The Money Issue - Profile: Bankers South
Amid the financial meltdown, Brian Philpot and Rob Harper have turned profits from a real estate firm into a lending source, helping borrowers who can't get conventional loans.
After graduating from Florida State University with a finance degree in 1994, Brian Philpot expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. He earned his law degree from the University of Florida in 1997 and joined his father’s civil litigation practice in his hometown of Lakeland.
He didn’t like it. “I was a few months into it and had to sit down with my dad and say, ‘This isn’t going to last. Something’s got to give,’ ” says Philpot.
Continuing at the law firm for another year and a half, Philpot began to focus on an earlier passion — real estate. Philpot’s father had invested in agricultural and timber properties, and as a child Philpot had ridden with his dad on long weekend drives down Florida’s back roads hunting land deals. As an undergrad, Philpot had earned a real estate license and had even bought and sold a timber property while in law school.
With his family’s backing, he formed a real estate company and began purchasing and selling land in north and central Florida and around Atlanta. In 2001, he bought a property from Rob Harper, a fellow Lakeland native who had, like Philpot, begun investing in real estate shortly after finishing college at age 23.
Philpot and Harper impressed each other enough that they decided to go into business together, forming a real estate investment firm called the Land South Group. Starting with an initial purchase of 6,200 acres of timberland in South Carolina in 2002, the firm amassed 350,000 acres across the Southeast.
By 2004, however, the duo sensed a bubble. Pastureland that traditionally traded at $1,000 to $1,200 an acre, for example, had spiked to $15,000 an acre and more. The “fundamentals were getting out of whack,” Philpot says. “We decided that the pricing just didn’t make sense, and we needed to sell out all of those properties that we didn’t want long term and that had any debt associated with them.”
By the time the market crashed in 2007, Philpot and Harper had sold off all but 13,000 acres of income-producing ag and timberland. The sales generated returns of more than 200% — and more than $300 million in cash.