At 61, Fred Merrill Jr. still gets excited about dinosaurs. In fact, he can hardly wait for Oct. 8, when "The World's Largest Dinosaurs" exhibit opens in his Prairiefire mixed-use development in Overland Park. It's the first of 20 traveling exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History in New York that the Museum of Prairiefire will host during the next decade. During that span, Merrill's development career will exceed four decades.
But don't label him a dinosaur. Merrill's $427 million Prairiefire project has been the hottest local development to rage out of the recession. And he's in great shape himself. A 1970s football and track star at Kansas State University, Merrill enjoys running with his wife, Candy, whom he calls "the real athlete." She was a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming. The Merrills have four children and four grandchildren.
Your father is founder of Cereal Food Processors Inc., the largest independent U.S. flour milling company. Why didn't you join the business?
When I was a kid, Dad was always an armchair real estate tycoon. We'd go to Colorado for our once-a-year vacation in the station wagon, and he would spend a lot of the time driving around looking at real estate. He'd look at a piece of land and say, "Wouldn't it be great to build here?" or a motel and say, "We could operate this." I always went with him on those trips, and I guess that put the bug in me.
Haven't you made a few sports headlines, too?
I went to K-State on a football scholarship and was a starting wide receiver my sophomore year (1971) and senior year (1973). I got hurt my junior year. I also ran indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring. I always ran the second leg on our 440-relay team, and there were a couple of years when we finished pretty high nationally.
What was your best time in the 100-yard dash?
That's Olympic caliber, isn't it?
No. I remember running a 9.2 or 9.3 in a Texas race once and finishing sixth. I was better at the 440. Looking back, I wish I would have redshirted a year and taken that time to just run, really try to qualify nationally and for the Olympics. But I went right to graduate school, then to work. That was kind of the way you did things back then.
Why did you start your career in mortgage lending?
I did an internship with Joyner Mortgage Co. Then, after I graduated, I was trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do. We were just coming out of the 1975 recession, and Joyner offered me a job, so I took it. They represented different lenders in the Dallas metropolitan area, one of them being Aetna, which was a huge lender nationally in the '70s. So I was able to work on deals with Trammell Crow and Lincoln Property Co. Dallas was like Disneyland for developers. So I got a 20-year education in about three years with Joyner.
And then you started your development career?
Yes. First I opened a branch office in Dallas for a Toronto developer. My first building was a 10-story, 200,000-square-foot spec office building. Back then in Dallas, you built everything spec. We leased the whole thing to IBM while it was under construction. That was 1980, and I thought, "Boy, this is easy." So I went off on my own in Dallas right away. We did some suburban office and office tech and a little multifamily, and then we got hit with the 1980s recession.
So you helped your father for a couple of years?
Yes. I've been on his board for a long time, and I financed some of his mill purchases back in the 1970s. ... Then, in the early '90s, I helped Cereal Food renovate some plants up in the Northwest. After that, the market started to come back, and I moved to Phoenix.
And you developed a project like Prairiefire in Scottsdale. It was no sprint, right?
We started it in 1994, and it was finished in about 2002, after I left. So yes, it was a marathon. I am a sprinter; I go in short bursts, and I'm project-oriented. But everything in life, from raising a family to running a business, also requires you to gut it out. I think that's where training and perseverance come in. If you're a 400-meter runner, the race is over in 45 seconds, But holy smokes, it takes a lot of days, weeks and months leading up to that 45 seconds.
You've also brought the team concept to your profession, haven't you?
That's why it's very hard for me to do this kind of interview. One guy can maybe get things started. But it takes an army to accomplish a major project. So I look at development as an effort where you really link arms.
Why'd you come back?
We came back in 1998, and the reasons were twofold. Again, I wanted to help my dad, who was 75. Some of his executives had left, so I helped him get reorganized. Also, I wanted to make Kansas City my home base.
With the museum, you're adding some culture to the community. Where did you come by your cultural bent?
From my folks. I was raised in a home that really appreciated the arts. So I grew up going to museums and the symphony, singing in choirs and all that. As a developer, I believe you can't build offices, shopping centers or residential without making some kind of commitment to the arts.
FRED MERRILL JR.
Title: Owner/president, Merrill Cos. LLC
Education: Bachelor's in political science, Kansas State University, 1974; MBA in real estate and finance, Southern Methodist University, 1976
Background: Merrill started his career in mortgage banking and developed his first real estate project in 1980. Since then, he has developed close to 4 million square feet of projects.