Q&A: Dynamic Duo seizing business opportunities

Q&A Main

Brad Gillis and Joey Gilkerson are the sons of Salisbury’s most-prominent developers, Palmer Gillis and Tony Gilkerson of business mainstay Gillis-Gilkerson.

While their dads garnered a great deal of attention over the past 30 years, in just the past year or so, the spotlight has shifted to the sons. Joey, 26, and Brad, 32, are plowing into ambitious redevelopment projects that promise to change the face of Salisbury.

Their high-profile project, renovation of the old Salisbury Fire Department headquarters, will have a formal kick-off this week during 3rd Friday festivities.

Salisbury is closely watching this pair. They are seeking to channel the spirit of capitalism with the promise of economic change, melding the two streams into business success that has long been hoped.

They are also bringing a young population’s ideas and ideals to a community still trying to determine its future. These guys, it could be said, are helping to make progress possible.

Q. Fifteen years ago, or even 10 years ago, could you all have imagined that you’d be working together now?

Joey: Ten years ago, I was a student at Wicomico High School. At that point I had my sights set on college, and I had no idea “what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Ten years ago, I couldn’t even imagine staying in Salisbury, much less working with Brad.

Brad: We had no idea we would be working together. Ten years ago, I was starting my real estate career at Long and Foster — hanging out with a high school student was the last thing on my mind.

I started working with Joey when he was a student at Salisbury University.

Q. When did you all first meet?

Joey: We have been around each other most of our lives, between Gillis-Gilkerson Christmas parties and other like events.

But we sat down at Flavors of Italy (Now Mojo’s) for lunch and discussed an internship in early summer of 2009.

Brad: We grew up around each other, but never hung out because of the age difference, of course we would bump into each other once in a while at school events and Gillis-Gilkerson Christmas parties.

We were TOO COOL for each other in high school. It wasn’t until Joey was looking for an internship that we started to work together in 2009.

Q. Your dads have been business partners for years, and are some of the most successful developers in Delmarva history. What is it like following in their footsteps?

Joey: I am just thankful that they were genuine, honest businessmen, and we don’t have to combat their reputation to take a step forward.

Instead, our names are recognized with a positive connotation across the board, which really makes networking and making connections less of a daunting task.

Brad: It’s extremely rewarding, every day we are thankful for the chance to follow in our father’s footsteps.

Joey, Chris Gilkerson and I have an awesome opportunity to establish the second-generation of our family’s real estate business.

Because of our collective development experience since 1983 we collaborated to form DEVRECO LLC, which stands for Development Real Estate Company.

We have our fathers as business partners … makes it interesting — they balance our youthful enthusiasm.

Q. Have either of you had big business disagreements with your fathers?

Joey: I wouldn’t say “big” agreements — I have never lost sleep over them — but we have seen things different ways.

Brad: I can honestly say we have never had a huge disagreement. Early in my real estate career I would bring, what I thought were “deals” to Palmer and Tony, but they would continue to say NO.

I could not understand at the time, but now I get it — prices were so inflated back in 2004-2007 — they were right, I was wrong. Their youthful spirited real estate adviser — me — was wrong!

Joey: The most common disagreement, as we provide the commercial real estate brokerage services for our dads, is that they can be such a tough barter. Rick on “Pawn Stars” wouldn’t stand a chance negotiating with Tony Gilkerson! He just sits there and says ‘no’… for hours.

Brad: Joey is right, we are ALWAYS negotiating commissions.

Q. What happens when the two of you don’t agree with each other?

Joey: We call on Chris Gilkerson, our other partner and my brother, for the tiebreaker. If that doesn’t work — full out fist fight (joking). We’re more of a barbarian clan than a company.

Brad: We have an open working environment and are constantly talking, which leads to good decision making. Each one of us has our strengths, so we can usually see each other’s point of view and play devil’s advocate.

But if there is a disagreement, somebody is going to owe somebody a 6-pack of beer!

Q. Joey, weren’t you Brad’s intern at one point?

Joey: Yes, only for two short years. Brad has done so much for me. He is still in the big brother/mentor role, whether he likes it or not.

Brad pushed me to stay in college, showed me the ropes or the commercial real estate industry, and helped me make some vital connections within the industry.

Brad: Thank you, Joey — your free labor was worth every penny.

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Q. Joey, Brad went to school in Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, you went to school at Salisbury University — who go the better education?

Joey: Well, unless you are going to publish this in Hawaii, I think it is safe to say I did. Plus, my degree is in Business Administration, his is in Underwater Basket Weaving.

Brad: Attending Hawaii Pacific University was one of the greatest decisions of my life, second to marrying Kim and having our son Jackson last October. I LOVE YOU KIM! But seriously (not), Joey is better at spelling and math … I am much better looking!

Q. Brad, how did you pick Hawaii Pacific as a college?

Brad: I attended Frostburg State University for one year. A great buddy of mine, Christian Phillips, was attending college in Los Angeles and truth be told I went to Hawaii to one-up Christian.

Ironically, Christian later came and lived with me in Hawaii and he attended University of Hawaii. We lived in Waikiki, I had a motorcycle, was a diving instructor, scuba dove twice a day for a job … life was great and getting better.

But it was college and we had to study and show up to class — loved every minute of it.

Q. Okay, you guys are overseeing a strategically crucial redevelopment in Downtown Salisbury, turning the old fire headquarters into a music venue. Tell me about that.

Joey: This is going to be a marquee project for our development company, DEVRECO, for a long time. Not only is the building so instrumental to the city-scape of Salisbury, but it has also been a very public project and process.

The community is very much involved in this one, and we are very thankful — even overwhelmed — but the support and attention the project gets.

Brad: For Salisbury, the Capital of the Eastern Shore, it’s about a series of small wins.

Headquarters Live has the ability to be one more small win for our community. The redevelopment of Station 16 is symbolizes Downtown Salisbury is back.

This project is only one of many to come, we are excited to see the reinvestment in retail, shops and restaurants Downtown Salisbury. This revitalization is happening, the younger generations (millennials) are investing in place, we want cool, hip, centrally located destinations.

We are grateful for all the support we have received from downtown stakeholders; we plan to honor their support with providing a first-class entertainment venue in the heart of our community.

Q. Who came up with the idea to go the music route?

Joey: The community of Salisbury. I literally went door-to-door to different people, businesses, and civic groups to see what they thought the community was lacking. It was nearly unanimous that the people wanted more live music in Salisbury.

Brad: Since 2008, the community has been screaming for a place they could host smaller music type events, we saw an opportunity with the firehouse. When completing a very public real estate transaction like this, it takes time and a lot of patience.

Q. How much do you all plan to invest in this?

Joey: The overall project, fully redeveloped will be approximately $1 million. With this being a historic-building redevelopment, you typically find plenty of surprises. And we have!

Q. What will be the ultimate measure of its success?

Joey: Frequent successful events. Some in the form of sold out music shows, some more locally driven community minded events — such as Ignite Salisbury. Ultimately its success will be measured on community support.

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Q. Have people — business people in the know — told you this is a risky proposition?

Joey: Sure. It’s not a coincidence that we were the lone bidder to the RFP which enabled DEVRECO to purchase the firehouse.

Now that the project is coming together, and we have a very qualified tenant operating the business of Headquarters Live, the risk is decreasing by the day.

Brad: The firehouse project was simply a speculation real estate deal. We bet on the idea that if we build a quality venue, we could find an operator-tenant.

This is very similar to the other real estate transactions we do in Easton, Millsboro, Georgetown Seaford, Ocean Pines and Berlin. But unlike most other developments DEVRECO does, Headquarters Live has the chance to make serious impact on Downtown Salisbury.

Q. Talk about what it’s like to have stewardship over one of the most important buildings in this city’s history.

Brad: The opportunity to preserve, arguable the most historically significant building Downtown Salisbury is an honor. We will ensure the historically significant parts of the building are preserved and celebrated.

We purchased four walls and a roof, a shell. Everything needed to be replaced. When all said and done we will have a fully renovated building that will pay real estate taxes and be a destination for the community.

Q. A lot of us who grew up in Salisbury worked our butts off to get OUT of Salisbury. Why are you two here?

Joey: I would rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. Salisbury needs help. Here, I feel like I can make a big impact.

Brad: The potential here is endless, Salisbury is the place to live, work and play.

I chose to move back to Salisbury, after living in Berlin for a few years. Kim and I are raising our family here. I can bike to work, everything I need and want is right at my fingertips.

I am betting on Salisbury’s success for years to come, we are just getting started.

Q. Was it an easy decision to seek your fortune here?

Joey: Not at all. A lot of my friends have moved post-college. The city life is very appetizing to a 26 year old. But I have found a lot of opportunity here, and now can’t imagine not living here.

Brad: Living in Salisbury allows me to travel to other communities on the shore and Delaware for real estate business and still be home at night.

I would not live anywhere else — love where you live.

Q. You two — and others — are often cited as the new echelon of young leaders who have a unique vision for the area. Why are you so encouraged by Salisbury’s prospects?

Joey: People want to fix broken things. We have so many tools and resources that generations before us didn’t have.

On top of technology, there are also national generational trends that support downtown grown and development as a hub for establishing and building a sense of community. We are at the right place, at the right time, with a mayor and council that finally get along.

The support is huge, and the community is begging for belonging.

Brad: The foundation for an awesome community is here, it was just covered up for a generation. The leaders in the 1960s, ’70s and ’ 80s put in place the tools for us to succeed. We just did not use them for 20 to 30 years.

Today is a new day, the community is saying lets have the best quality of life we can and we are slowing uncovering the foundation and rebuilding where we need to.

Q. Brad, you’re coming off an interesting year as Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce president. What did that experience teach you?

Brad: I love the Chamber, it is the region’s indispensable business organization.

The 800 members and the members’ 23,000 employees make for an organization that is the one-stop shop for business and governmental advocacy.

If the Chamber taught me anything it was: 1) learn to say no, the organization cannot be everything to everyone; 2) be laser-focused on the members, they are the reason the Chamber exists.

Q. How strong is the region’s business community, especially the small businesses?

Brad: Strong, but always room for improvement.

Salisbury has and will continue to be the center for commerce, education and medical services on the Eastern Shore.

We have a very diverse economic base, we are not dependent on a single economic driver, so when one industry struggles, hopefully another industry is profiting.

However, we continue to invest in future small business owners. The community is getting behind entrepreneurship; Wicomico County has started an entrepreneurship fund and space, called Launch/SBY.

Salisbury University has the entrepreneurship competition with over 50 entrepreneurs competing for funding.

Q. I have to admit, Brad, that I used to read your columns in the Chamber’s Business Journal — back before you were Chamber president — and you would offer an optimistic vision for Downtown Salisbury. Back then, I thought you were crazy — but you’ve been proven correct.

Brad: Greg, small wins … small wins. Like many communities, we lost our sense of place over decades; we lost our heart, our core.

For years the community thought, we need one huge win, a grand slam, to “save” downtown. Our millennial generation is playing small ball: singles, doubles, bunts.

We have a few base runners (3rd Friday, Whiteboard Wednesdays and stakeholders making investments … the bases are loaded, we can drive in some runs!

It’s happening, the momentum is here — the community is playing as a team.

Q. What is it that has changed, that’s made it seem possible to predict good results for Downtown Salisbury commerce?

Brad: Positive Attitude. Believe it.

Q. What are your all’s favorite buildings in Salisbury?

Joey: The courthouse, but the firehouse is a close second. The courthouse is beautiful. I have heard some of the most interesting stories circumventing that building, and it has dodged two fires.

Brad: I do not have a favorite building, but I love the ability to walk down Main Street and see and talk to 10 different people all in 10 minutes. This is what makes Downtown the Downtown.

If you want to get something done in this community, there is a strong chance you will need to come Downtown.

Q. What buildings would you like to have a future hand in redeveloping? Any?

Joey: Spoiler alert: The Hess Building. It’s in our sights as we speak. We don’t have exact plans for it but we have plenty of ideas.

Brad: I say this to too many downtown building owners who are simply doing NOTHING with their buildings: Now is the time to invest into your property and become part of movement.

There are too many opportunities for investment in our community, we cannot and will not be able to do all of them.

If you own a building downtown and it is setting vacant, the time is now, invest in your community, we can help or simply be a cheerleader for you, either way the time is NOW.

Q. You all obviously specialize in commercial real estate, but is there a possibility that you could apply your commercial energies and experience to renovating some of the city’s residential neighborhoods?

Joey: Yes, we already do. I am actually on the board with Habitat for Humanity. Redeveloping residential neighborhoods are a different animal, but we try to help out where we can.

Chris Gilkerson and I have developed a small neighborhood in Delmar, but that is about the extent of our residential new construction experience.

Brad: One thought I have: a majority of Salisbury’s housing stock is over 50 years old and does not have any historical significance.

We will have a real problem on our hands: The community needs to decide how to invest in these areas for community betterment.

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Q. What are your favorite memories of growing up in Salisbury?

Brad: We would skate all over town, I think I was kicked off every public place there is, so I laugh a little when I see skaters downtown and think: That was me.

Q. What would you like Salisbury to look like in 20 years?

Brad: In 2034, Salisbury is the Capital of the Eastern Shore, Salisbury is a University Town, people say, “Look at Salisbury, let’s do what they did.”

Salisbury is Home.

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