We recently told you about the newly rehabbed Whitestone Building downtown and its lineup of new tenants.
The atomic energy power source at the center of all that activity is LEVO Capital, run by an entrepreneur who loves the history of downtown Louisville and sees a future for the city that embraces the past.
And who is this protector of the past? A businessman all of 30 years old. It shows that wisdom and perspective don’t necessarily equate to years.
Weston Marcum was born in Louisville and came back after going to school at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He traveled the globe as a project manager for Topworx (division of Emerson Electric).
In 2011, he switched gears and went into the real estate business. Not a lot of fortune seekers were seeing pots of gold in real estate in 2011.
“I like to be able to touch and see my investments,” he says. Pretty much what you’d expect from a guy whose first job out of college was dealing with valve controllers, monitors, sensors, pulp and paper.
Atlas Properties and Atlas Management were his original real estate companies – one to buy properties (mostly multi-family residences), the other to manage them. “However,” he says, “I have always been interested in helping grow someone else’s company.”
He eventually segued into commercial and office space, as the market shifted, and saw it as an opportunity to plant some seeds.
He formed LEVO (as in “leverage”) in 2011. The original idea, as posted on the company website, was “a seed stage investment firm focusing on utility-based technologies as well as small- to medium-sized businesses and partnerships, both locally and nationally.”
He was always looking for interesting businesses, ones driven primarily by brainpower. And at some point, he determined he could meld those two impulses of his, buying and developing pieces of commercial property. And occasionally renting space to some of these small, ideas-driven ventures that had vast upside but limited capital, not much equipment but lots of ideas, and essentially needed a place to work.
“I focus on the founder first, and the market opportunity second,” he says.
In 2012, Marcum bought the Whitestone Building on the 600 block of West Main Street, actually two buildings built between 135 and 150 years ago.
“It was 85 percent vacant when I bought it,” Marcum says. The only tenant was AJRC Architects, an old-line Louisville firm that has since fled to space in the University of Louisville Clinical & Transitional Research Building.
Here, he thought, was the chance to create those synergies that fascinated him, where landlord and tenant could become partners and tenants share ideas and resources with each other.
It’s not surprising that his initial group of tenants includes Jet A Studios, a website/digital design firm; John Flower Productions, a video production firm; and The Tombras Group, an ad, marketing and digital agency that’s relocating from Knoxville.
Some of his partnerships include MindSalt, a design firm that calls itself “design entrepreneurs” and “brand reinventors,” and MTK Productions, the Michael Trager Kusman venture that created Rye restaurant and has launched Atlantic No. 5 in Marcum’s building, a six-day-a-week coffee and lunch place.
“It filled a downtown void,” he says. “A casual, moderately priced neighborhood hangout – good food, a great space to hold business meetings if you want to get away from the office, and we’re about to start a catering business.”
It’s a nice venture for Marcum, who has known Trager Kusman since they were kids, but he doesn’t want to become the new restaurant entrepreneur of Louisville. In fact, his goals in general sound one-day-at-a-time down-to-earth.
For example, he doesn’t plan to redraw the downtown Louisville commercial landscape by himself. While his one building thrives (80 percent occupied by the spring), he won’t be moving the needle on Commercial Kentucky’s quarterly office vacancy reports.
“I’m focusing on smaller businesses with maybe 10 people and smaller square-footage needs,” he says. I’m not looking for companies that need 10,000-20,000 square feet.”
Working with general contractor Mark Campisano, he’s developing a new lobby, upgraded common areas and a garden patio, exposing the original brick walls and ceilings and putting in a new but vintage-looking steel staircase.
His focus on new, small, undercapitalized service companies includes rents that are in the $13-$14-per-square-foot range (“we’re a high Class B property,” he says).
It’s where the market is, he believes. “More and more companies are falling in love with downtown, with renovated vintage buildings like mine, the feel of brick walls and industrial architecture. But they’re small, their needs and resources are limited, they can’t pay $20 a foot.”
Increasingly, says Marcum, his attention is shifting to investing in some of these new technology companies.
“We have so far invested in Evenly – a digital wallet for group bill-paying – that we just sold to Square; and an internal application called 24/7 Super – a mobile solution for tenants with maintenance requests – that we’re planning to launch in the next couple of weeks. I’ve been working with Jet A Studio, one of our new tenants, to build this application.”
He’s also working with Ryan Cecil and Brad Moody of Go Green Lawn Solutions on a new venture called Mosquito 911, which they hope to launch in the spring.
“If I see a good business model and trust the founder, I’ll grab that opportunity.” Otherwise, he says, he’s just looking around.
“I have plenty to focus on right now – and I’m a patient individual.”
Put as only a 30-year-old could put it.