Sweet Homes in Alabama

by Quin Hillyer
From scratch, not government funding, three men built a conglomerate that now drives a local economy.

Barack Obama wouldn’t know what to make of Gene Brett, whose story just wouldn’t compute in the president’s warped worldview. Brett, along with his business partners Tommy Robinson and Tillis Brett (his brother), illustrate what makes the American economy thrive if the government so beloved by Obama will just get out of the way.

Forty-six years ago, the Brett brothers were engineers (Gene: electrical; Tillis: industrial) who had gravitated to real estate, as junior agents at the same company in southern Alabama. But they didn’t like being “junior” — so with a paltry $500 investment and not a single client, they started their own business and went knocking on doors in the small towns of Chickasaw and Saraland, just north of Mobile, asking if owners might want to put their homes on the market.

Somehow they made a go of it, and a few years later one client asked if they could help him not just buy but build a new house on property he was acquiring. That led the Brett brothers to Robinson, a local builder, and soon the three were partners as developers, too. They built new suburban developments and were a success with them. By the skin of their teeth, they survived the 21 percent interest rates of the late Carter era and, identifying an opportunity, expanded to the Alabama Gulf beachfront, where they saw potential for large condominium complexes along a coast that always had played second fiddle to Florida’s.

Their first condo complex was a success, and so were the second and the third (dubbed “Phoenix” and “Phoenix II”). They got a big bank loan for a bigger one still — just before reverberations from the savings-and-loan crisis led their panicked Ohio-based bank to summarily pull the loan. Facing a demand from the Resolution Trust Corporation for a $1.2 million payment in just ten days, and with total financing requirements approaching $7 million, the Brett Robinson company lawyer drew up bankruptcy papers to get them out from under the new project.

But Gene Brett and his partners wouldn’t sign. If they did, everyone who had made a down payment for a condo would be out of luck while they skated away. The three partners couldn’t stomach that thought. Gene Brett drove up to Birmingham, planted himself in the offices of an RTC official, and said he wouldn’t leave until the official agreed to give him a year to make things right. Back and forth they went, back and forth — until finally, grudgingly, the official gave him six months. And that’s where the story really gets good.

Leaving Tillis Brett and Tommy Robinson in Alabama with the thankless task of somehow keeping the company operating, Gene Brett drove to Tennessee, to the offices of two doctors who wanted their down payments back, and convinced them instead to stay involved. Eventually, he worked his way up to Michigan, to the office of man who had rented (but didn’t own) one of Brett Robinson’s other condo units. It was a cold call, completely unscheduled and unannounced. Brett’s mission: to persuade the man and his wife not just to make a down payment on a new condo, as yet unbuilt, something in which they had never indicated any interest, but to pay Brett the entire price up front, all $108,000 (the equivalent of nearly $204,000 today), in one big check.

At first the man laughed. But Gene Brett is a persuasive man. He closed the deal. From there, he made another cold call, and another, and another. He made enough sales to pay off the immediate Brett Robinson loan, and kept going. For three full years, Brett lived out of his sedan — clothes on a rack in the back seat, files in the trunk, sandwich makings in an ice chest — sleeping in the car in rest stops most nights (interspersed every four or five nights with stops in cheap motels), traversing the U.S. Northeast, looking for full-price, cash-up-front buyers, and returning home to his family for only four days or so every six weeks.

His partners, meanwhile, did their jobs splendidly as well. The Brett Robinson companies never declared bankruptcy. They finished their third Phoenix complex (and fourth overall) and then built more . . . now, here they sit, 24 years after the S&L debacle (and having also survived Hurricanes Georges, Ivan, and Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill), finishing Phoenix West II. It’s their 19th condo complex and — get this — the single largest residential building in Alabama. And their condos are steel-reinforced concrete, 10 to 12 inches thick, with reinforced glass, all of which have withstood every storm that nature has thrown at them while few other complexes remained intact.

Now here’s the part Obama just wouldn’t understand: The various Brett Robinson companies — real estate, development, service/management (including a massive linen-cleaning operation) — directly employ well upwards of 700 people. In addition, an entire tourism industry in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores thrives, driving a growing local economy, largely on the back of the clientele brought in from all over the country by the Phoenix condos.

And government didn’t do it. Three men did it on their own, two of them brothers with just $500 to invest, but with boundless energy and optimism. In the course of creating their own wealth — and yes, they are wealthy now, which is no sin — they created or catalyzed sustenance and even wealth for plenty of others in restaurants, entertainment, construction, and various service industries.

This is, of course, how the free market works. This is how free men build businesses, and how we build communities. We do it without central planners; we do it without federal appropriations. Instead, we do it by living out of our cars or by knocking on doors or by just flat-out refusing to walk away when things get tough.

Barack Obama may try to close Mount Vernon and may try to block access to Mount Rushmore, but he’ll never block American free enterprise. People like Gene and Tillis Brett and Tommy Robinson won’t let him. We all won’t let him. We are Americans, and we won’t give up.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom.