United Commercial Realty
UCR: Keeping Retail Real Estate Fresh6.26.2012- Christine Perez, D CEO Magazine
When his firm began “getting a little stale,” Mickey Ashmore put a bold expansion and diversification plan into action.It took Mickey Ashmore a while to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. After selling women’s shoes, teaching English in the Dallas Independent School District, working as a car salesman, selling electronics and computer furniture, and coaching soccer at Southern Methodist University, he finally lucked into his true calling—retail real estate.
UCR, the company he joined in 1991 and now owns and runs, inked more than $601 million in transactions last year. It represents about 230 retailers, manages more than 8 million square feet of retail space, and leases another 33 million. Not bad for a late bloomer.
Ashmore says his company is poised to get even bigger. “There’s a very good chance that we’ll expand our footprint,” he says. “But this year and next year, we’re really focused on strengthening our current platform.”
That platform, even in the economic downturn, has been growing. In the last several years, UCR has added property management and investment sales divisions. It also expanded into Houston, with existing offices in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. “We had to grow,” Ashmore says. “We couldn’t stand still.”
Standing still is not in his DNA. Ashmore was born in Little Rock, Ark., but his family relocated to California when he was young. A few years later, Ashmore’s dad, a car salesman, was transferred to Casa Linda Ford in Dallas. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to El Paso, then to Greenville, S.C., back to El Paso for three years, then a return to Little Rock. The family headed back to Dallas when Ashmore was in the 9th grade.
Ashmore later realized his father kept losing jobs because of a drinking problem. But after his mother threatened to walk in 1963, his dad gave up the bottle—for good. “From that point on, life was very stable,” Ashmore says.
It took the son a bit longer to become settled.
Ashmore attended Bryan Adams High School in Dallas and worked selling women’s shoes at Titche’s at NorthPark. One of his co-workers there was Jeff Swope, a “Lake Highlands boy,” who, as founder and CEO of Champion Partners, has become one of the most successful developers in Dallas.
At the University of Arkansas, Ashmore remembers being the “only white fraternity boy” who marched when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. He decided to go into education, because he viewed it as an opportunity to give back. “Being a product of the 1960s, with Vietnam raging and other things going on ... teaching, I kind of romanticized it,” he says. “It also gave me a bit of a bully pulpit, and I learned how to be a better communicator.”
He got a job at W. T. White High School in Dallas, teaching English and speech, and went back to selling shoes at night, this time at Neiman’s, to earn extra money to support his wife and two daughters. He became good friends with a Neiman’s co-worker, Javier Gutierrez. “One time he said to me, ‘Meekee, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to open a Mexican restaurant. I’m not going to be a doctor like my dad wants.’ I said, ‘Oh sure you are, Javier.’” Gutierrez, of course, is now the longtime owner of the Dallas landmark, Javier’s.
Even with the second job, Ashmore was still struggling financially. So he talked his way into coaching soccer at W.T. White—despite having zero knowledge of the sport. To get up to speed, he started hanging out with the Dallas Tornado soccer club, becoming friends with the players and attending the team’s practices. His high school team went on to win two city champioinships, and Ashmore went on to become an assistant coach at SMU, working under former Olympian Jim Benedek. Meantime, he earned his master’s degree in school administration and got a job as an assistant principal. “The only reason I did so was to earn more money; I had no desire to paddle kids and do schedules,” he says. He quickly realized he hated it, though, and quit.
Out of a job and newly divorced, Ashmore was floundering. He became a car salesman at his dad’s dealership, just to keep income flowing while he sorted things out. It was there, under his father’s tutelage, that he honed his sales skills. Ashmore remembers once complaining about an ugly lime-green Volkswagen on the lot. “Who in their right mind is going to buy that car?” he asked. His father replied, “Son, there is an ass for every seat.”
Ashmore often shares that story with his brokers at UCR. “Everyone here knows that saying,” he says. “And oh yeah, that car got sold.”
STUMBLING INTO REAL ESTATE
Sports icon Lamar Hunt, who had founded the Dallas Tornado soccer club, got to know Ashmore, and hired him as the team’s sales director. He was soon promoted to marketing director (replacing Bill Darling, who went on to co-found Darling Homes) and worked closely with Hunt. “I’d get to buy him hamburgers and pay his tolls, because he never had any cash on him,” Ashmore jokes.
After the club went out of business in 1981, Ashmore worked in sales management for an electronics distributor, then for a company that sold fixtures and furniture to computer retailers. He racked up the sales, but remained unfulfilled. He was living near Casa Linda Plaza at the time, and one day spotted a sign for Hopkins Shafer Co., the real estate firm that leased space there. He knew one of the co-founders, Steve Shafer, and convinced him and partner Mike Hopkins to hire him as director of leasing.
“I didn’t know what per-square-foot meant, but they hired me to lease their properties, and I was the happiest guy in the world,” Ashmore says.
It was 1985, one of the darkest times in Dallas commercial real estate history. But Ashmore was too naive to know, and too excited about the opportunity to care. He focused on developing relationships with brokers, who’d then bring him deals. “It’s not rocket science,”
Five years later, Hopkins and Shafer decided to split. Ashmore got in touch with retail guru Herb Weitzman, who had trained many of the industry’s superstars. Ashmore wanted to earn $100,000; Weitzman wouldn’t go past $80,000.
“I couldn’t afford him,” Weitzman says.
The two struck up a friendship, though, and remain close. “When you can call a competitor a good friend, that’s saying something,” Weitzman says. “Mickey runs a good company. He’s a very good salesperson, and a great, genuine individual.”
Ashmore instead became president of UCR, which had been formed by David Dunning three years prior. He got a 30 percent stake in the business. In 1994, he bought a controlling interest; six years later, he bought Dunning out completely. “I wanted the stock—and David understood—so I could retain key [brokers] and make them shareholders,” Ashmore says.
He focused on growing the company’s services business, recruiting tenant rep standout Larry Leon and securing an affiliation with ChainLinks, a retail-only real estate brokerage network. That helped lure other brokers to UCR.
The firm also picked up major accounts like Starbucks and Blockbuster, and was tapped to lease Southlake Town Square, Mockingbird Station, and other high-profile projects. When competitors began to pigeon-hole UCR as a “mall and lifestyle” firm, the company formed UCR Urban. Victories led to more successes, and expansion into San Antonio and Austin. Things continued moving along, but when the economy began sputtering in 2008, Ashmore took an assessment of the situation. “I realized that we were getting a little stale,” he says. “We really hadn’t evolved for a long time.”
Diversification was the answer, he decided. He worked out a deal with Prizm Partners’ Scott Weaver and Lori Weisenborn to form UCR Asset Services in December 2008. Along with giving the firm a presence in major national markets like Chicago and California, it brought in institutional-grade clients and generated much-needed revenue when leasing stalled.
In 2010, David Disney and HFF’s Adam Howells were tapped to lead a new investment sales division and, in 2011, UCR opened a Houston office by folding in Moody Rambin Retail and Page Partners.
Recent account wins for UCR include Target, CapitalOne, Sprouts, Aldi, and Total Wine.
Ashmore gives full credit for his company’s success to his “incredible partners,” and to his second wife, Temple, to whom he has been married for nearly 30 years. “She is my sounding board,” he says. “It’s tremendous to have someone of her intellect and human perspective to bounce things off of.”
At 63, he has no plans to retire. But when he’s ready to do so, a succession plan is already in place.
Ashmore remains passionate about DISD, and he hasn’t lost his liberal sensibilities—“I’m probably the only real estate exec in Dallas with an Obama bobblehead in my office,” he says.
But with UCR, he has finally found the stability he has craved his entire life.
“I’ve always had a fear of not being successful. It probably came from moving around a lot as a child and always having to prove myself,” he says. “I don’t have those fears anymore.”