The Dean of Deal-making

Dupont, Ind.'s Dean & Debbie Ford
credit hard work, luck
in building land empire

By Don Ward

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 nine units.
Ford’s 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. “I’m about to buy the marina condos,” he told her. “What do you think?”
Debbie Ford’s reply: “Just don’t go over a million dollars.”
Ford wound up buying the condos for $950,500 plus a 10 percent buyer’s 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.

Dean Ford, left

Dean Ford
(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.
“He’s management and I’m labor,” joked Debbie, who handles the couple’s business finances, payroll and taxes from an office in their home.
Ford’s philosophy in such dealings is simple: Get in cheap and get out fast. It’s a credo that has worked for him in several high profile deals, including his most recent acquisition, the Rivercrest Marina condos.
He has made most of his acquisitions through bankruptcy auctions or by scooping up what he calls “distressed” property — those in financial straits.
“I’m 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 Russell’s 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. Army’s 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 $350,000.
“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 didn’t attend the second auction.
Ford said he didn’t 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 said.
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 People’s 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 buyer’s 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 on it.
Ford credits the dozens of area farmers who patronized Russell’s 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 my education.”
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 can’t let go,” Ford said. “But the way to make money on a deal is to figure out how you’re 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 look at.”
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. That’s 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 others.
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 didn’t 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 under roof.
Ford said the “biggest deal of his life” was the couple’s 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. That’s 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 million.
Ford’s 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 Dean’s two younger brothers, John. Hammock’s older brother, Tom, was in Dean’s 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 Spann’s LMS Contracting.
Hammock says he is impressed with Ford’s success. “Everything he touches seems to work. And it’s all self-taught or self-inflicted, or both. He’s 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 she’s 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 he’s drawing a six-shooter. I’m sure he’s felt like he extended himself a few times, but it has always worked out.”
Debbie Ford credits the couple’s 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, I’ll 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. “I’m 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 Ford’s 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 Russell’s. 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. “It’s still scary sometimes when he calls and tells me what he buying, but he’s been at it for so long that I guess I’m getting used to it.”
Dean calls his deal-making a thrill and compares the risk to playing a hand of poker. “It’s fun,” he said. “I know people make fun of me all the time, but I don’t care because sometimes I come out a winner.”

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