Metamorphosis master and real estate developer Michael Mouron, chairman of Capstone Development Corp. and Capstone Real Estate Investments, finds every aspect of the business challenging and rewarding in the best way — the kind that makes the neurons fire and the pleasure center of the brain light up when elements come together in a successful venture. And he’s had many of those, both during his official career and now in retirement, including his newly opened venture, Valley Hotel in Homewood, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, which opened to its first guests in February.
“A successful developer is often a mile wide and an inch deep,” Mouron says. “We touch on a lot of things, but one does not have to be an expert in every aspect of the project. I may be experienced in finance and taxes, but I work closely with general contractors who are tasked with building the project. My wife can tell you I don’t know which end of the hammer to hold.”
While that’s clearly an exaggeration, Mouron is a veritable maestro conducting an orchestra of skilled professionals.
“One time, I tried to list all of the different professionals a developer may become involved with in a large, complicated development, and I listed 35 or 40 professions,” Mouron says. “That’s a lot of people. It’s a little like the story of the blind men all touching an elephant. Depending on where they were touching the elephant, they described what they thought it was. I feel as if sometimes the developer needs to remind all ‘you are touching an elephant!’ so as to maintain the necessary collective focus.”
The analogy of an elephant is an apt one for Mouron, a University of Alabama graduate whose dedication to his alma mater inspired his company’s name. When Mouron graduated with a degree in accounting, he went to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers for a time before leaving public accounting to become chief financial officer for a small public company in Montgomery. He decided it was time to make his own investments and the doors of opportunity swung wide.
A trail blazer in student housing, Mouron founded Capstone Development Corp. in 1990 to focus exclusively on student-oriented housing developed as close as possible to major public universities. Since its founding, and considering the successor entities, in excess of $4.5 billion in such properties has been developed by the Capstone Companies.
“I had always had an affinity for real estate, and I liked everything about it,” Mouron says. “Kathy and I started buying homes and fixing them up to resell them. I bought a commercial property, and we worked on that. One thing led to another, and we decided to get out of accounting and into real estate full time.”
In 1989, Mouron turned to creating housing designed for students on land near the University of Georgia in Athens. That was the beginning of a student housing boom that laser-focused Mouron’s efforts and led to the formation of the company, which in turn led to on- and off-campus housing nationwide.
“We introduced a means of tax-exempt financing that had not been previously utilized on university campuses, and as a result became active in public-private partnerships across the country — Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Austin, Boca Raton and all points in between,” Michael Mouron says. “I can’t think of how many markets, but I suspect it is north of 100.”
With a track record of success and a feeling it was time to move on, Mouron turned Capstone Real Estate Investments over to his sons, Drew, Christopher and Lewis. The other three Capstone Companies are owned by non-family members. The decisive action marked the end to Mouron’s active involvement with the daily activities of the various Capstone Companies.
“I had an opportunity to own a company and grow it — to know the agony and ecstasy of business ownership,” Mouron says. “I tried to retire in 2012. I broke Capstone Development Corp. into four separate and distinct companies. It was my succession plan to break the company into its pieces and set in place people who have been running them.”
Retirement was short-lived for Mouron, who was accustomed to managing multiple projects simultaneously and found it difficult to settle with a hobby. After a conversation with wife Kathy, it was clear to both that the longtime developer wasn’t going to find satisfaction on a fishing lake or golf course. Mouron’s avocation was meant to be real estate, with all of the complications of coordinating marketing, management, civil, structural and mechanical engineers, general contractors, architects, landscape architects and the multitude of other professionals whose hands on the elephant made up the whole under his orchestration.
“I started thinking of projects that would interest me and that I could do on my own account,” Mouron says.
His first project was to buy a building in the English Village neighborhood of Mountain Brook. Over the decades, it had taken turns as a grocery store, a restaurant and home to a catering business. After meeting with city planners, Mouron identified a potential lessee, made over the property and settled a hardware store with a history of service to the community into the new space. In doing so, he kept a tradition going, made a neighborhood happy and launched a new real estate development career.
His next post-retirement property was the circa-1926 historic Federal Reserve Building in downtown Birmingham, neglected and dilapidated after 15 empty years. The “Greco-Deco” style building is a showplace of what a visionary can accomplish with drive and a dream, and now houses multiple tenants while retaining many original fixtures as a reminder of the past.
In one space, a vault has been repurposed into a conference room. Massive vault doors are situated by the restrooms, and in each space the original architecture of the 1920s structure evokes the past.
He took a first foray into industrial development with the purchase of a site now housing Saiia Construction Co. at the junction of Corridor X and I-65, then moved on to amass the property for the Homewood Valley Hotel and adjacent retail site. Cobbling together small parcels from various owners in the relatively small community took time, but Mouron was patient.
“It was a slow-in-developing project that involved a good bit of land assemblage,” Mouron says. “In Homewood, that’s not always easy. I finally got enough land and worked closely with the city that encouraged me to build the hotel and the space for Edgar’s Bakery, Little Donkey Mexican restaurant and Rodney Scott’s BBQ.”
If a deal doesn’t have a hairy aspect, Mouron might not be interested. Overcoming obstacles is one of the rewards of his work.
“It’s a mental challenge to try to pull all the pieces together,” Mouron says. “It’s one of the things I find intriguing about all developments. When a historic building is done well, it’s like old furniture that has a certain patina that you can’t create with new furniture. I feel the same way about historic buildings; you can’t spend enough to create a building that has the same patina as old buildings. They seem to ooze history and charm and craftsmanship that you don’t see replicated in new buildings.”
Mouron is currently transforming the old downtown Birmingham Greyhound Bus terminal, emphasizing faithful restoration. With original plans at hand, Mouron commissioned an exact replica of the three-dimensional Greyhound Lines dog, stretched in full gallop, above the doors of the building, a signature of original Greyhound stations, next to a re-creation of the building’s original vertical sign. Scuffed and worn terrazzo floors have undergone multiple sanding and buffing to restore them to their former, mid-century sheen.
The interior is being transformed into office space, brightened with the addition of a skylight that historical officials permitted Mouron to add. The developer located two Greyhound buses in Minnesota and had them repainted in appropriate Greyhound patterns before having them transported to Birmingham for interior retrofits as meeting spaces. They will be parked on each side of the former terminal, which retains its Moderne style and salutes a rich history, including the arrival of Freedom Riders who traveled to Birmingham to fight for civil rights.
“The Greyhound Corporation gave us the original plans with the specifications and blueprint for the dog,” says Mouron, who also consulted historical pictures of the 27,000-square-foot building. “We’ve mounted the dog in the same location and facing the same direction. It’s those things that make spaces like this unique. It’s nice to feel like you’ve saved a building that is part of the country’s heritage.”
The Mourons have always sought to create a strong sense of civic and charitable responsibility in their children, resulting in the Mouron Family Foundation, which gives back in many ways, including through a college scholarship fund for dependents of Mountain Brook first responders.
Among other charitable works, the Mourons were instrumental in the creation of the University of Alabama’s Stran-Hardin Arena, a multi-use facility for the college’s Adapted Athletics program.
This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.