Hull & Co. principal Craig Hull, 65, still remembers the hours he spent as a child playing pretend on an HO-scale train table.
It was hand-built by his father, who died when Hull was 15 years old.
The table, which folded out from a wall, featured a railway that encircled an entire village, complete with houses, factories and barns, in addition to roads with little cars and trucks and pastures with little goats, Hull recalled.
Hull was conductor of the train and overseer of operations in the tiny village, and he says if you look at his career today, not a lot has changed.
“I still have my train table, my playground,” he said.
For almost 20 years, Hull has been active in the Northwest Arkansas commercial real estate scene, set apart by his adept navigation of regulations and the public sector.
As a child, Hull observed the inner workings of municipal government when his mother was a longtime city clerk in White Hall, about 5 miles outside Pine Bluff. Her duties were far-reaching because the town was so small, Hull said, and if you ask him, “She trained five mayors.”
Hull attended city council meetings from a young age, and he developed a respect for and a burgeoning understanding of local government that would ultimately serve him well in his career. However, it took him a while to find that niche.
After graduating high school in 1969, Hull moved for the first time to NWA and earned a degree from the University of Arkansas in anthropology, a subject that interested him.
“In the ’70s, when I got out, it gave me all the skills necessary to go to work at Black and White Cab Co. in Little Rock,” Hull joked.
That was one of several jobs Hull held in central Arkansas during the mid-1970s. He also worked for two years with state social services, sold home siding and planted trees with a contractor for the USDA Forest Service.
His co-workers planting trees were two men from Mount Judea who both dropped out of school in third grade, and Hull counts his time with them as a source of real-world education.
“I was out studying from the GRE of life at the campfire,” he said.
In response to encouragement from his mother to find more steady work, Hull became environmental planner for the city of Pine Bluff in 1977.
“It was a ground-floor opportunity,” Hull said. “We had all sorts of problems. We had a dump instead of a landfill, we had a wastewater pond instead of a treatment plant. It was a pretty primitive situation.”
At the same time, “it was a great way to learn about cities,” he added.
During a four-year career at Pine Bluff, Hull got a crash course in a whole host of subjects, from storm water management to transportation planning.
He wrote zoning ordinances and environmental impact statements and helped design the regional park at Slack Water Harbor.
Hull’s planning capabilities were further honed through several years’ work in South Carolina and back in Little Rock at Engineering Management Corp., where he was employed for six years, ultimately making partner and earning his certification in air quality management.
In 1994, Hull returned to NWA for a job at a concrete plant, Tri State Precast (now Scurlock Industries), where he says he sold manhole covers to the city of Fayetteville and installed underground infrastructure at the site of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA), which was being built in Highfill.
“That’s the last day job I had. I’ve been self-employed one way or another since then,” he said.
In 1997, Hull began his commercial real estate career by joining the Nickle Hill Group (now R.H. Hill Properties LLC).
“It was, to me, a no-brainer. If you’re going to be doing the big industrial and commercial buildings, there might be asbestos and lead paint, or hazardous waste, so if you know about that stuff it might be of some value,” Hull said.
“That was my leg-up for a long time. I was the technical planning guy that could get stuff done,” he said.
Bob Nickle, then a principal at Nickle Hill Group, describes Hull as tenacious.
“Nobody’s 100 percent successful in this business. It varies. But Craig gets things accomplished,” Nickle said, “and he’s a quick learner.”
Nickle said he encouraged Hull to earn the designation of certified commercial investment member, a recognized expert in the commercial real estate industry, in 2001.
“The fact that he got his CCIM within his first two or three years in the business speaks very well. You can’t just knock that out without a fair amount of work,” Nickle said.
While at Nickle Hill, Hull brokered the deal for the land that is now home to the Washington County Jail, and he sold several properties near XNA around the time it opened in 1998. The Glen at Polo Park Apartments, the Wingate by Wyndham hotel and the National Guard Armory were all built on property sold by Hull.
The armory deal was one of several in which Hull worked with poultry magnate Lee Harris, a longtime friend and mentor. It led to the eventual sale of multiple properties north of the airport, Hull said.
Nickle said Hull parted ways with the company in favor of doing more work in Benton County. The two remain friends and are involved in the cell tower business together.
Hull & Co, now located in downtown Rogers, began in Bentonville on Walton Boulevard’s Rainbow Curve. At the time in 2002, the area was unchartered territory on the NWA development scene. In fact, Hull had to activate the well and septic tank in order to use his first office building.
Since striking out on his own, Hull has brokered a number of high-profile real estate deals throughout the years, including the sale of a 452-acre property for the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority site in 2005, and more recently the sale of the historic Lane Hotel in downtown Rogers.
Those types of transactions don’t come to fruition overnight, Hull said. “I’ve been involved with slow-bake deals, where you meet the farmer, you get the listing out there, you work on it for two, three, five years and then it sells. It may be a lot of money in the end on the commissions, but if you average it out on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis, you’re working for peanuts.”
However, Hull said as you build a pipeline, get more projects done and understand how they work, it can pay off. His advantage in the industry for many years has been his involvement in the public sector.
“It’s just a constant preparation, and the whole thing is watching what’s going on in the regional planning and the transportation planning, the long-term investments in the corridors — being in a place to get your clients to anticipate growth when they do get the infrastructure in place,” Hull said.
As a city planning adviser for Elm Springs for 13 years, Hull was involved on the local level, while also having access to regional planning meetings.
“I’ve kept myself grounded in public service, one foot in the water so to speak, so that I’m updated on the plans and the initiatives and public infrastructure — that kind of stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily learn from the media,” he said.
Ultimately, brokers need to be able to advise developers on timing and value, and that includes anticipation of ups and downs in the industry — up to a point.
Hull said no one predicted the real estate crash several years ago.
“It just stopped cold,” he said. “I remember a developer stepping off the curb in February 2007 after a final plat approval for another subdivision, and instead of having all the lots sold before he touched the street, there was nobody there.”
The real estate world felt the recession first, and for Hull, it hurt. He estimates that he earned about 1/12 of the money in 2008 and 2009 that he had made in previous years. Forced to pay to stay in business, Hull pared down his staff, which at one time included six agents.
However, while Hull concedes there’s more money to be made with multiple agents, he said he actually prefers the hands-on advantage that a smaller staff affords.
Up For a Challenge
Hull says he’s fortunate to have stayed in business during the recession. It might have been the greatest feat of his career — and Hull is no stranger to challenges. In fact, he often welcomes them.
For instance, he was a scout for potential cell tower sites during the early days of widespread cellphone use, when tower installation was a contentious issue for local towns. He ended up helping draft regulations for towers, in order to lift local moratoriums.
Throughout the years, Hull has helped with water and air permits for all kinds of industries. “I even did a medical waste incinerator facility permit,” Hull said. “That was tricky.
“I’m drawn to things that have a lot of rules and regulations, so I can figure it out and somehow succeed. I’ve been able to get some stuff done that’s otherwise deemed fairly difficult, I guess,” he said.
“I look at rules as an opportunity to figure out how to solve a puzzle,” he said.
And he’s not ready to stop solving puzzles any time soon. Hull does not plan to retire in the next few years. He only quit playing rugby three years ago, although he says he was at the time only still playing in an annual “old boys” game in Aspen, Colorado.
While in college, Hull helped form the UA’s Arkansas Rugby Club in 1971, and he recently helped the club team secure an endowment for future funding. He also helped form a central Arkansas team, which he describes as “fabulously successful.”
However, it is neither his rugby achievements, nor his real estate conquests that Hull points to when asked for his greatest point of pride. It’s his family, including his wife of 16 years, Caelli, three children and one grandchild, with one more on the way, due June 27.
Hull’s down-to-earth attitude makes him likeable, said Jerry Clark, principal at Clark Communications of Springdale. He has known Hull about 15 years and first hired him to help on a cell tower sale.
“Craig’s not a real high-dollar, Rolls Royce kind of guy. He’s an average guy, and that’s what people like about him. But he knows a lot about the real estate market, and he’s very good with numbers,” Clark said. “He’s a guy that I never question. He’s honest. You quickly pick up on his sincerity when you first talk to him — and he’s usually right.
“He’s a pretty smart cookie, and he’s really well-diversified and well-rounded,” Clark said.
Hull said he deals with anything that’s on the industrial/commercial scale. He handles leasing, advises numerous entities on a variety of topics, and is also very involved in the community.
“I don’t want to just do commercial brokerage, or I could have joined a firm and probably made a lot more money,” Hull said. “It’s more interesting to me to work on problem-solving for communities and make a few bucks here and there on commercial transactions, and just enjoy life here. It’s a great place to be.”