December 17, 2015

Smith Clings To Vision For Developing Schilling Farms

By Don Wade
Commercial Appeal 

Collierville’s Schilling Farms was a gorgeous piece of land before it was developed.

Ten years later, it is a still-developing beauty after all this time as a "multi-use" area.

"It’s developed at a pretty good speed," Schilling Companies principal owner Harry Smith says on a recent afternoon as he drives the 448-acre site on the western edge of Collierville, which fronts Poplar and Winchester.

Credit Smith with the pacing for the projected $350 million development and with the resolve to give it the best designers possible.

"As we developed it," Smith says, "I was able to see all the places I’d have messed up if I had done it myself. I knew I didn’t have the experience to do it on my own."

Yes, this is his version of what Dirty Harry famously said, "A man’s got to know his limitations."

Of course, if 65-year-old Harry Smith had a nickname it would be more like "Humble Harry."

Smith’s good friend David Perdue, who owns a software company, recalls those many years when Smith devoted himself to finding the right way to develop the land that would become Schilling Farms.

"He wrestled with it a lot," says Perdue, 66. "It was a beautiful piece of land. The Ford Motor Company had, I guess, what you’d call an experimental farm there.

"It had a picturesque barn, the fields were lush and green, and there was always a beautiful view from Poplar Avenue. He had a vision for it, but he didn’t know quite what or how.

"And that’s when he teamed up with Boyle Investment. It was a perfect arrangement," an arrangement that Smith himself calls a "really good idea."

Boyle executive vice president Rusty Bloodworth and chairman Bayard Boyle, Smith says, shared his vision from the start, but had the skills required to refine it. Smith’s stock line over the years has been that he wanted Schilling Farms to be a place people could "live, work, play and worship."

Living options range from two apartment complexes to subdivisions that seek to capture old town Collierville ambience.

As Smith drives through one of them he points out the absence of oversized garage doors at the front of the properties. "The garages are in the back, like the old times," he says. "When I grew up, you had alleys in the back."

Smith grew up in Florence, Ala., and he showed what his friend and mentor Herbert Rhea calls his "entrepreneurial spirit" at age 9 when he began more than a decade of working a paper route.

By the time Smith was 15, and before he was legally licensed, he was driving and rolling copies of The Birmingham News at the same time, hanging rubber bands on his gear shift, and flinging papers through open windows on both sides of the car.

The paper route funded his college education at what is now the University of North Alabama and he became a certified public accountant. He moved to Memphis in 1980, made the transition into the car business and became chairman and CEO of Schilling Companies. Schilling eventually got out of the car business and in 1990 Smith began thinking about developing the farm land, which had been held by the company for decades.

A friend of Rhea’s, who lived in Florence, called and said a Mr. Harry Smith was coming to Memphis and suggested Rhea welcome him.

"Harry Smith is the reason I tell my children that the next person you meet might be your best friend for the rest of your life," says Rhea, 86.

Smith praises Rhea, who co-founded the Rhea & Ivey CPA firm more than 50 years ago, as that wise older man that every younger man needs — invaluable as a friend and a mentor.

"If you met Harry," says Perdue, "you’d have no idea he’s as well-connected as he is, or as rich as he is. He’s a very unassuming, down-to-earth person."

He’s a very involved person, too, active at Bellevue Baptist Church and serving on several nonprofit boards in Greater Memphis.

The Schilling Farms development also reflects his values. Smith and Boyle Investment donated the land that houses the YMCA. They’ve been picky about which businesses they encourage to come to Schilling Farms and which they discourage.

Smith might have understandably talked himself into small compromises and decided that service stations, traditional convenience stores and a slew of chain restaurants would be OK. But that hasn’t happened and it likely won’t.

And so Schilling Farms is the site of the national headquarters for Helena Chemical Co. and National Safety Associates, and home to Orion Packaging, numerous medical offices, Kid Tech Child Care Center, two banks, one middle school and one church, among other entities, but not home to so-called box stores or other commercial ventures.

Meantime, there are still 120 to 130 undeveloped acres behind the white fences at Schilling Farms and Harry Smith’s original vision is still in plain sight.

"I wanted a place that would be a good testimony," he says, adding, "God has blessed me so much."