Scuttlebiz: Multimillion-dollar real estate deals abound all over town

The former International Paper Co. plant on Mike Padgett Highway, which produces coated paperboard products, was recently acquired by Atlanta-based Graphic Packaging. STAFF/FILE

You think an Atlanta company’s recent purchase of the 28-acre Washington Square shopping center for $20 million was yuge?

Then you probably missed the string of real estate transactions that were part of Atlanta-based Graphic Packaging’s purchase of International Paper’s North American consumer packaging business – a deal that included its bleached paperboard mill in south Augusta.

The local land involved in that $6 billion debt-and-stock deal has started showing up in Richmond County property records in recent weeks. And I must say, the sales are among the largest land transactions I’ve ever seen in this city.

So far, just over 7,719 acres has changed hands for roughly $54 million. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of trees for making paper.

The deal had Graphic Packaging assuming $660 million of IP debt and offer IP a 20.5 percent stake in the subsidiary that holds the assets of the combined business. The six facilities transferred to Graphic Packaging employ about 3,900 workers.

Augusta’s paper mill, which dates back to the early 1960s, is one of two solid bleached sulfate paperboard plants included in the deal. That factory, by the way, is the county’s third-largest taxpayer.

DREDGING UP COMMERCE: The Palmetto State reported it set a record for export sales in 2017, the eight consecutive record for export sales, according to the South Carolina Department of Commerce and South Carolina Ports Authority.

More than $32.2 billion worth of goods, a 2.9 percent increase from 2016, went to foreign markets. Most interesting to me is that South Carolina accounts for 31 percent of U.S. tire exports, a statistic no doubt influenced by Bridgestone America’s two massive Aiken County tire plants.

“The rising production of export goods in South Carolina is a key driver of the port’s strong growth,” S.C. Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome said.

The Charleston, S.C., harbor will be deepened to 52 feet starting this month, which will enable to port to handle heavier export cargo. The project was authorized by Congress in Dec. 2016 and received appropriations in the fiscal year 2017 Army Corps of Engineers work plan.

The project, consisting of two contracts – $47 million and $213 million – will make Charleston the deepest harbor on the East Coast.

MEANWHILE, IN SAVANNAH …: If deepening the Savannah port will yield a 7-to-1 return on investment, as officials say, then it seems a bit short-sighted for the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure package to allocate only $49 million to the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

Now, Trump’s $49 million isn’t chump change, but it’s less than half of what is needed to complete the project in a timely manner for the fiscal year 2019.

Georgia’s GOP U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have both called on the administration to pony up more cash.

“An infrastructure project with a return on investment like the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project should be an absolute priority for the federal government,” Isakson said.

Said Perdue: “It is the fastest growing port in the country. We personally invite President Trump and Vice President Pence to the Port of Savannah to see firsthand the value this opportunity offers American businesses.”

In FY 2018, the project received just $50.6 of the estimated $80 million to $100 million needed for on-time completion. The 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act allows for a 75 percent federal share on harbor deepening projects up to 50 feet.

Dredging began to deepen the seaward half of the Savannah harbor, which extends 18.5 miles from Fort Pulaski into the Atlantic Ocean, began in the fall of 2015. The next phase would involve dredging of the inner harbor.

MAKING TRACKS ACROSS THE AREA: Discount Tire recently opened its first store in Aiken this past week near Aiken Mall at 2286 Whiskey Road. The company opened its first South Carolina store in 2001. The Aiken store makes No. 13.

You may also know the tire and wheel retailer, which is open every day but Sunday, is just under five months from opening a new store in Evans at 4538 Washington Road. That’s right before Gibbs Road, between the Bojangle’s and Culpepper Ace Hardware.

It will be the company’s second metro area location on this side of the river, the first being the store at 3869 Washington Road it opened in 2013.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based chain expects to surpass 1,000 stores this year.

THE NOTORIOUS J.O.B.: Metro Augusta’s jobless rate has been under 5 percent – a figure many consider “full employment” – since last summer. But there’s still plenty of employers out there with jobs to fill, and some of them will be at Augusta University’s two career expos next week.

The first of the two events at the Forest Hills Campus’ Christenberry Fieldhouse, both of which run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., will be the K-12 Recruitment fair, which is targeting folks interested in working for local school systems. That event will be on Feb. 22.

The following day will be the Employer Expo Career Fair, which will feature more than 50 regional employers offering everything from internship and summer employment opportunities to full- and part-time jobs.

Both events are open to the public. Learn more at Augusta University’s Career Services website or call (706) 737-1604. Pro tip: Dress professionally and bring lots of copies of your resume.

SPROUTING UP JOBS: Organic grocer Sprouts Farmers Market is opening its 30,000-square-foot Augusta store at 630 Crane Creek Drive bright and early on May 2, and it’s going to need about 120 full- and part-time employers to operate the store.

The store at the corner of Walton Way Extension and Interstate 20 is in need of everyone from department managers to frontline clerks. See what’s available at or call (866) 925-2396 for more information.

The company employs 27,000 at nearly 300 stores in 15 states. In 2016, its “team members” saved more than $9 million through store discounts and received $150,000 in scholarships.

CAN WE BUILD IT? YES WE CAN: Atlanta accounting and consulting firm Bennett Thraster and Kennesaw State University recently released the results of its second annual Georgia Construction Outlook Survey, one of the more comprehensive surveys of privately held construction companies in the Southeast.

The results from the more than 150 contractors who responded were pretty upbeat: Nearly 80 percent project 2018 revenues to exceed 2017, with the average company reporting a gross profit margin of 9.3 percent. Skilled labor is apparently becoming more expensive, as contractors reported their payrolls increased 5.2 percent on average last year.

The vast majority of respondents, 83 percent, said recruiting and retailing qualified employees is their biggest business challenge. Contractors also said their average health care costs increased 13 percent during the past year.

OPTIMISM ABOUNDS: The National Small Business Association is mostly bullish on 2018, with 84 percent of respondents to its recent survey expressing confidence in the future of their business, and only one in 10 anticipating a recession this year.

The association’s 2017 Year-End Economic Report shows more than half of small-business owners in December said they believe the national economy is doing better than it was just six months ago, compared to 43 percent who said the same in Dec. 2016 and only 20 percent in Dec. 2015.

And for the first time in a decade, the majority of small firms – 53 percent – report increases in revenues.

MORE THAN SPEEDY SIGNS: Next-day business signs were a novel concept 20 years ago, sort of like one-hour photo processing.

Now that technology enables just about anybody to do a quick-serve sign, small businesses are placing a premium on environmental graphics, way-finding signage, trade show and point-of-purchase signs that better fit in with their overall identity. That’s why the Signs by Tomorrow franchise system began changing its name to Image360 a few years ago.

The rebrand has recently been rolled out at the Augusta area franchisee, Allegra Marketing Print Mail, which has been owned by Larry Lynn and his wife Rosemary for more than 35 years.

Lynn said the Image360 brand better reflects his company’s one-stop print/marketing/signage consultative services.

“That makes it so much easier for an organization to have consistent branding which is so important to build awareness and differentiate from their competitors,” he said. “Marketing a small to mid-sized business or nonprofit has become so much more sophisticated.”

Allegra and Image 360 are both part of the 600-unit Alliance Franchise Brands network. Lynn’s Augusta-area operation is at 128 Commercial Boulevard in Martinez.

BANK RIGHT: You may recall hundreds of banks failed during the financial crisis of the late 2000s, and that at one time Georgia led the nation in bank failures.

My how things have changed.

Earnings have rebounded, bankruptcies have slowed to a trickle, interest rates are creeping up and the recent drop in the corporate income tax rate – from 35 percent to 21 percent – will bring long-term benefits to banks, which typically have the highest tax rates of any industry.

But some banks are doing better than others, and a handful of the best, according to Forbes magazine, have operations in the Augusta metro area.

The magazine and S&P Global Market Intelligence recently released its America’s Best Banks 2018 list based on 10 metrics, including nonperforming assets as a percentage of total assets and return on tangible equity, from regulatory filings through Sept. 30.

The highest ranking bank with local operations was South State Bank at No. 14. The $14 billion Columbia, S.C.-based institution, which completed its acquisition of Augusta’s Georgia Bank &Trust early last year, scored high in several categories, including 12-month revenue growth of 14.1 percent. It was the second consecutive year the bank ranked in the top 15.

Other banks with local operations and their rankings included Fifth Third Bancorp, No. 53; Synovus Financial, No. 70; Wells Fargo, No. 74; Bank of America, No. 85; Regions Financial, No. 93; and SunTrust Banks, No. 99.

PURE SUCCESS: New businesses grab the biggest headlines, but it’s a well-known fact in the economic development industry that most new job creation – about 60 percent – come from a community’s existing employers.

A great example is Wayneboro, Ga.’s Purification Cellutions plant, which moved into the old Fire King International building with a skeleton crew in 2002. Now the carbon-filter manufacturer employs more than 200 workers on three separate shifts at the facility, which it expanded in 2016.

The company also has become one of Burke County’s most philanthropic corporate citizens, donating volunteer time and money to area nonprofits such as Wimberly House Ministries and the United Way.

The division of Charleston, S.C.-based Ingevity was recently rewarded for its community contributions by the Burke County Chamber of Commerce, which named Purification Cellutions Business of the Year.

“They are a true asset not only because of the economic impact they contribute to our community, but the outstanding corporate citizenship they display as well,” Chamber Executive Director Ashley Roberts during the Jan. 25 banquet.

The company’s carbon filters are used by the automotive industry to reduce gasoline vapor emissions. The products also are used by asphalt companies, oil exploration firms and manufacturers of agrochemicals, adhesives and lubricants.

PEOPLE MAKE THE COMMUNITY: Corporate citizens are crucial to a city’s well being, but it takes boots-on-the-ground individuals to really make an impact.

Two of those individuals, Ellis and Ann Johnson of Augusta, were recognized for their outstanding community service this past week with the George &Dorothy Walton Award.

The recognition honors local couples who make subtle but substantial contributions in the metro area. The award is named for Declaration of Independence signer George Walton and his wife, Dorothy, who helped shape Augusta during its early years. The award is sponsored by financial advisory firm AP Wealth Management and The Augusta Fund LP, an affiliated private equity fund.

The award committee said the Johnsons “are known throughout the community for their efforts, which are tireless and without equal.”

“Though each is a very talented, capable individual, they are even stronger as a team,” the committee said of the couple, whose volunteer efforts include supporting Elim Baptist Church, The Jessye Norman School of the Arts, the Morris Museum of Art, Paine College, and Project BUILD. “They model their beliefs by working tirelessly for the causes they are passionate about, such as education and the arts.”

Hats off to the Johnsons for their good deeds. And hats off to Eugene McManus and his partners at AP Wealth Management for recognizing those good deeds.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or

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