“Chattanooga is booming. It's just things have come together.”
Fletcher Bright uses the word "opportunistic" when he talks about the company that bears his name.
"We have to keep our eyes open," says the 86-year-old businessman, citing as an example a trio of developments his company has underway on downtown Chattanooga's trendy North Shore.
Bright joined his father, Gardner, in the real estate business right out of Davidson College in 1953. His father had started the company in 1927 with friend and business associate James A. Glascock, and it was appealing joining a business which then already was well established and is 90 years old this year, Bright says.
He recalls that in 1953, the company consisted of his father, himself and a secretary. Today, the Fletcher Bright Co. has about 50 employees, including an office in Atlanta.
George Bright, one of Fletcher Bright's sons, who joined the company in 1979 and later became president, says his father freely has shared his knowledge about the business.
› 1927: Gardner Bright and James A Glascock form Glascock – Bright & Co. Realtors.
› 1953: Glascock – Bright becomes known as Gardner Bright Realtor, and Fletcher Bright joins the company.
› 1960: Upon the death of Gardner Bright, the company is renamed Fletcher Bright Realtors.
› 1964: Jack Martin joins the company and together, he and Fletcher Bright developed Elder Mountain, a 300-plus-acre mountaintop residential development.
› 1969: Fletcher Bright Co. is formed and enters the commercial real estate business with the purchase of its first shopping centers in Phenix City, Alabama, and Cleveland, Tennessee.
› 1972: The company begins to offer commercial mortgage banking services to other commercial property owners and developers through a variety of lenders.
› 1978: Fletcher Bright Co. establishes an office in Atlanta.
› 1979: George T. Bright joins the company and becomes the third generation of his family to be involved in the business.
› 1980 to present: Fletcher Bright Co. has been involved in hundreds of shopping center transactions throughout the Southeast and Midwest while continuing to be a involved in residential sales in the Chattanooga area.
Source: Fletcher Bright Co.
"He was willing to talk and teach me about the business," George Bright says. "His attitude was, 'Anything you want to know, let's talk about it.'"
The company president quips that "It's like drinking from a fire hose, but I thoroughly enjoyed it."
The company probably has about 100 shopping centers in the Southeast and Midwest, Fletcher Bright says, and it has likely constructed that many, or more, Walmarts over the years. But Bright says projects sometimes slow down for companies as it as with Walmart store construction.
"When commercial is booming, you hit the cash register bigger, but it's not always booming," he says. "You have to have something else to go to."
The residential "stepchild"
That something for the company has been the residential side of its real estate business.
"It tended to be the stepchild along the way sometimes," Bright says, though residential sales are "doing well" today.
"It has never been at full potential, but it's getting there," the businessman says.
For example, he says, if he had a condominium on the market on the North Shore, he'd ask for just three days to sell it.
"Chattanooga is booming," Bright says. "It's just things have come together."
A number of years ago, Chattanooga wasn't doing much, the business owner says, and it appeared it wasn't going anywhere. "It was a lazy town — not so today," he says.
At the same time, Bright says, if a tenant wants the company to go to Texas or other places for a project, it will go.
"Usually out-of-town work is driven by a tenant who wants us to build something," he says.
Today, Bright says that he's "a little bit bullish."
While the downturn of the Great Recession hit about a decade ago, it lasted a lot longer than some people thought, along with what he termed "a hangover," the current climate is "a welcome relief," he says.
"It's not 100 percent across the board," Bright says. "Some big box users have pulled in their horns and are not building. But in the aggregate, there's a lot of activity. It's as good as I've seen it recently."
Bright also recalls that during the recession, the company kept on building its Two North Shore condominium complex on the North Shore.
"When we built it, we brought it right through one of the worst crunches we've ever had," he says. "You couldn't sell anything. We borrowed more money, and it was scary. You think you're never going to get out alive, and the banks can be rather unforgiving."
A legal perspective on development
Bright, in fact, thought that he was going into banking after college. While he was at Davidson, he worked summers at what was then Hamilton National Bank.
But, Bright says, his father had made him a proposition to join the company and "it was a pretty easy decision."
While he joined the real estate company, he says he continued to go to school at night. He garnered his master's in business administration and a law degree.
"I did it feeling it would help in the real estate business," Bright says, adding that both his grandfathers had been lawyers.
Having a legal background resulted in him doing quite a bit of condemnation appraisal work. It was about the time the interstate was coming through the city, and the work turned out "to be a good source of revenue," Bright says.
Frequently, the cases ended up in court and it didn't hurt to have a bit of legal experience, he says.
About a decade after Bright joined the business, Jack Martin came on board and they developed Elder Mountain, a 300-plus-acre residential project.
"If I knew what I should have known, I probably would not have undertaken it," he says. The scope of work included building a road to the top, putting in a water system and selling lots and houses.
"We had good times and bad all through that period. I can remember laying awake at night wondering how I was going to get out alive, but it worked. It cost twice as much as I thought and took us twice as long as I thought," Bright says.
Still, the project turned out as something of which he's proud, he says.
The commercial pivot
Bright recalls that in 1969, the business took what he terms "a pretty good departure" into commercial.
"You don't turn away business," he says. "We're opportunists."
Today, Bright says that the company has a talented development team.
"We've got a lot of talent," he says. "It's pretty exciting times."
For Bright, the company is somewhat of a family affair. In addition to George, he has another son and daughters as well as a son-in-law who work or have worked at the company, and a grandson who's there now.
Along with Bright's real estate interests, he's also known for his music as a founder of the bluegrass band the Dismembered Tennesseans, a group that formed in 1945 at McCallie School. In September, Bright received a Distinguished Achievement Award at the 28th annual International Bluegrass Music Awards in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"I just love bluegrass and jazz," he says. "I have an abiding love for it."
Laura Walker, executive director of the Folk School of Chattanooga, has been the lead singer of the Dismembered Tennesseans for over 20 years. Last year, she nominated Bright for the Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award, which Bright received from ArtsBuild for his support of arts and culture in Chattanooga.
"Fletcher Bright is a renaissance man — a successful real estate builder, developer and manager, a real tycoon," Walker said when the award was presented. "But foremost, he is a musician, playing piano and fiddle, well and strong, with a smile on his face, sharing his love of music with fellow musicians and performing for audiences far and wide."