Getting Back To Their Roots

Two veteran Atlanta real estate developers known for big warehouse and distribution projects are getting back to their entrepreneurial roots. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the credit crunch limited access to capital, Forrest Robinson and Ray Weeks took a new approach for them — partnering with large real estate funds to fuel growth.

Now, as the industrial property market has rebounded and traditional debt and equity sources are back in the mix, Robinson and Weeks can return to a model that once made Weeks Corp. Atlanta’s largest build-to-suit warehouse developer in the Southeast.

The developers are relaunching their company under a new name, Robinson Weeks Partners, and using more private equity and debt to fund expansion. “It will allow us to do more of the projects we want to do,” Robinson said.

Consider its relationship with high-end home furnishings retailer Restoration Hardware, which is about to open a 1.5-million-square-foot, $100 million project in Patterson, Calif. Robinson Weeks is developing the building, a possible forerunner to similar partnerships with other retailers across the United States.

“We aren’t necessarily going to be confined to projects in Atlanta or the Southeast,” Robinson said.

Even so, it’s still got a plenty of opportunities in metro Atlanta, including its massive development underway at Fort Gillem, a former U.S. Army base that’s being converted into a regional logistics campus. Robinson Weeks expects to wrap up construction early next year on an 850,000-square-foot spec project at Fort Gillem.

The greater flexibility to pursue such projects is a sign of things to come.

“It looks like, in a way, they are coming full circle, becoming once again a true developer like the Weeks Family was,” said Pat Murphy, a senior managing director with real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield.

In the 80s, Ray Weeks began to turn A.R. Weeks & Associates into what became the largest build-to-suit developer of warehouses in the Southeast. Weeks took the company public in 1994, creating Weeks Corp.

Weeks and Robinson have worked together since those early days. In this newest version of their partnership, Robinson is going to take an even more visible role.

“Forrest deserves the credit,” Weeks said. “To see him take this job and handle it like a pro has been fantastic.”

The shift to a more entrepreneurial style should offer the chance to expand their portfolio even faster than they have in recent years. And that’s saying something.

Over just the past five years, they added 10 million square feet of properties.

“Working with funds can be restrictive, but when you are using your own debt and equity, it’s possible to see more deals and develop more projects,” said Bayne Porter, an executive vice president with Cushman & Wakefield.

For Robinson and Weeks, the new venture comes as Atlanta sees construction continue to surge. More than 10 million square feet of speculative industrial projects — or those without a tenant signed to leases — are expected to be completed by year’s end, according to Colliers International.

E-commerce is a major driver. “Atlanta is still pretty hot,” Porter said.

Douglas Sams covers Commercial Real Estate