Citybiz Interview with Stephen J. Ferrandi, President of Empire Argenti Companies

By Edwin Warfield

Career | You’ve done a lot of things in your 56 years – left home at the age of 14 to and studied for five years to be a Catholic priest, started a magazine publishing business at the age of 19, renovated churches and synagogues at the age of 26 and became a land broker and developer in your 30s. Today, you own eleven businesses that focus on every aspect of real estate brokerage, construction, development and property management. Why? Can you tell us about the founding and provide us with some milestones?

Interview Questions:

Sure, when I was in the seventh grade, so what’s that, 13 years old I honestly though that God was telling me to study to be a priest and run an orphanage in a third world country. This wasn’t a dream, but a feeling that didn’t leave me for seven years. I entered high school as a seminarian at St. Mary’s Preparatory Seminary in the town of North East, West Virginia to study to be a Redemptorist Priest. After four years of high school and one year of college, that feeling left me and I knew it was time for my life to go in another direction. I returned to Maryland and within months of returning to the civilian world, had the idea of starting a magazine for the Italian-American community of Maryland. Without any money, knowledge of publishing, hell, we didn’t even have a school newspaper in seminary, and this was before the days of the desktop computer, I launched the Italian Times magazine. I published it from 1985 until 1989 and did nearly everything – wrote most of the copy, sold the advertising, took many of the photos and labeled and delivered all of the issues to the post office and stores where it was sold. I never really made any money from it, but I got to meet lots of people including many of the biggest real estate developers active in the Italian-American Community – Carl Julio, Anthony Piccinini, Ralph DeChario, Frank Scarfield, Nick Mangione, and so many more.

After I sold the magazine to an international publisher in Rome, my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life? I told him I knew I didn’t want to move to New York City – great place to visit, never want to live there – which was the epicenter of magazine publishing, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. He asked me to work for him. I agreed to run the business and he ran the jobs, renovating churches. At the time he was doing roughly $250,000 in sales. Dad ran the business for the first forty plus years just to put food on the family table. I changed everything about the company – the name, the employees, the type of work we did – he focused on exterior restoration of churches – I transformed the company into a complete one stop shop capable of completing any house of worship project – from fixing a leaky roof, to selling pews and completely rebuilding or renovating a church or synagogue after a flood, fire or just because it was time for it to be remodeled. In seven years, I had us doing $3 million a year with steady growth.

When my dad retired in 1997, we agreed to sell the company. It was time. I wanted to try my hand at land development because of all of the successful Italian-American land developers I met as a young publisher. I landed a job with a local land developer where my job was knocking on farmer’s doors and try to buy the land as cheaply as possible. After 14 months of doing this, I decided to venue out on my own as a land broker representing landowners when they wanted to sell their farm. This time my job would be to get them the most amount of money I could along with the safest terms. I’ve been doing this since 1998 first under the auspices of KLNB where I became a partner, and then in 2015 under my own company Maryland Land Advisors and its sister company in Delaware, Delaware Land Advisors. To date, I have sold more than $600 million worth of land.

Since establishing my own real estate brokerage, we have branched out to form many real estate brokerages that each specialize in a niche in the marketplace – wvlandbrokers Religious Property Brokerage sells houses of worship throughout the Mid-Atlantic, this firm is run by my partner in life and business, Barb Bindon. We also have a property management company that assist churches – Trinity Church Management which does very similar work as the company my father founded. Through our SchoolBrokers brand, we sell schools and day care centers, we sell commercial property under our EA Commercial brokerage. Last year we established a construction company Argenti Properties, and a few years before that, a land development business, Hamilton Communities. Barb and I work as a great team and together we have been able to grow our enterprise from one company to many companies in six years. Why? Because we wanted to address a need in the marketplace. We have a special set of skills and we are able to use them to help our clients solve their challenges. Every day is different and we always have multiple projects running over five states and eleven companies. It keeps life interesting but dinner conversations too often are focused on business or employees, not the finer aspects of coupledom.

Success Stories | Your web site highlights some of your recent success stories including Shipley’s Grant in Howard County, Shipley’s Homestead in Anne Arundel County and Villages at White Marsh in Baltimore County. Please tell us about those transactions.

I started working on Shipley’s Grant, then known simply as the 84-acre Curtis Farm back in 1998. I courted the Curtis family for a number of years and in 2002, I was awarded the assignment to sell 56-acres of their farm. At the time, it sold for the most than any farm at ever sold for in Howard County – $401,785 an acre. I worked closely with the Bozzuto Group as they designed and built a magnificent community of now some 500 luxury townhomes called Shipley’s Grant. A few years later, the Curtis family hired me a second time to sell some additional acreage and a few years after that they hired me a third time to sell their remaining parcel of ground that became another subdivision called Trotter’s Knoll. Oh, in 2015, when we launch our company, Barb and I purchased the historic farmstead which we help put in preservation that we transformed into our corporate campus. It is still the oldest active farm in Howard County, established in 1688.

In 2008, I was hired by the Shipley family to sell their 88-acre farm in Severn. This farm became a huge community, still under construction called Shipley Homestead, that is being developed by Koch Homes and Bavar Properties. This is a beautiful well located master planned community that will be close to 700- housing units – towns, singles, apartments as well as a retail center.

It is located across the street from Ft. Meade. In 2010, I began assembling the land that became the Villages of White Marsh when I received a phone call from a lady who inherited a 10-acre tract of land. By speaking with all of her neighbors, many of them her husband’s relatives, I was It took me seven years to assemble just about 130 acres across the street from the White Marsh Mall in Baltimore County. Much of the land had been in the same family since 1853. Coming out of the Great Recession it took lots of false starts to find a buyer that would pay close to my asking price of $30 million. Steve Weinstein, principal at Village Development has designed a community of some 759 density units – apartments, a nursing home, singles, towns and a church on the 130-acres that I assembled. They are currently installing infrastructure, but in another year or two, when the buildings start coming out the ground, this is going to be an award-winning project. The site features a 20-acre park as the focal point of the community and the single family homes will be built by D R Horton.

What makes you tick?

My philosophy on life is pretty simple. I’m not a particularly religious man anymore so I try to keep three things in focus with my life. 1.) There is plenty of time to rest when you’re in the box and for all of us that will be too soon. 2.) The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing and 3.) love is the most precious gift we have to give, it cost us nothing to give a way and can be replenished daily, be generous with it.

What does the future hold?

I want to grow a really great company. We’re on our way to doing that, but we aren’t there yet. We need to hire more talent to continue the growth. We are currently hiring a few great people to help us sell churches, schools and land. It’s hard finding talent. When we see opportunities, we take them. If that means we need to grow another company, I’m good with that. In the last third of my life, I need to fund that orphanage that God shared with me all those years ago. I think everything does come around full circle.

Connect with Stephen on LinkedIn