A Fully Integrated Real Estate Firm

The Wilton Companies
Written by Jen Hocken

The Wilton Companies is a full-service real estate investment company. It owns approximately three million square feet of retail, warehouse and office space and two thousand apartments in Southeastern Virginia and Eastern North Carolina.
The Company was founded in 1945 by E. Carlton Wilton. Like so many at that time, he had returned home from World War II and was determining what to do with his life after the war. His father had been a plastering contractor, and having done the heavy hard work for his father through many summers as a teenager, he knew that he did not want to be in the plastering business. Instead, he started building houses in the Richmond, Virginia area and soon decided to develop lots as well. By the late 1970s, he had built nearly 5,000 homes – primarily in the west end of Richmond – and was one of the dominant builders in the metro area.

There were significant residual pieces of property along the main streets where residential houses were not the best use. Those leftover plots were ideal commercial spaces. Mr. Wilton gradually began developing those spaces with shopping centers, retail stores and offices. His business evolved from a residential builder to a commercial developer. He ran the business until he was almost eighty years old, and he then sold it to its current owners who picked up where he left off.

The Wilton Companies now focus on commercial buildings and residential apartments for rent; it no longer builds houses. “We rarely sell anything. The investment aspect of our company is if we either buy it or build it, we intend to keep it for the long haul. If it’s worth owning, it’s worth owning forever,” says Richard S. Johnson, Chairman, President and CEO of The Wilton Companies.

Today, approximately thirty percent of the business is residential apartments, thirty percent is light industrial space, another thirty percent is retail, and the remainder is office. “When the current management team bought the company in 2002, the company was valued at about $100 million, and has since grown five times that number to over a half a billion dollars, which is quite an accomplishment,” says B. Hunt Gunter, Vice President of The Wilton Companies.

There are abundant benefits for tenants who choose to rent a Wilton property, particularly its flexible lease amendments if tenants need to downsize or upsize. If a commercial tenant with a start-up business underestimates the amount of the space required, Wilton helps that tenant expand instead of holding them to the original lease.

“We work with folks to expand their businesses in another one of our buildings. We’ll allow a tenant to rip up the lease and go into a bigger space. On the flip side, if somebody takes more square feet than they need and are not fully utilizing the space, we will allow them to move into a smaller space as long as it is Wilton property,” says Mr. Gunter.

Wilton saved many small businesses during the “Great Recession” by allowing tenants to downsize. The company did everything it could to assist its tenants and help their businesses survive the recession rather than being forced into bankruptcy like so many others. Wilton gives its tenants the space to grow when business is doing well, and it also works in the other direction when tenants cannot afford to keep up with the rent.

Another reason that its flexibility is so valuable for tenants is the variety of locations and property sizes. With Wilton having over three million square feet of commercial space for rent in the Richmond, Virginia metropolitan area, tenants have many options from which to choose when relocating to another Wilton property. If a tenant in the southern part of Richmond realizes that business would be better in the west end of town, it is no problem for Wilton to move them to another building.

Tenants also sometimes need to transition from retail to warehousing or vice versa, and Wilton is prepared for that as well. Many businesses and tenants of Wilton have made these kinds of shifts over the years. “The flexibility of having multiple types of property, multiple locations and multiple sizes allows us to effectively create an incubator environment for virtually every tenant we’ve got if they need it,” says Chuck Ellsworth, Vice President of The Wilton Companies.

The real estate company has very loyal tenants who refuse to rent from any other company after discovering the adaptability of The Wilton Companies, and this is a testament to both the Company and its employees. With such a high number of properties, Wilton outsources much of its maintenance and grounds-keeping work, yet it also has an in-house maintenance and grounds crew to ensure that if a tenant has an urgent issue, it will be immediately taken care of.

“We have one crew that is our flex crew, and if we need to pull them off of whatever they’re doing, we can get them at the drop of a hat, to go somewhere for an emergency,” says Mr. Ellsworth. For example, if a water main breaks in the yard of a property and the ground is becoming a muddy mess, the Wilton grounds crew would go over immediately to fix the problem, clean the mess and lay down new sod. Its level of responsiveness exceeds any other real estate company in the market.

Wilton has been acknowledged many times for how well its properties are kept with grounds. It has received a beautification award for one of its shopping centers in Virginia and even a unique award from a grateful garden club. The garden club award was for the construction of a shopping center in a small rural area approximately thirty minutes from Richmond. Often in rural areas, the residents enjoy the peaceful way of country life and are not receptive to the idea of a new shopping center. Shopping centers in rural areas are also known to be lower quality. However, Wilton constructed and all brick building with cupolas with solid copper weathervanes, in a colonial design that was complementary to the area.

The residents were extremely appreciative of the high-quality work and created an award to show their appreciation to The Wilton Companies. “It was built to such a high standard, and they were so pleased with it that we received the garden club award for the quality of our landscaping and the appearance of our center. That was pretty heartwarming,” says Mr. Johnson. The Company was very flattered to receive such an award.

Wilton builds long-term relationships with its tenants and the vendors that provide services to its properties. It has high repeat business with plumbers, general contractors, and roofing companies that have established a good reputation with the company. Wilton also has exceptionally high staff retention rates, evidence that The Wilton Companies is also a great place to work.

“I think all of our employees very much appreciate the fact that we treat everybody on the staff with a sense of fairness. When the Company does well, and there’s wealth to share, every single person on the staff gets a bonus,” says Chip Vaughan, CFO of The Wilton Companies. This unified atmosphere increases morale and productivity in the workplace. All staff members are offered the same benefits, even including a 401(k).

The Company is committed to giving back to the community by supporting numerous charitable endeavors. For example, recently, five members of the Company went to VCU Health, which is the largest hospital in the area and part of Virginia Commonwealth University, to support the expansion of surgical trauma programs. Years ago, two of its key staff members helped to establish a new private school in Richmond, and today, that school has become a true success story for the community. Wilton also has an employee who once had a kidney transplant, and the company fully supports her participation with the National Kidney Foundation.

Wilton also supports other charitable organizations including some to which it rents property. It has a program where any charity that is recognized by the 501(c) (3) charitable classification by the IRS will receive a twenty percent discount on rent costs. “We rent to a number of well-known large charities and small little-known ones as well. We take a very strong proactive stance in the fact that we want to be a good corporate citizen, and we put a lot of energy into supporting the non-profit community here in town,” says Mr. Johnson.

Recently, Wilton completed a significant two-story office building called the Wilton Park III. It is a 16,000-square-foot Class A building that is conveniently located near the center of the Richmond metropolitan area. Currently, the company is working to build 30,000 square feet of additional warehouse space to rent.

The Wilton Companies has superior properties in numerous locations with top-notch construction, appearance and maintenance. The grass is always manicured, and the properties are always clean.



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