Mike Berry walks over to a shelf holding a row of large hardcover books, pulls one out, and starts paging through it. We’ve just spent an hour-and-a-half talking about his career—the first of two long interviews—and he’s in a melancholy mood.
The scrapbooks are filled with newspaper articles about AllianceTexas, the massive development in North Fort Worth that he, as president of Hillwood Properties, has long overseen.
“Here’s one about the airport’s groundbreaking in 1988,” he shows me, pointing out that the article is just a few paragraphs long and buried on an inside page. “They had no idea what it would become,” he says, reflecting for a bit before adding, “We had no idea what it would become.”
And really, who would have thought that what started as an industrial airport would evolve into a 17,000-acre masterplanned development that’s home to 31 million square feet of commercial space, several large retail centers, 7,400 single-family residences, and hundreds of apartments?
Certainly not Berry, who says he was a bit skeptical when Ross Perot Jr. first approached him in the mid-1980s about doing an airport-anchored project on land he had assembled in North Fort Worth. At the time, Berry had a good gig going at Ray Hunt’s Woodbine Development Corp., and he had no desire to leave it.
He met Perot at Vanderbilt University when Perot, who’s a year younger, rushed Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The two Sig Eps ended up living on the same floor in the frat house, sharing a bathroom. By the time they were upper-classmen, Perot was elected president of the fraternity and Berry was named vice president and social chairman.
“Isn’t it ironic?” Berry says. “If you would have told me back in college that I’d be working with Ross for the majority of my career, doing real estate development, at this scale, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of that. But Ross was a clear leader even back then. He earned immediate respect.”
Rich Fort Worth Roots
Perot, the son of EDS founder Ross Perot Sr., was born and reared in Dallas. Berry has rich Fort Worth roots. His grandfather, Clay J. Berry Sr., was an influential city leader who represented the Fort Worth real estate interests of legendary Texas businessman Jesse Jones—landmarks such as the Oil & Gas Commerce Building, the Medical Arts Building, and the Worth Hotel. Berry often spent Saturdays with his grandfather, opening his mail and walking with him around downtown Fort Worth—but he never thought he’d follow him into the real estate business.
Berry’s goal all along was to become a doctor. He even got a weekend job at an emergency room before college, to give himself a head start. Struggles with freshman chemistry at Vanderbilt, however, made him rethink medical school. After graduating with a liberal arts degree, Berry enrolled in the MBA program at Texas Christian University to beef up his business credentials.
He landed an internship at Woodbine Development in the spring of 1981. Those were heady times in North Texas, which was seeing explosive commercial development across multiple submarkets. “It was crane central, and that’s what got me intrigued about real estate,” Berry says.
He continued with Woodbine after graduating from TCU, working in Dallas then in Fort Worth, gaining valuable experience in complex public-private partnerships. A few years later, his former frat brother came calling.
Convincing Berry to join him wasn’t easy, Perot recalls.
“Mike was one of the few guys I had to have on board,” he says. “He was Mr. Fort Worth, and I knew him and could trust him. It was quite a sales job; it took me a year or two to convince him.”
By that time, the S&L crisis was in full bloom.
“Anytime you think about making a career change at the bottom of the market, you’re going to be hesitant—particularly when the project is untested, unproven, there are no prototypes for it, and it’s in a big wheat field miles away from everything,” Berry says. “But even at a young age, Ross was extremely visionary. It was easy to get excited about what he was thinking—and there was no doubt that he had the capability to do it, with his family involved.”
Berry joined what was then the Perot Group on July 9, 1988—groundbreaking day for Alliance Airport.
The original vision was to build the airport and develop space for some aviation companies off the runway. Once that took off, maybe do some warehousing off to the side and perhaps some office and retail. Berry starting working his way through the World Aviation Directory, cold-calling on potential clients and giving countless tours using Perot’s helicopter.
But the first Alliance deal wasn’t an aviation deal, it was a rail deal with what’s now BNSF Railroad Co.
“It opened our eyes to the bigger idea: If you have rail and air and highway all linked together, it creates a very unique package of transportation infrastructure,” Berry says. “So we decided to do a more multimodal type of project. It was a big hook and opened up the door to a whole new host of companies.”
Today AllianceTexas is anchored by an inland port known as Alliance Global Logistics hub. It has more than 260 tenants—including many of the world’s largest companies—that employ about 28,000 people.
Beyond Real Estate
Despite his 23-year tenure with Hillwood, Berry says he has never gotten bored. The complexity, scale, and diversity of AllianceTexas—along with the opportunity to launch numerous ancillary businesses—have kept his interest. “Within this real estate platform, we have been able to create many different service companies,” Berry says. “We decided, rather than contract things out to others, why not do it ourselves?”
Those spinoffs include Aviation Services (which manages airports); Air Services (a fixed base operator, or FBO, which sells fuel, hangars aircraft, and provides other services); Independence Water LP (irrigation and water for fracking operations); Hillwood Land & Cattle; Alliance Corridor Inc. (foreign trade zone management company); and Alliance Landscape Co., which created 30 jobs when it was launched a couple of months ago.
Berry also was instrumental in forming Hillwood Energy, which, in collaboration with oil and gas executive Trevor Rees-Jones, initially focused on developing Hillwood’s Barnett Shale resources. The partners sold those assets in a lucrative deal with Quicksilver Resources in 2008, but Hillwood Energy remains active in other projects, both here and internationally.
Two new enterprises for Berry are Hillwood Multifamily—the company is looking at developing 4,000 to 5,000 apartment units during the next 10 years—and a yet-to-be-named retail franchising concern.
There’s still plenty to be done on the office and industrial side, too. Overall, just 40 percent of AllianceTexas has been developed so far—and Perot is still making land buys.
Last year, Hillwood sold off 47 industrial buildings totaling 13.4 million square feet to JPMorgan Chase. Berry says he’s eager to get into “building mode” again.
During the next 10 years, he aims to develop about 13 million square feet—close to what Hillwood built between 1993 and 2005. “I want to do the equivalent in scale, but it will be a broader mix of industrial, office, retail, and multifamily,” he says. “That way you can roll it up and sell it off in pieces or all at once to a large institutional investor.”
Berry says he’s grateful to have a boss like Perot, who gives him free rein and from whom he has learned so much.
“Most people get up in the morning and think about what’s going to happen this week. Some will think about what’s going to happen in the coming months or even the next couple of years. Ross thinks about what’s going to happen 10 or 20 years from now, and he frames his strategy around that,” Berry says. “He is constantly out in front and forces you to think the way he does and to do things that have a lasting impact.”