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VOL. 127 | NO. 22 | Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tried and True

Palmer Brothers celebrates 100 years of success

By Sarah Baker

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For 100 years, Palmer Brothers Inc. has operated in a conservative manner with repeat business from clients that share the same philosophy.

Marvin Palmer runs Palmer Brothers Inc., which was started by his father, Robert Palmer, and uncle Marvin Palmer 100 years ago. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

It hasn’t always been a popular position, but that’s why the commercial real estate firm is still small, family-owned and debt-free.

Palmer Brothers Inc. was founded in 1912 by brothers Robert E. Palmer II and Marvin H. Palmer on the north side of Madison Avenue between Front and Main streets.

Today, the company is owned and operated at 841 S. Cooper St. by Marvin H. Palmer Sr., who represents the third generation of the Palmer family after Robert E. Palmer III and John S. Palmer.

“Fortunately, we haven’t borrowed a lot of money over the years,” Palmer said. “That first generation went through the Depression – the Great Depression, not the one we’ve just finished. And so they had some grim experiences from that time and it kind of shaped the way my brothers did business.”

Palmer joined the company in 1970 after serving in the U.S. Navy. At that time, the majority of the firm’s business was third-party management, appraisals and building small apartments and duplexes around north and south Midtown for rental purposes.

Deals Palmer Brothers was involved with included the sale of the southeast corner of Madison and Cooper to the Loeb family and even managing Silky O’Sullivan’s, which used to have space next to Paulette’s in Overton Square.

In the early 1990s, Palmer began to move Palmer Brothers Inc. into the area of commercial development and management, with a strong emphasis in retail and small, unanchored strip centers.

“I had begun to concentrate on developing and managing and owning our own properties instead of managing other people’s property,” Palmer said. “We had a major client who had property all up and down Germantown Parkway. He had a number of strategic corners that we either sold or we bought them and developed them.”

Palmer Brothers started at Trinity Road and Germantown Parkway, in the center that houses TJ Mulligan’s. In the mid-’90s, the firm moved up to the northwest corner of Dexter Road, to the center now known as the Cordova Collection, where Huey’s, El Porton and Fox Ridge reside.

Palmer Brothers still owns and manages both centers, among others. The firm, made up of two brokers and two staff personnel, doesn’t advertise, but instead relies on signage and word of mouth.

“The clientele that we’ve had, we’ve had a long time,” Palmer said. “They know us already and for the most part are comfortable and satisfied with what they’re getting.”

It’s a business model that’s been tried and true for 100 years, and one that’s “kind of helping out right now."

“It’s about as challenging as I’ve seen it in my 42 years right now,” Palmer continued. “We’re certainly in a deleveraging stage of this industry. Most people are sort of in a maintain mode and not an expansionary mode.”

He said it all boils down to finding a niche because there’s stiff competition with national franchises that have come to dominate much of the city’s big-box commercial space.

“It’s a different deal; they have the relationships nationwide that are invaluable,” Palmer said. “But we can move a lot faster. I mean, when we get a call, I’m showing the property if I can the next day. We’re more nimble than they are. And we don’t have to split our commissions as many ways as they do.”

PROPERTY SALES 57 94 2,713
MORTGAGES 16 37 1,820
BUILDING PERMITS 303 621 6,322
BANKRUPTCIES 138 138 1,115