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TAR HEEL OF THE WEEK : Developer's Work Nurtures His Passion

TAR HEEL OF THE WEEK : Developer's Work Nurtures His Passion

The News & Observer
July 18, 2004

Author: Samantha Thompson Smith
Edition: FinalSection: City and StatePage: B1

Developer's Work Nurtures His Passion

Greg Hatem
Developer Greg Hatem is known for returning downtown buildings to their original character.

OCCUPATION: Founder of Raleigh-based Empire Properties

FAMILY: Mother, Marie, of Roanoke Rapids; two brothers, Joe Hatem of Wilmington and Mickey Hatem of Raleigh; sister, Marie Hatem of Carrboro, married to Chris Long; niece, Paula Rosine Long, 17; and nephew, Moe Long, 14; dog, Raleigh, a border collie mix.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, N.C. State University; diploma of Chinese studies, Beijing Youth Politics College.

NEXT BIG PROJECT: Three buildings in downtown Durham on East Chapel Hill Street, with plans to turn them into apartments, condos and offices; redeveloping three buildings in Glenwood South, at the former site of David Allen tile and marble, into a mix of restaurants, shops, offices and condos.

ON THE NIGHTSTAND: "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future" by Elizabeth C. Economy.

RALEIGH -- If it's more than 60 degrees outside, there's a good chance you'll find developer Greg Hatem in shorts.

In his downtown Raleigh office, he doesn't wear shoes.

He speaks Chinese. He owns a pig cooker and drives a Ford pickup truck.

When it comes to his work -- buying up old buildings and redeveloping them into offices, stores, apartments and restaurants -- Hatem is just as nontraditional. Instead of buying a building and focusing purely on financial return, he's willing to take the time to renovate the building to its historical glory, and then wait as long as it takes -- despite the cost -- until the right tenant comes along.

"It's incredibly important to have local people who have grown up here, who are willing to commit their time and resources to leave a better legacy, and there's not a better one in Raleigh than Greg Hatem," says Margaret Mullen, president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.

In the beginning, not everyone saw his vision. The first two bankers he and his two partners approached in 1996, when they wanted to redevelop an old Coca-Cola warehouse on West Street in Raleigh's warehouse district, thought he was crazy.

"No one was willing to step out on a limb and spend the money on a building for some other use," he says. "We knew it would take someone willing to stick out their neck. We saw the potential in downtown."

Hatem's perseverance has paid off. He put a package together and approached Central Carolina Bank, which approved a loan. Since that first building in the warehouse district, which later became Jillian's, his Empire Properties has bought and turned around a dozen buildings, earning Hatem, 43, a reputation as one of the area's most successful renovators of old buildings. They include: the Capital Fitness building on North Street; the Duck & Dumpling restaurant on Blount Street; and, most recently, Nana's Chophouse on Davie Street.

Passionate About Work
That passion for redevelopment has made Empire Properties one of the largest landlords in downtown Raleigh -- with more to come. Hatem is the driving force behind the business, though he still has two original partners -- his brother, Southport doctor Joe Hatem, and SAS programmer Bucky Ransdell -- and sometimes partners with other investors for projects.

His next endeavor will be to turn an acre near bustling Glenwood South's entertainment strip into a mix of restaurants, shops, offices and condos. He also is moving into downtown Durham, about to finalize a deal to redevelop three buildings on East Chapel Hill Street into apartments, condos and offices.

Kirsten Weeks, a friend who met Hatem when the two worked together at the state Department of Commerce in the late 1990s, says Hatem is motivated by his passion.

"He works furiously around the clock," she says. "He has a sincere love of Raleigh and of preserving the character of this city. You can see it by the time and energy he puts into restoring the buildings to their original state."

Along with that passion, he's known to be hard-headed, Mullen says.

Hatem was one of the first people Mullen met when she moved to Raleigh from Phoenix last year to lead the downtown development group. She was in a closed-door meeting with local developer John Boylan when Hatem, who had been looking for Boylan to get an answer he needed, tracked him down in Mullen's office.

"It was January, and he still was in his flops and shorts," Mullen says. "He walked into the meeting and said, 'I need an answer,' and I thought, 'Thank God, there's someone else in Raleigh who's like me.'

"The reason Greg and I get along so well is that he is what you see," Mullen says. "He doesn't care whether you like that or not. He's a down-to-earth person."

Loss Changed His Life
Hatem never planned a career as a developer. When he was growing up in Roanoke Rapids, where his family -- all of Lebanese decent -- moved in the 1930s, his love was photography. But he made his spending money working for his father's downtown clothing store, Joseph N. Hatem Ltd.

As a student at N.C. State, he took pictures for the school's paper, The Technician, and United Press International. He studied chemical engineering because it didn't require a foreign language.

But his life got sidetracked in 1984—just before his senior year—when his father died of prostate cancer at 68.

"It was a life-changing event," Hatem says.

He spent the next year at home with his mother, trying to settle the family's affairs, which included figuring out what to do with his father's store and several buildings the family owned in downtown Roanoke Rapids. Hatem admits that at 23, he wasn't prepared for the decisions he was facing.

The next year he accompanied his mother to China to visit his father's brother, a physician named George Hatem. Hatem had been living in China since the 1930s, working for Chairman Mao Zedong and later helping set up a national health-care system.

A Full Life
The trip began what would become a love affair of sorts between Hatem and China. He later would learn Chinese at a school in Beijing and take frequent economic development trips to Asia while working for the Commerce Department in the late 1990s. He even dabbled in some business ventures, including helping create a software development company and building a 21-story office and residential tower.

Back at home, and between trips to China, he worked as a financial planner for American Express in Raleigh and he ran an advertising agency that specialized in photography. He later made redevelopment his full-time business.

Ask him what he does in his spare time, and after a long pause and a chuckle, he begins to worry that he doesn't have enough going on in his life. He doesn't tick off the usual hobbies -- tennis or golf -- but there's plenty to fill his time.

He sits on two area boards. He's co-chairman of the Southeast Raleigh Assembly, a group formed in 2001 to guide economic development in that area of the city, and is a board member of the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh. He admits he doesn't think he was asked to join the museum board seat for his knowledge of art. Hatem loaned the group temporary space in one of his buildings near Glenwood South for an exhibit in 2001, and is renovating 2,000 square feet of office space at the museum's West Martin Street warehouse.

He also is creating a documentary on his uncle's medical work in China. This week, he leaves for China to continue the project; he'll go back again in October.

And then there's his pig cooker. Each year, during the first weekend of the State Fair, it gets pulled out for an annual pig pickin' with family and friends.

Frank Thompson, chairman of the Contemporary Art Museum and owner of AVMetro Inc., an audio-video staging company, says Hatem's business philosophies have made him successful.

"He thinks if you do good things, good things will come back to you," Thompson says. "He is unique, not only because of the way he does business, but because of his personality."

Copyright 2004 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.

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