By Billy Hansen
In an industry sometimes known for self-promotion, exaggeration and puffing up, Lowell Milton is disarmingly modest and self-deprecating about what he has accomplished during his 60 years in real estate, but his body of work and those who have worked with him say different.
He’s qualified as an expert witness in 46 Circuit Courts in Virginia and spent a good portion of his career sharing his expertise with judges and juries while testifying on the stand for condemnation and other real estate–related cases. In addition, Lowell holds both the SREA and MAI designations from the Appraisal Institute, has provided appraisal services to an extensive list of banks and corporate clients, and has also excelled at brokerage, development and investing.
But Lowell is more than just his impressive resume; he is old school in the best way possible as a man known for his honesty, integrity, relentless work ethic and commitment to fair dealing.
The Highway Years
As the youngest of eight children born to a schoolteacher and a farmer in rural Charlotte County, Lowell developed his appreciation for a hard day’s work very early on. Reflecting on his 60 years in real estate, gratitude is what Lowell feels more than anything because his humble beginnings “back in the boonies,” as he calls it, didn’t leave him with a whole lot of expectations about how life would go and where it might lead.
After leaving the farm and taking a few odd jobs in Farmville, Lowell served in the Army for two years. In 1957, Lowell finished his service and went right to work in the drafting room at the Virginia Highway Department, which was the very start of what Lowell calls his “accidental” real estate career. After two years learning the fundamentals by drawing plans and plotting cross sections in a setting where attention to detail mattered above all else, Lowell was promoted to right-of-way agent. This new job came with a car, a badge, and even an expense account for lunch, but it also meant heading out into the field to appraise the actual land where the new roads Lowell had been drawing would be built and to negotiate with their current owners. Not everyone is well-suited to the delicate task of negotiating the condemnation and taking of private land for public use, but Lowell was, and still is, a natural storyteller with the unique ability to connect with people from all walks of life. As Jack Sorrells, an area executive with First Citizens Bank and Lowell’s banker for the last 20 years, puts it, “Lowell is as at home in the boardroom as he is on the farm.”
Always an early adopter of new technology, Lowell got his hands on a Dictaphone in 1960 with plans to keep an oral record of all his negotiations with landowners. His supervisor, who started to notice the lack of written documentation on Lowell’s desk compared with his fellow agents, began to wonder whether his young right-of-way agent had been slacking on the job and brought it up during a staff meeting. Luckily, Lowell was able to produce the tapes, which were filled with meticulous notes from the field, and prove his diligent efforts. A charge of lack of effort against Lowell Milton never would stick, but the practice of dictation did. Betty Powers, who has worked for Lowell in one capacity or another since 1986, has spent more time listening to his recorded thoughts than anyone as he would dictate entire appraisal reports into his Dictaphone for her to type up on their new Apple II computer. Betty says, “Lowell has the gift of gab, but, more than that, he can make you see things logically. He was never complicated.” This ability to explain the complex in a simple way was one the qualities that made Lowell an excellent expert witness.
Lowell’s love for learning was readily apparent as he jumped at any education opportunity that the highway department offered, which included several summer sessions at the University of Virginia. His boss, recognizing Lowell’s potential and his drive, gently encouraged him to head out and seek more for his career. He eventually did leave in 1965, but as Lowell says, “The highway department was a darn good training ground.” Even more, it’s where he met his first business partner, Bob Gentry, who started with Lowell back in the drafting room in 1957.
Hanging a Shingle
After five years working as a staff appraiser for another firm, Lowell and Bob Gentry joined up again and hung a shingle for Milton-Gentry & Patterson, Inc. in 1971 in a modest basement office. Milton has been a constant name on real estate signs around Lynchburg ever since that day. As the two built their business, they hired both appraisers and agents. The list of people who have worked with and for Lowell over the years reads like a “Who’s Who” in commercial real estate today. On what he was looking for in a new hire, Lowell says, “I’d rather have a young fellow with common sense and sound judgment than someone with a master’s degree.” As both partners had a right-of-way background from their years with the highway department, they naturally specialized in appraisal for condemnation and worked on big projects, like the Gretna Bypass, that lasted months and years. Gentry, an MAI appraiser himself, said, “Lowell is the smartest person I know in real estate appraisal when it comes to math and numbers. If I had to hire an appraiser today, I’d hire Lowell.”
An appraiser, almost by definition, can’t make everyone happy all the time. In fact, making people happy is not really the goal at all. Lowell defines the role of an appraiser very simply: “We don’t create value. We don’t distort value. We just interpret the real estate market.” Lowell gave his clients the same assurance on every appraisal assignment, telling them: “I’ll do the job as thorough and as honest as I know how. That’s all I can promise.” With this attitude, Lowell developed a reputation as an honest appraiser incapable of being influenced or swayed.
Local commercial real estate broker Gary Case got his start with Lowell in the 1970s and the pair would later start a company together in the early 1980s. As Case puts it, “Lowell earned a lot of respect by doing everything above board and delivering the best appraisal. You can’t buy respect, you earn it. And Lowell did. He’s very honest and has a lot of integrity.” Case compared Lowell’s style as an appraiser to that of an honest referee who just calls it how he sees it. Case also admires Lowell’s openness to innovation and new ideas, saying, “Lowell loves to learn; it’s almost like a hobby for him.” When their partnership eventually concluded, they parted ways on good terms and remain friends to this day.
The Development Game
Running in parallel to his other real estate activities, Lowell also tried his hand at the development game in 1986 by partnering with Joe Neal, a local builder and Lowell’s cousin, on what became arguably the most successful and longest-running partnership of his career. With Lowell as the real estate man working the numbers and Neal overseeing the building, they developed and invested in several properties in the area, including bringing the first Veterans Affairs Community Clinic to Lynchburg. Of their partnership, Neal says, “There was never a cross word between us in our entire time together,” and points to Lowell’s “extremely honest” nature as a key to his long-term success. The two also developed a number of retail strip centers, which Lowell was fond of as an investment because of their simplicity. As Lowell puts it, “In the real estate business, you don’t really have to be that brilliant or smart or educated, as a lot of people can testify, but if you can recognize an opportunity, there are a lot of places you can go.” Lowell does seem to worry about the people thinking there is easy money to be made in real estate brokerage or development. “If you go into the real estate developing business with the idea that you are going to make [money] on every project, you better get into something else. You can be Einstein, but you’re not gonna make a profit on everything.”
One development that was definitely more of a learning experience for Lowell than a financial success was the Carriage Square residential development on Boonsboro Road, which was started in the early 1980s and predated the Milton & Neal partnership. Widely acknowledged to be a project way ahead of its time, Carriage Square is still today a sought-after place to live, but, by virtue of being birthed in the wrong generation, it was a money loser for all partners involved. Lowell remembers the sting of the loss just like any real estate investor would, but, to him, it remains the development he is most proud of because, even when the financial losses were mounting and any profit potential had vanished, they never threw in the towel and stayed committed to putting out a good product until the project was completed.
In 2003, Lowell, who was 68 years old at the time and leading a thriving brokerage business and appraisal business, felt chest pains in the middle of a workout and eventually ended up on the operating table having quadruple bypass heart surgery. While Lowell would eventually recover from the health scare after a successful surgery, he made plans to retire and wind down his work life, eventually selling both his brokerage business and his appraisal business. Lowell says, “I really was going to retire. I stayed home for about three days and said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’” So, Lowell started over again. He hung another shingle in another modest office with a small team and got back to his craft.
A Wise Conclusion
At 82 years young, Lowell has spent 60 years in real estate and has no plans to stop, but he has slowed down a little. Part of that slowing down meant that it was finally time to bring his 30-year partnership with Neal to a close and divide up their holdings. Dissolving a real estate partnership can turn ugly and sometimes resemble a messy divorce, but Lowell benefitted from prior experience dissolving partnerships and navigated this potentially volatile situation with a desire to be fair above all else. Lowell sat down at his desk and divided their entire holdings into two lists. Once he was satisfied in his own mind that the scales were equally balanced, he put the two lists down in front of his longtime partner and said, “Take your pick, Joe. I’ll take the one that’s left.” A partnership that took 30 years to build was successfully concluded in about 30 minutes without a costly legal battle or even a hint of hard feelings. Marveling at this simple and elegant solution, his longtime attorney, Bernard Baldwin from Woods Rogers Edmunds & Williams, says, “How much more fair can you be?”
A Man of Value
Lowell Milton’s career stands as a model of how to succeed in this business without ever having to trade in your integrity. The benefit of nearly an entire generation being trained or influenced by a man known for his honesty and fair dealing is that the commercial real estate world in Lynchburg today is a tight-knit community marked by mutual respect and fairness. Lowell Milton’s career answers the question, “What would happen if an honest man from humble beginnings armed with little more than a love of learning and his word showed up every day ready to work, surrounded himself with good people, and did things the right way for 60 years?” The answer: He would become a recognized master at his craft and earn the respect and admiration of his peers.