His family’s history in real estate stretches from California to Tennessee and everywhere in between, but Nashville is where he’s chosen to truly make his mark. As his independent company, Royal Investment thrives, Alex Marks shares a bit of insight over breakfast at the Dream hotel, one of his most notable development projects. As the light pours in through the windows of the reimagined space that is now Stateside Kitchen, Alex dishes on his background, family life, and what drives his passion for real estate reinvention.
TNE: What brought you to Nashville?
Alex Marks: In 2004 we were flying through town and we were just looking for property outside of California; real estate that had upside potential and that wasn’t overpriced by population, like much of California was and still is. The friendly Tennessee business climate immediately caught our attention.
TNE: Can you elaborate on your family’s history in real estate development? How far back does it go?
AM: My family was built upon several generations of cattle ranching, which requires you to either own or lease a great mass of land. The cattle market has gone up and down over the years. Due to the volatility, in the early 1980’s we transitioned to developing real estate. That involved looking at municipalities and cities around the country to understand what the highest and best use of a property is. So, from ranchland, which we still own a lot of, as well as residential, commercial, and industrial—it is quite diverse. The underlying aspect of our business has always been the value of real estate.
TNE: For the outsider, it seems like developers have a crystal ball as to finding their next property, but what’s the reality?
AM: It depends on how you look at it. I’m always seeking opportunities versus just filling the bucket of, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m going to go buy this just to own it.’ I’ve got to go look at something like [the Dream] and see where the diamond in the rough is because that’s the fun part. You visit and realize, ‘Oh wow, these buildings have been sitting here since 1930 and nobody has been in them.’ They were in such bad shape that not even the homeless want to live here.’ Everybody else would walk through and say, ‘ I don’t know what to do with this.’ Being a developer, everybody thinks it’s glamorous. It’s not. It’s tough and it’s high risk financially. You’ve got to deal with so many people who question your vision. And then when you’re done, you still have to run the new project and continue to make it profitable. There is no crystal ball. It’s a calculated risk just like life. Ultimately, the process is outweighing the risks versus rewards.
TNE: How did you have your vision for the Dream hotel? It’s clear this space was rather dilapidated at the time you purchased it.
AM: It was being able to negotiate and purchase multiple buildings to create efficiencies required to make the numbers work. The City of Nashville was very helpful and realized our vision, which was foreign coming from California. Hiring people much smarter than myself to analyze and design it was also key. We had a vast team of talented architects and designers from local architects ESA to New York, Meyer Davis, who did an incredible job recreating what is now a historic but also modern jewel. Putting the right team together was key, but we heard ‘no’ often. For the first two years, I heard ‘no’ from so many people, including banks, investors, and city officials who all said “No, you can’t do it.’ The rapid growth of the local economy helped. Nashville hotel room rates continued to increase in the area, and we hoped to bring in a New York quality and feel that differentiated us from our competition.
TNE: In what part of the process did the Dream as a hotel brand come in?
AM: We were actually going down the road with a different hotel brand, and it just wasn’t working out. We interviewed five different firms, some of which were more branded flags. We wanted to stay boutique. Dream was the last one we met with for consideration. They came in and presented to our board, jetlagged from having just flown in from the Middle East. They blew us away with their passion for hospitality. There was a passion for both hotel and food and beverage, which many don’t specialize in. They treated it as our property, which it is, and shared our view for insisting on high standards. We had a similar vision for the preservation and revitalization of historic Printers Alley.
TNE: What’s your favorite space in this hotel?
AM: Probably Stateside Kitchen because there are so many different aspects to it. I’m familiar with every facet of the space. I know these floor tiles came from Brazil, how long it took to lay them, and all of the details involved with everything behind the bar. In here there’s a lot of vibe and fun, whether it’s a Monday or Friday night. It also comes alive on Saturday mornings for the reservation-only brunch. Something is going on all the time. We always have uplifting music piped in, and the skylight makes it a year-round location versus something seasonal like a rooftop bar. This allows you to come in for lunch, and stay until 3 pm over a few drinks without feeling guilty.
TNE: Do you have any other projects on the radar?
AM: Yes and no. Unlike many professions, developers don’t (or shouldn’t) really reveal projects until they’re ready to announce publicly because there’s a lot of aspects involved. I will say that Nashville is still very hot. If people are running around looking for pandemic bargains, it’s probably still not the spot to be seeking a bargain. It hasn’t been for about 10 years. On that note, anything I’m exploring still has to have a value-added component. It’s got to be a place people want to go to and to be a part of, not a square box. Stay tuned and be patient for my next reveal.
TNE: Can you elaborate on a few other Royal Investments projects?
AM: Over the years I’ve owned and developed nearly 1,000 residential units in Williamson County, selling most of them over time. I’ve been involved with several commercial buildings in downtown Nashville, most of which have also been sold. I’m invested in several Nashville based technology startups in addition to real estate holdings.
TNE: What charitable organizations are you supporting now?
AM: Organizations that involve kids—helping children with disadvantages or those who need an extra hand. I’m one of six siblings and my wife Kris and I have three of our own. As I was taught growing up, my goal is to make sure that our youth, whatever nationality, race, or demographic background are all extended the same opportunity to experience the things we’ve been fortunate to have.
TNE: Do you follow any Nashville sports/who do you root for?
AM: I have season tickets to the Predators and try to make a few Titans games per year. I went to a PAC-12 school (USC), so I have to grin and bear it with all of the SEC hysteria in the South!
TNE: Go-to restaurants in downtown and Franklin near your personal home?
AM: Cork & Cow in Franklin, 404 Kitchen in the Gulch, Hampton Social, and Stateside Kitchen in the Dream.
TNE: Do you think you’d be doing this if you didn’t start with your family’s business before you broke out on your own?
AM: Yes. I had a career in hi-tech in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 12 years and went through the dot com bubble in the ’90s. It was a nice transition leaving San Francisco to travel across the country, establishing a long-term professional career that I can enjoy forever. Fortunately, I don’t look at what I do as a ‘job.’
TNE: What do you enjoy most about developing a property?
AM: Being able to envision a concept from dilapidated buildings to a renovated piece of usable art that people will enjoy again. Creating jobs is rewarding, whether it’s the design or the construction phase. From the start, we probably employed over a thousand people to design and build the Dream Hotel Nashville. Now that it’s open, those job opportunities are ongoing. That’s a great aspect of it. It’s fulfilling to see the before and after.
TNE: Friends say you’re an outdoorsman and a family man. How do you spend your free time?
AM: Whether I’m hiking with family or canoeing, outdoors is my haven. We live in Franklin, so we’ve got the Harpeth River practically outside our back door. When the kids are out of school (which has been frequent this year), we do quick trips to Center Hill Lake or 30A on the Gulf Coast. I’m not exactly a golfer because it requires too much time. My attention span does not go on that long (laughs). I do get a little ‘redneck’ once in a while, whether its ATVs on our property or taking hunting trips with my buddies. I like to cover the spectrum in enjoying the outdoors with family and friends. I’m a little bit of a different person on the weekends than I am in my working life, probably. I think that’s a good thing…It keeps me balanced.