From battered autos to bruised real estate, North Little Rock businessman Norman Clifton has made a lifelong career out of the reclamation business. Extracting value from the transformation of damaged property is a recurring theme in his salvage-dominated ventures.
“We have likened a lot of what we do to that,” said the 77-year-old son of Rose City. “When we were in the salvage business, we bought wrecked cars and repaired them in our body shop. What others see as a wrecked property, we buy and make back into something useful.”
Clifton’s real estate investments represent a diverse, largely North Little Rock portfolio that has included some iconic restaurant locations that once were home to Sir Loins Inn, the original Mexico Chiquito, Roy Fisher’s Steak House and the White Pig Inn.
And it’s commercial properties, both in and outside his hometown, that have provided the most adventure and rich fodder for dealmaking stories. The March 2012 acquisition of the shuttered Chicopee plant in North Little Rock remains Clifton’s mountaintop entrepreneurial experience and his most ambitious project.
A friend turned him on to the possibility of buying the 41-acre industrial spread at 1301 E. Eighth St. that housed a 465,000-SF main plant, a 121,000-SF production building and a 4,500-SF fitness center.
Opened in 1956 by Johnson & Johnson and expanded over the years, the complex employed as many as 600 at its peak. The workforce numbered 140 in June 2009 when Polymer Group Inc. announced the North Little Rock operations would be shutting down.
Fifteen years after PGI bought Johnson & Johnson’s Chicopee division in 1995, there would be no more hydroentanglement and fusible fiber production at the facility. What that manufacturing jargon translated to, in terms of the last product lines to roll out of the North Little Rock plant, were Swiffer pads for cleaning floors and foam headliners for automobiles.
After the plant closed in March 2010, the property sat gathering dust and cobwebs for two years as potential deals came and went.
Some buyers wanted to just buy the manufacturing equipment.
Others just wanted to buy the land and buildings.
PGI wanted to sell it all in one transaction. No one wanted to come close to the $5.5 million asking price.
Along the way, a deal to get shed of the property short-circuited quickly after a wannabe owner started scrapping material but not making any payments to PGI.
Into this cloud of corporate frustration, Clifton entered and made a $1.3 million offer to take it all off their hands.
“We started looking and talking and planning,” he said. “Never in our wildest dreams did I think they would take it. We saw the opportunity to come and make them an offer, lock stock and barrel, and that’s what we did.”
Clifton’s perplexed banker just had one question after walking the grounds and touring the buildings: “What in the world are you going to do with this property?”
What Clifton and his son, Bobby Henry, did was get busy salvaging and converting industrial assets to cash and paying off the $1 million loan backing the buy in whirlwind fashion.
First up was liquidating the production equipment that filled the dormant plant and valuable commodities no longer needed for manufacturing operations.
“We had some contacts, and we reached out to them and sold all the equipment,” Henry said. “Within the first month of buying the property, we took a big check to our banker to cover about three-quarters of the loan.
“Then, we sold about a half-million dollars worth of copper and stainless steel. We basically bought and paid off the loan in four months.”
A couple dozen transformers that once helped control the flow of electricity throughout the Chicopee complex were mined for copper. Much of the more than 60 tons was sold when the copper market was at $3.70 per pound.
A dozen overhead cranes that once moved material around the plant and a fully equipped machine shop were marketed over the internet to yield more than $100,000.
Five years after buying the Chicopee property, a friend’s suggestion to call Carl Rosenbaum, chairman of Safe Foods Corp., led to new industrial life on the north side of the complex.
In November 2017, Clifton Warehouse Leasing sold the two smaller buildings along with more than 20 acres for $600,0000. The 120,000-SF building underwent a massive makeover that reconfigured it into the $15 million headquarters of Safe Foods.
As space was cleared out, the main plant has become a warehouse leased to a variety of tenants.
While the Chicopee purchase was a rousing financial success from the start, Clifton still considers the property a work in progress. A 200,000-SF lease in the works represents the finishing touch on the deal.
“I’m optimistic it will happen, but it will be another 60-90 days or so,” Clifton said. “Any time you can buy right and don’t have debt service to maintain, you can be a whole lot more flexible on your lease rate than what the market rate is.”
The familiarity of his childhood stomping ground helped fuel a string of real estate buys along East Broadway and other North Little Rock addresses east of Interstate 30 over the years.
Among his current holdings is the first location of his father’s business, 1500 E. Broadway in 1937. Clifton started work as a kid at the garage after the move to its longtime location at 2910 E. Washington Ave.
“I grew up next door to the business,” he said. “I’d go out with him of a morning and roll the tires out and sweep the shop.”
After buying the business in 1970, Clifton opened a salvage yard, Norman Clifton Auto Parts, which he sold to his son in 1990. Clifton dabbled in real estate for years, following his father’s advice to buy a property a year, more if he could.
The investment that launched Clifton Land Co. in 1998 had promised to generate a quick return for him and his investment partners, Ruebel Holmes and Scottie Barber — but that was in 1973. It was to be part of a retail development at the northwest corner of Kiehl Avenue and Highway 107 in Sherwood and was supposed to result in a land lease.
Instead of receiving an $8,000 monthly cut as his share, the deal fell apart, and Clifton ended up becoming the sole owner and holding the property for 25 years.
He thought he was finally going to cash in on his $150,000 investment when the property was optioned for six months. However, the $250,000 purchase option expired without a sale.
Clifton was crestfallen, as was his wife, Shirley. He had learned Walmart was behind the purchase and promised to build Shirley a new home office if the retailer closed the deal.
Months later, his wife passed along a message from a familiar name interested in the property.
“My wife called me and said ‘I’m going to get my room, I’m going to get my room,’ and I knew exactly what she was talking about,” Clifton said. “She had recognized Walmart’s broker when he called and left his name and number.”
Walmart had renewed its interest in the land, which eventually became part of the site for its second ever Neighborhood Market. A return call to the real estate broker was made, and past disappointment was washed away.
“He asked me if I was still willing to sell it for $250,000,” Clifton said. “I told him ‘No, sir,’ because I knew it was Walmart this time. ‘It’s $450,000 now.’”