One decade ago, the life of Bruce McNeilage was already unfolding as a classic tale of the American Dream. He was a devoted father with a thriving career as a financial advisor. But, even greater pursuits called for him. McNeilage answered such call – slowly dipping his toes into the briny deep of real estate. Within a couple of years, he was fully immersed – owning over 50 properties stretching across Nashville, Tenn. and surrounding areas.
Never one to rest in his victories, he delved into further realms: the development of multi-family homes. Although his career has become evidence of an uncanny sense for profitable risk-taking, he was no stranger to obstacles along the way. In fact, McNeilage is a shining example that failure oftentimes has a way of rearing its ugly head when success is whistling right around the corner.
As Co-founder of Kinloch Partners, LLC. and Harpeth Development, LLC., McNeilage has cemented his reputation in the Nashville and Atlanta areas as one of the most accomplished and emulated figures in real estate.
Most remarkably, he aligns himself with a succinct mission: He is fighting for the revival of the American Dream.
In the following interview, McNeilage’s entrepreneurial spirit serves as a heaping dose of inspiration. Most compelling, however, is his insistence that prosperity ensues when one is not only honorable to himself, but to his community as well.
Johnson: Over the past decade, you have witnessed Nashville and its surrounding areas undergo a metamorphosis. What is your perspective on such developments?
McNeilage: I actually invested in southern Williamson County before Nissan announced their move here. Spring Hill was a tiny town when I began investing in it, and I closely witnessed Hendersonville and Mount Juliet explode. In terms of Nashville specifically, I was one of the first to invest in properties on Jefferson Street – just to name one example.
I’ve developed a reputation for investing in areas of Nashville which were on the fringe of booming. So, I’ve really had a hand in many of the changes through my renovating and rehabbing. I’ve truly enjoyed it. My current housing project is Solo East, which is in East Nashville.
Johnson: What is Solo East, and why was such venture born?
McNeilage: About six years ago, my partners and I bought a very out-of-favor, half-empty apartment complex called Copperstone Village [now known as The Park at Five Points]. We cleaned it up, installed surveillance cameras and made it gated. Our goal was to make it into something the neighborhood would become proud of it, and that is exactly what we did. Within a year, there was 100 percent occupancy.
Along with that complex came three acres of land. Considering the success and positive effects of The Park at Five Points, we decided to build a 100-unit affordable and high-quality condominium project – now known as Solo East – on that land. But, it didn’t come without effort. I had great trouble getting funding for it.
Johnson: The Solo East project did not fall into your lap effortlessly and eloquently; you had some serious struggles. There was a time your latest venture appeared grim and out of reach. Elaborate on that period.
McNeilage: It was two years ago, and my partners and I had the idea for a $25 million condo project in East Nashville. The area was still on the fringe of transition at the time, and banks were leery about loaning money for condo investments because people had lost a lot of money on them.
Bank after bank would only agree to grant me a loan if I agreed to turn the property into an apartment complex, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to offer something affordable to help more people realize the American Dream – which I believe to be home ownership.
I put on a suit 15 times, and was rejected all 15 times. I even shed some tears over it. Finally, bank number 16 – Franklin Synergy Bank – came along by accident. I met the banker at a luncheon when he approached me about my lending needs. I shared with him the idea and expected another rejection, but was shocked when he expressed that he was interested.
I had been carrying my presentation around in my truck for months because I never knew when a bank would take pity on me and offer me the loan. When I met with the Senior Vice President of Commercial Lending, Eddie Maynard, I was more than prepared. Luckily, he liked the idea for multiple reasons. The bank took a chance on me and funded the deal.
Johnson: Many outsiders would assume that such a deal fell into your life miraculously, which it somewhat did. However, it is only because of your refusal to give up – despite a string of rejections – that the project came into fruition.
McNeilage: It all fell into place, but I have to tell you that many, many people would have given up and sold out to the apartment complex idea. I would come home many days and my wife would look at me and say, “Well, you’re wearing a suit again, so that must mean you met with a bank today. How did it go?’’ It was incredibly defeating because they had either said no or were preparing to say no. But, I just couldn’t let myself give up on our mission. I’m very proud that I remained true to it.
We helped our buyers get financing through Franklin Synergy bank, and we posted a large sum of money on their behalf – enabling each buyer to only be obligated to a $500 down payment. Essentially, the bank took a chance on us and our venture, so we decided to take a chance on our buyers. That $500 will be roughly worth $40,000 to each buyer on the day of closing.”
Johnson: That’s an incredible story of perseverance. Tell me about the quality of the individual units.
McNeilage: “I take a great deal of pride in the aesthetics of my properties. Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a home they are proud of – including those with modest means. The units are all high-end with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances hardwood floors and crown molding. My partners and I wanted to make sure that it was an attainable, affordable asset, and that’s exactly what we have. The reception has been incredible. In fact, the first day they were available for purchase, we sold 38 units.
McNeilage: Our first focus as a development team is to deliver wildly successful products that are also affordable. We have always known that others would follow any successful trend we set, so we are motivated by that as well. For example, in the last six months, other development groups are now emulating us by doing projects within walking distance from Solo East.
We were the first take a gamble of this nature in a transitional neighborhood, but anytime you rehabilitate one street or corner of a neighborhood, it then becomes infectious and begins to spread to three and four corners. Before you know it, the entire neighborhood has been cleaned up. This is my fourth or fifth neighborhood that I’ve had a hand in improving, and it’s very rewarding.
Johnson: There is a recurring theme in each of your responses: You seem to have a deep desire for all members within a community to be granted equal opportunity to feed their future.
McNeilage: Well, I believe that Nashville’s blessing is also Nashville’s curse in that it is becoming such a hot bed in terms of real estate. All of these magnificent towers and extravagant glass buildings are popping up, but the common man is being left out. At the end of the day, there are more cops, teachers and firefighters than there are CEOs and best-selling artists.
If the people who are educating your kids and protecting your community cannot live in your community, then you must ask yourself if your community is truly successful. If they don’t have adequate housing, it’s going to create problems for your community. Celebrating your business and success is great, but if you’re not taking care of the people who assist you in your success, then you’re not as successful as you might believe.
I’m a real estate developer and investor, but I’m also helping people create wealth for themselves. With Solo East, we have 121 units. And, we’ve created $40,000 of equity for each of our buyers. That is a great amount of equity which will benefit people who may otherwise have never had that. When you create wealth for individuals, you create it for the entire community. I want to continue this trend my partners and I set, which is why I’m looking to embark on another condo project again soon.
Johnson: Aside from financial gain, why is helping others achieve the dream of homeownership so fiercely important to you?
McNeilage: Home ownership in our country has been on the decline for several decades. We have the lowest percentage of home ownership we have had since World War II. I’m trying to play a hand in turning that around. If we don’t reverse that trend, it is going to become one of the biggest societal problems we have because it is going to begin to create problems for people in retirement, among other things.
Additionally, the number one way for parents to pay for college education, aside from traditional saving, is to take a second mortgage on their house. If people aren’t buying houses, that is going to cease to be an option. If people don’t build equity in their homes, the golden years will not be golden and college education will become a distant memory for their children. I don’t want to see that happen for future generations. My goal is to help people understand that the American Dream never has to die.