|By David Flaum, The Commercial Appeal,
Memphis, Tenn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 4, 2007 - About 10 years ago, Pace Cooper was on his way to Green Bay, Wis., to see a friend.
The president and chief executive officer of Cooper Companies had gotten a flier about airport property in Detroit and had a two-hour layover there.
"The airport was about to develop new hotels," he recalled. "There was no Hilton Garden Inn there."
So, he got a tour from a real estate broker and decided it was worthwhile to buy the property and build the hotel. It became the occupancy leader among airport hotels.
Two years ago, Cooper worked out a deal to buy his next-door neighbor there -- an all-suites Hilton. He closed the deal in early 2006, 22 days before Super Bowl XL at nearby Ford Field.
Now, Detroit is a centerpiece in the family-owned Memphis company's $100 million expansion plan. Just one of the 21 hotels it owns and operates, the DoubleTree East Memphis at 5069 Sanderlin, is in Memphis.
The company's hotel total is only three more than it owned when Cooper took over as president and CEO in 1995 from his father, the late Irby Cooper, company founder.
Pace Cooper calls the firm "a little more boring than a lot of companies in our field.
"We're quiet, steady, private, and we're never jumping at the latest rage. We're trying to create steady, long-term growth and stability."
Chuck Pinkowski, a Memphis hotel consultant, calls the company "a very deliberate developer.
"They don't move very quickly, but they move effectively," Pinkowski said. "Pace is real strategic in his thought process. He looks at markets not just from the standpoint of a hotel, but for opportunities to develop several properties."
That describes the Detroit ventures. Cooper, who runs the company with his sister, Laurie Cooper, and his brother, David Cooper, admits he's scared to go into Detroit itself.
But he loves the airport.
"We identified a specific, very narrow market as an oasis in a very troubled [larger] market," Cooper said.
The Hilton suites hotel there, after a $13 million facelift, will become an Embassy Suites this month. Early next year, work will start on a Hampton Inn & Suites next to the Hilton Garden Inn, to be open in 2009.
There's less of a question why the company will spend $40 million to build its fourth and fifth hotels in Ft. Myers, Fla.
"It's been one of the top 10 growth townships in the nation for the whole 25 years we've been down there," Cooper said.
The new hotels, both near the airport, will be a 165-room Hilton Garden Inn and a 135-room Homewood Suites by Hilton set to open late next year.
The company will spend another $35 million buying and renovating a 311-room Hilton near Orlando.
If you see a pattern there, you're right. Cooper gravitates toward Hilton properties -- Cooper is the first company to develop at least one of each of the six Hilton brands.
"That began when Holiday Inns left Memphis," Cooper said.
That was the brand of choice when Cooper's father, his grandfather Louis Cooper and two partners started the company in 1962.
Holiday Inns morphed into Holiday Corp., then Promus Corp., which sold the Holiday Inns in 1990 to Bass PLC. Bass moved the headquarters to Atlanta. Hilton Hotels bought Promus in late 1999.
To forge strong relationships, a franchisee has to concentrate on just one, Cooper said.
"We focused on the Hilton relationship because they've been so good to us," he said.
"If you develop one brand and you don't do a good job, you don't get to develop a second one," said Jim Holthouser, senior vice president of Embassy Suites. Cooper has six.
"They build very well, they're a good operator, I've seen what they do in renovation," he said.
"They're a first-class company."
The Coopers are also concentrating on remaining family owned -- planning to move into a new headquarters in a building going up on Aaron Brenner in East Memphis in July.
"We really do live and breathe and enjoy it," Cooper said.
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Copyright (c) 2007, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.
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