As Ben Berman talks about the Baltimore-Washington corridor, he thinks back on his grandfather and his uncle, Melvin J. Berman and I. Wolford Berman, who founded Berman Enterprises in 1952.
“During the Great Depression, my grandfather and his brother were dairy farmers around the D.C. metro area,” Berman explained. Melvin Berman settled in the region after he left his home in Florida at age 17, hitchhiking to Baltimore to work at a local dairy store.
The two men began to think about developing a portion of their land, and ended up building some of the first shopping centers in the area in the 1950s and early 1960s, including the Laurel shopping center. “They were titans of industry,” said Berman.
At that time, they also first joined the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber (BWCC); decades later, Berman Enterprises was recently inducted into the BWCC Hall of Fame.
By 1962, the Berman brothers divested themselves of their dairy business and focused entirely on development. Back then, Ben Berman explained, the brothers handled one or two projects at a time. “They knew the contractors, and everything was done by a handshake.”
Now Berman Enterprises and its affiliates own and manage more than 9 million square feet of commercial office, retail, industrial and residential properties in Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Berman Enterprises also owns several hundred acres of developable land.
In addition to its real estate activities, the company has interests in private equity, ownership and management in commercial mortgages, retail businesses, venture capital and international business consulting.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve grown a lot,” Berman said. “We’ve had more and more real estate deals. We’ve branched out into other areas of business. We’ve gotten into residential acquisition, which we’ve never done before. We recently purchased a 22-story office tower in downtown Baltimore. It’s 94% vacant, and we are planning to convert it to Class A apartments. It’s a market we want to get into.”
Projects Still Reflect Origins
Last year, Berman Enterprises developed a 108,000-square-foot office building close to the New Carrollton Metro station, one of the busiest stations in the area. The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development moved its headquarters there, and the building also includes 557 apartments and 61,000 square feet of retail.
Prince George’s County boosted the project with a $2.5 million conditional loan from its Economic Development Incentive Fund, while also providing Berman Enterprises a 15-year, $4.38 million payment in lieu of taxes.
For phase two of the project, Berman Enterprises is now developing 575 mid-rise apartments over retail next door to the initial office building.
Yet even with projects as large as that one, the company’s mindset has stayed the same with the third generation at the helm, said Berman. “We deal directly, and we get things done. Our motto is to under-promise and over-deliver. With six managing partners, we’re a larger organization. But we have the same entrepreneurial spirit. We are still very hungry for deals.”
‘Swarming’ a Property
In 2009 and 2012, Berman Enterprises purchased properties in Florida, including one that was about 350,000 square feet. “Several of us actually moved to Florida to live there,” said Berman. “We find a property and we swarm it. It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears. We go after it full force.”
Wherever he goes, Berman said, he continues to appreciate doing business in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
“It harkens back to that handshake mentality,” he explained. “When you meet someone from the BW corridor, of course you need the legalities, but there’s a certain aspect of, when you say you’re going to do something, you are going to do it. Our family has been in the region for a very, very long time. It’s just nice to be able to have those relationships and call upon people. You feel like you’re part of the community.”
65-Plus Years in the Maryland Market
For Berman Enterprises, the Baltimore-Washington corridor is its oldest marketplace — but it is also one of its most vibrant. “We can truly grow even though we’ve been in the Maryland market for 65-plus years,” said Berman. “Places like New Carrollton are growing fast, and they are on the cusp of exploding in terms of growth.”
If his grandfather was a titan of industry, Berman defines the second generation — his father and other family members — as “dedicated, smart men who are excellent teachers.”
As a young man, Berman internalized the message from his father that he didn’t have to be the flashiest businessperson to be rewarded and to grow. “I am very fortunate to work with my brothers and my cousins,” he said. “The truth is, we work directly with each other, and we are honest with each other. We each have our own skill set.”