Dean of Deal-making
Ind.'s Dean & Debbie Ford
credit hard work, luck
in building land empire
MADISON, Ind. (November 2002) Two hours into the
Oct. 12 bankruptcy auction of Rivercrest Marina, the bidding was getting
heated between a handful of people anxiously trying to purchase a single
condominium and Madison businessman Dean Ford, who was bidding on all
Fords initial bid of $858,500 for the entire lot had risen to
$924,500 over the course of an hour, and the auctioneer was now asking
him to raise it again to $930,500. With one of the auctioneers waving
his arms in front of Ford to up the ante once more, Ford made a cell
phone call to his wife, Debbie. Im about to buy the marina
condos, he told her. What do you think?
Debbie Fords reply: Just dont go over a million dollars.
Ford wound up buying the condos for $950,500 plus a 10 percent buyers
premium. Within a week, he already had half of them sold, pending approval
of the Rivercrest auction by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge. He plans
to privately sell all but two of the condos within six weeks, resulting
in a quick turnaround and nice profit for himself.
(left) at auction
Ford frequently involves his wife in his business dealings.
But she is about the only one whose opinion he values in his high stakes
wheeler-dealings. The two have been partners now for 30 years, ever
since their marriage at age 21 after having grown up in Jefferson County.
Together, the Fords, both 51, have raised a son and three daughters,
ranging in ages from 11 to 27. They live on a farm on John Deere Road
in Dupont from where they manage two businesses and collect rent from
dozens of commercial and residential tenants.
Hes management and Im labor, joked Debbie, who
handles the couples business finances, payroll and taxes from
an office in their home.
Fords philosophy in such dealings is simple: Get in cheap and
get out fast. Its a credo that has worked for him in several high
profile deals, including his most recent acquisition, the Rivercrest
He has made most of his acquisitions through bankruptcy auctions or
by scooping up what he calls distressed property
those in financial straits.
Im sort of an instinct buyer, Ford said. I look
for business opportunities at wholesale prices.
Since his early days of working on the family dairy farm in Dupont,
Ind., and 12 years as an employee at the former Russells Farm
Implements in Madison, Ford has used his business savvy and negotiating
skills to buy dozens of farms, 835 acres at the defunct Marble Hill
Nuclear Power Station outside Hanover, a Fruit of the Loom warehouse
in Campbellsville, Ky., a former nursing home in North Vernon, a North
Vernon golf course and his biggest deal to date the 3,400 acres
of land, industrial buildings and residences that make up the south
end of the Jefferson Proving Ground, the U.S. Armys former ammunition
testing base north of Madison. At one point, he even owned the Hillside
Inn after the initial bidder in the first of two bankruptcy auctions
in June 1999 defaulted. Ford was the second-highest bidder at more than
We had the keys to the place for two weeks, Debbie said.
But the bankruptcy court later decided to hold a second auction in November
1999, during which Jasper, Ind., businessman Jerry Fuhs paid $480,000
for the hotel. Ford didnt attend the second auction.
Ford said he didnt attend the Rivercrest Marina auction to necessarily
buy anything. When I go to a sale, it all depends on the price.
And if the price is low enough, I get interested real fast, he
He bid as high as $460,000 on the marina itself before bowing out to
the eventual winner, Ed Bowman, who was bidding on behalf of MainSource
Bank, formerly Peoples Trust Bank Co. The bank, which extended
the loan to developer Patricia Hereford to build the marina and condos,
bought the marina for $470,000, plus the 10 percent buyers premium.
Larry Spann, who owns LMS Contracting in Madison, bought a 10-acre parcel
of land along the river that sits adjacent to the marina for $150,000.
Ford indicated that he was involved in the deal but would not speculate
Ford credits the dozens of area farmers who patronized Russells
Farm Implements during his employment there for teaching him the art
of negotiating. I learned everything from them, he said.
I was only 21 years old when I started working there. That was
But he quickly adds that it often takes nerves of steel to stand up
and bid with the big boys at dollar values that would scare others away.
Most people who get involved in a project become too attached
to the property and cant let go, Ford said. But the
way to make money on a deal is to figure out how youre going to
get back your investment plus a little profit and then get out quickly.
Take for example a deal Ford made on the nursing home in North Vernon.
He paid $225,000 for the distressed property two years ago,
sold a back lot for $150,000 and rented the rest for $4,000 per month.
The building itself is worth $350,000, he figures. The
same company has four other buildings around Indiana they want me to
Ford is proud of his success, calling his beginnings dumb luck,
aided by the rapidly rising land values that occurred in the early and
mid-1970s. Thats when Ford began buying up farm land. For several
years, he bought a farm a year. He now owns more than 8,000 acres, including
the 3,400 acres and 15 industrial buildings at JPG that he leases to
Ford has kept all the farm land he has accumulated over the years, but
he has quickly found buyers for other properties. A decade ago he paid
$2 million for the former Hughes Tobacco Warehouse and still uses it
to house his Ford Lumber and Hardware business. Tobacco is still sold
there during the season. He also owns Dean Ford Farm Equipment in Dupont.
In all, the Fords have about 40 employees on the payroll.
Ford has never played a game of golf in his life, but it didnt
stop him two years ago from buying another distressed property,
the former Muscatatuck Country Club, when the aging membership wanted
to sell because of financial difficulties. Ford now leases the golf
course to a management company.
Last fall, the Fords bought at bankruptcy auction a former Fruit of
the Loom factory in Campbellsville, Ky. Amazon.com, whose largest shipping
facility is located in Campbellsville, already has inquired about renting
or buying the 40-acre property from Ford and his associate in the deal,
Terry Eaglin of Versailles, Ind. The factory has 650,000 square feet
Ford said the biggest deal of his life was the couples
December 1995 purchase through sealed bid of the Jefferson Proving Ground
land south of the firing line. The Fords won the bid with a $5.1 million
offer but only had to pay 10 percent, or $510,000, at closing because
the government is still cleaning up environmental contamination of some
areas and is turning over parcels as they are determined to be safe.
Since 1996, the Fords have been granted access to about 1,200 acres
and half of the buildings.
We got a 50-year lease as the property is made ready for conveyance.
Thats a fancy term for buying on contract, Dean Ford said.
Several potential buyers have approached the Fords about JPG land, but
only one deal has been completed. They recently sold a 34-acre tract
to the State of Indiana for use as a highway garage. Sale price: $1.3
Fords wheeler-dealing is well known around the Madison area. He
has his critics and his fans. Tony Hammock of Madison ranks among the
latter. He has known the Ford family since his youth and was in the
same high school class as one of Deans two younger brothers, John.
Hammocks older brother, Tom, was in Deans class. Ford also
has a younger sister.
Hammock, who like Ford is a farmer-turned businessman, buys lots and
builds homes when he not working at his full-time job for Spanns
Hammock says he is impressed with Fords success. Everything
he touches seems to work. And its all self-taught or self-inflicted,
or both. Hes got good buying skills about him and has acquired
enough money to push for the bigger deals when everybody else has to
sit on the sidelines.
Hammock also recognizes the contributions made by Debbie Ford. His
wife is a major player in his business organization, Hammock said.
Both are low profile, but shes even lower profile.
Ford steps out of the shadows, however, on auction day. In mid-October,
Hammock stood by and watched as Ford anted up more than $1 million to
buy the RIvercrest Marina condos. It takes a pretty big man to
stand up there and bid a million dollars at an auction, Hammock
said. He draws a checkbook like hes drawing a six-shooter.
Im sure hes felt like he extended himself a few times, but
it has always worked out.
Debbie Ford credits the couples faith in God for their fortunes.
Dean and I both believe it was just meant to be, and that we are
just stewards of the land while we are here on this Earth.
Ford is called frequently called up to exercise his stewardship. He
fields numerous calls about possible deals or offers on land he already
owns. He wants to hang onto the JPG land, unless a large company comes
along and wants to buy a major parcel. Otherwise, if someone wants
to open a business there, Ill build them a building and lease
it to them, he said.
Ford said he nearly had a multi-million-dollar deal with a large power
company that was interested in buying the Marble Hill property. The
deal fell through. Even after selling off five buildings, he still owns
more than 600 acres and 70,000 square feet of space there. Im
still waiting for my big pay day out there, he said.
Another pay day nearly came at JPG when the Celotex Corp. considered
locating a new plant there. But that deal also fell through, and Celotex
instead built at new plant in nearby Carrollton, Ky.
Many in the community marvel at the Fords high stakes deal-making.
But while Dean Ford attributes his early success to dumb luck, good
timing and a strong real estate market, Debbie Ford says it resulted
from hard work. Back in the early days, she did much of the farming
while Dean worked at Russells. At age 23, they sold their house
and moved into a rental to pay for their first farm, a 188-acre tract
they bought in 1973. Today, she likes to joke that her oldest daughter
learned to conjugate verbs while riding a combine.
That daughter, 27-year-old Deanna Ford Castellini, later earned a degree
at Harvard University and works for Cinergy in Cincinnati. The Fords
second daughter, 22-year-old Kristen, will graduate next spring from
pharmacy school at Purdue University. Their son, 16-year-old Daniel,
is a junior at Madison Consolidated High School. And 11-year-old Jody
attends Pope John Paul Elementary School.
Debbie said raising the family is foremost among her tasks. But keeping
up with Dean runs a close second.
I trust his judgment, she said. Its still scary
sometimes when he calls and tells me what he buying, but hes been
at it for so long that I guess Im getting used to it.
Dean calls his deal-making a thrill and compares the risk to playing
a hand of poker. Its fun, he said. I know people
make fun of me all the time, but I dont care because sometimes
I come out a winner.
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