Successful real estate developer Jack Burbage shares his personal and professional triumphs, struggles and inspirations in a candid and emotional conversation
They say the measure of a man can be determined by how he is regarded by others. If our time with Jack Burbage for this feature story was any indication, his legacy will last indelibly for many generations — and far beyond his lineage, extending to include friends, colleagues, employees and hundreds of others he’s assisted privately through his foundation.
Genuine. Honest. Driven. Humble. Compassionate. These are the words that embody a man who’s built a veritable empire from his modest office in West Ocean City. As the founder and CEO of Burbage Properties and Blue Water Development Corporation, Jack, along with sons John III and Todd, are responsible for more than $200 million in recent economic development on the Shore — and literally billions of transaction dollars over the past 20 years — with new-venture opportunities now accumulating across the country.
Yet, you’d never know it. As Jack escorted our publisher, Erin Westman, and photographer, Grant L. Gursky, on a tour of his newest hotel, the Bethany Beach Ocean Suites, he personally greeted each and every employee by their first name and took the time to find out how they were doing — both on and off the job. The same occurred, naturally and effortlessly, at Massey’s Plantation in Long Neck — one of three upscale Blue Water Development campgrounds near completion on the Shore.
Jack sits on the board of many local charities and was recently honored by Salisbury University’s Perdue School of Business and with the prestigious Hal Glick Distinguished Service Award. He credits his ex-wife, Brenda, for helping him succeed early on and his longtime companion, Virginia Pappas, for loving him so genuinely and for always standing by his side. Jack’s also a pilot, an avid outdoorsman and the proud grandfather of four, which he describes as his most rewarding job.
What follows are Jack’s words in a synopsis of his life, as told during a candid, and sometimes emotional, interview.
I was born in Berlin… and [tearing up] I can’t talk about my mom. I don’t why, but I’ve never been able to. She was a wonderful, wonderful lady, and she died when I was very young. Life was a little hard growing up. I have a sister, Barbara, who is younger than I am. My dad, all he did was work… and go out. He was never home. So I had to look after Barbara and take care of her. I saw that she got her homework done, and together we had to find food. To this day, I don’t like angel food cake because that was our dinner so many nights; it was the only thing we knew how to make. My father really wasn’t a family man. We never went on a single family vacation. Never. Ever. Our grandmother kind of looked after us.
When I was a little older, I worked in my father’s clothing store [Style Guide] every day after school. I remember making the high-school basketball team, which I really wanted to do, and my father would always question why I was staying after school, because he expected me at work. Normally, it was because I was studying or receiving extra credit, but when I made the team, he told me I had to quit because the games were played on Friday nights, and he expected me to be at work in the store. These types of memories still reverberate with me a bit from time to time. My childhood was a little rough, but I worked hard.
I’ve always been the type of person who when someone told me I couldn’t do something, I worked even harder to do it. When it came time to go to college, my goal was to go to William & Mary — and I was accepted — but my father told me I had to come home every weekend to work. It was a hard transition to go from Stephen Decatur [High School] to William & Mary. I studied all the time. But then I had to put my ROTC uniform on to get a cheaper bus ticket home, to work. After a while, my father said, “This isn’t going to work. You’re going to have to quit and go to Wesley College because you can get home easier from there.” So that’s what I did, and I later graduated from Wesley [cum laude].
Being in the store business together, I did learn a lot from him. My father was a pretty smart guy. He did well in real estate — he was a gunslinger in the industry. He was also the mayor of Berlin for 24 years… I think that’s the longest tenure ever here. He also owned Ocean Downs racetrack and did well with that. And even though we were in the clothing-store business together, he was never actually there, yet he controlled it. And when I wanted to expand and build new stores, he always said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” At the time, I had a wife and two small kids, and I remember telling him: “I can’t stay to make $20,000 a year for the rest of my life. I want more out of life than this.”
I remember this so clearly. I made a business plan and went over to see Reese Cropper II at Taylor Bank. I said, “Listen, I’m worth $20,000. Here’s my business plan. The guy who owns the shopping center says he’ll work with me, and I’d like to open up a store in Millsboro. I need $100,000 to do it, but here’s how you’re going to get paid back.” And Reese lent me the money. I went to my father and said, “Dad, I’m leaving to open my own store.” He responded by saying, “Well, maybe we can work something out.”
Long story short, we worked it out, and we built the company up to 12 stores… well, I did. I was about 24 or 25 at the time. We were able to expand because I bought the land for stores in places like Bethany, Rehoboth and Ocean City and charged the stores enough rent to pay the mortgages and break even. So, at the end of 10 or 15 years, I owned the property, and the business paid for it.
Then, the outlet malls starting popping up down the road, and I saw the writing on the wall. I said to my dad: “The day of the small, independent guy in this business is over. When they’re selling for the same price we’re buying, the writing is on the wall. We started to make less and less money, and he wouldn’t let me close the stores because those were his babies to go to every day. It got to the point that I said, “I’m out. Either we close the stores, or you can have them.” So, he finally gave in, and we closed Style Guide for good.
I came out to Mystic Harbour [in 1991]. At the time, the property was defunct and in receivership. I, along with my sister and Ray Nichols, bought it from the bank. There were about 180 places there, and the sewer plant was failing. In my mind, everybody was focusing on the wrong thing. To me, the value of the property is not in how many lots you can develop; the value of the property is that sewer plant, because without a sewer system, there’s no development. So my plan was to fix the sewer plant and control the development.
The Worcester County Commissioners then agreed to create a service area for the West Ocean City area [some of which overlapped Ocean City], and I started selling sewer taps — also known as EDUs. This became lucrative because as West Ocean City started to grow, the capacity of the sewer system was tight, so the law of supply and demand took over. The taps began selling for about $40,000, then $60,000, and they went as high as $90,000. I knew that the sewer system had value, but I didn’t know it had that much value. I thought $20,000 would have been the price. The commissioners then took the sewer system away from me for the good of the county but allowed me to continue to sell the taps — which was very lucrative.
We built several communities in West Ocean City [Mystic Harbour, Deer Point, Ocean Reef and Whispering Woods], but when real estate turned for the worse, I knew we needed to focus elsewhere, so we went into the hospitality business. I bought Castaways Campground in 2007 and completely transformed it. There were a lot of mom-and-pop campgrounds that had dirt roads, were sloppy and hadn’t changed for generations. I said, “If we build a campground of quality, we’re going to attract a quality clientele. Also, campgrounds are almost recession-proof because people bring everything they need with them. Even when times are bad, camping enthusiasts want to take a vacation. I equate a campground to a horizontal hotel — but the campers bring their own rooms. Everything else is the same.
That went real well, so we started building hotels in Chincoteague and Bethany Beach, and now we’re building three new campgrounds, which will be completed this spring.
What I’ve enjoyed the most about my professional life are
the people I’ve come in contact with. I am a people person. I love to be with
people. I love to help people. I have been truly blessed in my life… I really
feel that, spiritually.
I have a very deep inner-religion. I don’t try to push my beliefs on anyone else, but I truly believe.
In the clothing business, I had people who worked with us for 30 years. It was a like a family. And I think that’s what running a business does: It creates a family. It’s also important to listen to their problems. I’ve always tried to be a better listener than a good speaker, because then I could try to fix problems that existed.
The same principles motivate and inspire me today. I love the challenges. I love the competition, but mostly I love the people I work with, and together we work hard to make our business grow and continue to improve it. It makes me feel really good to share some advice or an idea and then watch them run with it and make something great from that. I like to be there, also, to help those who’ve tripped and fallen along the way. That’s not the end of the world. It’s happened to me. You show me a successful businessperson who hasn’t had a failure, and I’ll show you a businessperson who’s not telling you 100% of the truth.
Most of all, you have to treat people with respect, quality, dignity and sincerity. But you can’t out-give God. The more you give to people, the more he’s going to give to you – and I’m not referring to money, because money’s not everything, but it does help you help others.
That’s why we created the [Jack Burbage] Foundation 13 years ago. We started it in 2002, by putting money aside to help people in our community. And we did so with a focus on investing in those who are investing their lifework in others. We’ve helped single mothers with their tuition, so they could obtain nursing degrees, assisted teachers and firefighters through hardships, helped elderly residents pay their monthly electric and gas bills. We do this one time, each time to help people get back on their feet.
[Former foundation president Cheryl Tourpey shared how Jack also sponsored two young children through school after the loss of their mother to cancer, because of his personal understanding of what they’d be going through, and he simply wanted them to worry a little less.]
Cheryl was also a counselor by trade, so she was able to talk to them and help them in other ways, too. All we’ve wanted to do is help people. What better feeling can you experience than that? I’ve been blessed, and I think it’s my duty to share.
But I like to do so under the radar — without credit [a sentiment that Tourpey didn’t hesitate to affirm]. I’d rather no one know it, because at the end of the day, there’s only a handful of people who need to know — and they do. [When Jack was asked if he was okay with having these facts published for the record, he replied, after a long pause, “Some of it. You’ll know what to do.”]
I love people, and that’s what inspires me to get up and go to work every day. I also love the challenges, and I love to work. I should maybe think about slowing down. Todd is very energetic and has a new deal every day. He’s been running things down here very well, and John’s doing a lot of great work up at the hotel. Both of my boys started working with a shovel in their hands, and for years they had to experience what that was like. You can’t direct and lead your employees if you haven’t done what they do. Today, Todd handles mergers and acquisitions, and John handles the construction side, and I am very proud of them.
[We closed our time together by asking him what he thought his legacy would be and what he would want people to say about Jack Burbage.]
I would want them to say that he did his best to try to help
others [growing visibly emotional]. I like the nickname “Happy Jack.”
I’ve told people to put that on my tombstone someday. I like to be happy, not
down. I’ve never really thought about a legacy. I think we’ve built some
quality developments in the tristate area, and hopefully we’ve helped a few
people live a better life. It’s not about how much money you’ve made; it’s
about how much good you’ve done.