support them,” Bob says. It made a loading dock courtyard available which, with a gift from ArtPlace America, has made it a place for hosting public events. Further, it has made possible a redo of the water tower that provides an artistic beacon to the burgeoning arts and business district.
Bob says that the company enjoys doing projects like Overton Square, but as fulfilling as it is, it’s also time consuming. “We want to remain very local, like a 50-mile radius around Memphis, and we need to pursue some profitable lines of business so we can stay alive.”
Creating and sustaining these projects lets him put his entrepreneurial philosophy to work. He says he’d tell up-and-coming entrepreneurs to follow their passions: “Trust your instinct, get good advice, find mentors, take measured risks, prioritize what it is you want to go after; have fun.” Bob also says focus is particularly important. “There’s danger in trying to do too much at once, not prioritizing, and not executing well.”
He says he and brother Lou work well together “because of our different interests. We’ve been involved in different areas of our family business together. We seldom step on each others’ toes because he’s in one area and I’m in another and we trust each other implicitly.”
Bob also cultivates a positive workplace: “I try to create an environment where my employees can thrive, where they can enjoy themselves, express themselves, and be creative.”
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