If you spend time in the Foundry District – the burgeoning development in what was a neighborhood of commercial buildings and modest homes north of West Seventh Street near Montgomery Plaza – you’ll notice a recurring theme.
In odd places – on sidewalks, on building walls, on fences — are painted mantras. Familiar to practitioners of yoga, mantras are sounds or words or phrases repeated by someone praying or meditating as a device to clear the mind and sharpen the focus.
And when twin sisters Jessica Miller and Susan Miller Gruppi started their company, M2G Ventures, in October 2014, yoga and meditation were important to them.
“Jessica and I are pretty high-stress individuals,” Gruppi said. “We need to have something to focus our attention, so we were doing mantras during our meditations.”
There’s less time for that now – “As in none,” Miller says – but what started as a way to focus their minds has itself become part of the focus of their business.
“Creative art and inspirational quotes, it's all a part of real estate development now,” Gruppi says. “How can we be different, which goes back to our whole ethos for the way we do real estate development.”
Another definition of mantra is a word or phrase that expresses a person’s basic beliefs.
The mantras do that for the twins; they represent the basic tenets – the philosophy, if you will – that guide their careers as major and innovative developers in Fort Worth.
They are visible signs, along with the signature murals designed and painted on the sides of their buildings by Katie Murray, a college pal from Texas Christian University.
It’s kind of hard to keep track, but M2G Ventures is involved in 11 or so major projects now, ranging from development in the Foundry District to renovation and repurposing of the 1899 O.B. Macaroni building on the eastern edge of Near Southside to the nearly 20,000-square-foot building at 710 S. Main St. in the South Main Village.
They have acquired $60 million in property primarily in Fort Worth’s center city area.
Last October, Stockyards Heritage Development Co., the group redeveloping much of the Fort Worth Stockyards, announced M2G Ventures as the exclusive retail partner for the $175 million project, leveraging their expertise, industry relationships and Texas roots to advise and curate an authentic experience in the Stockyards and on Mule Alley.
But real estate is not their only focus.
Late last year they began an ambitious three-year project to raise $500,000 for awareness and research on bipolar disorder and other mental health issues, prompted by the death of a close relative after a three-year battle with bipolar disorder.
Miller and Gruppi grew up in Longview, where their parents were in real estate, and followed their brother to TCU. Gruppi had initially planned to study fashion design at New York University.
At TCU, they met Terry Montesi, CEO of Trademark Property Co., where creating public spaces and involving art has become standard operating procedure.
Both went to work at Trademark; Gruppi spent seven years there and eventually became vice president of finance, and Miller was in leasing, working with super-regional malls and lifestyle centers. Miller left after four and a half years to join Open Realty in Dallas, where she gained experience working national tenant accounts all over the United States.
Their company name, M2G Ventures, reflects their parents’ business background: M for Miller, 2G for second generation and Ventures because some of the projects they envision don’t necessarily involve real estate.
Back to the mantras for a moment.
They weren’t especially interested in inspirational quotes.
“You see some of those around, sometimes they can be cheesy,” Gruppi says, “and maybe they don't make the impact. We thought, what about 28 mantras? Really, mantras are things that you can say back to yourself. …”
Miller interjects: “Psych yourself up, calm yourself down. …”
(They often finish each other’s thoughts and sentences in an interview.)
They gathered friends and associates – another hallmark of how they work – and developed the 28 sayings.
“You're having a bad day and all of a sudden you walk up and it's ‘Fear is a liar,’ ” Gruppi says. “Then you had a bad day the next day. You say the mantra again. That really was the ethos and thought process for it.”
“I like ‘Thoughts become things,’ ” Miller says. “That's a good one, especially because it's right above Craftworks [in the Foundry District]. You're pulling in in the morning to get coffee, and if you're in a good mood, that's great. If you're in a bad mood, it reminds you, ‘Thoughts become things.’ Quickly changes my mind.”
The work that led to the Stockyards project began in September 2016 and, not surprisingly, came about because of TCU and Trademark connections.
Majestic Realty Co. hired Kerby Smith to oversee the joint venture between Majestic and the Hickman Companies in the Stockyards.
Smith is a former TCU baseball player who earned his undergraduate degree in 1996 and a graduate degree from the M.J. Neeley School of Business in 2001 and then spent 14 years at Trademark, becoming the senior vice president of development.
“It got time for them to start thinking about who they're going to lease to, what's the brand going to be, what kind of tenants do we want?” Gruppi said.
“They asked Kirby, ‘Who do we even talk to about this?’ Shockingly, there really aren’t a lot of people that know Fort Worth the way we do, know experiential restaurant retail, whatever you want to call it, like we do,” Gruppi said
“And know national like we do,” Miller interjects.
“Appreciate historic, adaptive reuse like we do,” Gruppi adds.
Majestic was thinking real estate broker, but the twins told the company they weren’t brokers.
“Caught me off guard with that question,” Miller said.
It’s difficult to describe what they do when people ask for specifics.
“We're like, ‘Well, I can't really describe what the secret sauce is, I just know how to make a secret sauce.’ And I don't mean that as braggadocio. It's just, a project like that, that's what you need,” Gruppi said.
“And then just quickly they realized how unique of an asset this is going to be,” Gruppi said.
A traditional broker would have been successful because of the sheer volume of transactions.
“It's, in a conventional way, an easy sell if you're going out to the masses. It takes a bridle to really figure out how to pull it back and be selective, and they had to make that choice,” Miller said. “Do we want to go out and just say, let's throw it all up against the wall and see what sticks, or do we really want to hone and make this a very authentic, pure place, and we're all lucky that that's what they wanted.”
It took only two meetings before Majestic was ready to do the deal with M2G.
“We interviewed a number of national and regional leasing teams that were interested in working with us on this landmark project and all were impressive in their own right,” said Craig Cavileer, managing partner for Stockyards Heritage Development Co. and executive vice president of Majestic Realty Co.
“However, after meeting with Susan and Jessica and seeing their enthusiasm, energy and drive, combined with their intimate knowledge of the who’s who in relevant retailers and restaurants, we knew we had found what this project needed,” he said.
One attraction for the twins was that the Stockyards is already an experience and a brand in itself – and it is irreplaceable.
“You're in a good mood as soon as you walk down there,” Miller said.
Thinking about the brands and uses and shops and things and experiences that people want to see when they're in the Stockyards has been a fantastic, creative exercise, they said.
“You almost, like, have a kid-in-a-candy-store-type of thing,” Miller said.
It needs to be authentic and at the same time something that can’t be seen or found anywhere else.
“The consumer down there doesn't really know what they want because they want everything. They want this entire lifestyle to envelop them,” Miller said. “So it's an amazing exercise for us and for Majestic and the Hickman family to really make it like this culture that just almost embodies everything people want in a retail project or a mixed-use project now that just has been sitting as a parking lot for 100 years. It's got so much character.”
The stakes are very high. Majestic is building the Hotel Drover, which is a Marriott hotel.
“If you're about to spend that much money, you better be sure that the stuff around you is spot on,” Gruppi said.
“If they don't get the quote/unquote crown jewel right, the rest is not going to live up to that,” Miller said.
The idea is over time to upgrade the entire area in a way that feels authentic and to do it “slow and methodical versus let's do it all at once."
“The Stockyards still needs to be a place for all. It needs to be the place that the tourists can come and go to the Candy Barrel and go to the General Store and go to the maze, and it needs to be a place that someone can go buy $3,000 boots and then go stay at the Hotel Drover and go to Billy Bob's, and so our job is to make all of it feel like it seamlessly is rising,” Miller said.
She said it was clear from the start that one of the biggest challenges was to keep the cowboy culture authentic for the tourists but to change the way locals use the Stockyards.
“Don't come once every three months. You need to be coming at least once every two weeks and being down here for four hours,” Miller said. “Saturday with your kids.”
There will be music at many of the venues in the former horse and mule barn areas.
“You're going to get to experience that lifestyle. Walk around. See people making leather. See people shining boots. See hats being shaped,” Miller said. “I mean the whole experience is going to be like for your senses that you're going to want to go so often just to kind of get a little taste of the state even if you're a local.”
Gruppi says existing businesses are supportive.
“Let's figure out how to make this bigger than it is. Or it was. Or is currently, however you want to put it. Because everybody knows that there's only one place like that left in the world. You've already got that. Just don't mess it up. Just make it a lot better,” Gruppi said.
Miller and Gruppi say there is an “incredible” diversity of businesses that see the area as an image of America and are interested in the vision and what is going to be the new version of the Stockyards.
At 32, Miller and Gruppi are part of a group of young entrepreneurs, many of them graduates of TCU, who are changing Fort Worth.
But they say that it is less a function of age than of mindset.
They have a partners’ meeting every Monday to talk about the change that's driving the city.
They refer to their mental health initiative and say some ask why do this now? Why not wait until they have made enough money just to fund in on their own.
But the people they hang with don’t want to wait for that day.
“They want to make an impact and they want to do it now. They're not going to wait until the appropriate time to do it anymore, because there is no appropriate time to make an impact,” Miller said.
There is an age range for these people – between roughly 28 and 45 – but age is neither here nor there if the proper mindset is present.
“This type of person, or these people, have this same thing on both sides: ‘I want to be innovative and impactful, but I also want to make money while I'm doing it,’ and they don't place more importance on either-or. They're not going to do something completely stupid so they're poor, and they're not going to do something that is completely greedy and then doesn't help everybody else.”
The twins say there is a lot of collaboration in Fort Worth among people doing really innovative things that are changing the way people look at social impact, but at the same time doing it because they know it's going to make them successful.
“They're not dumb,” Miller says. “It's not like any of us are even, like, ‘Hey, I want to go sing songs on the beach to make people feel good.’ That's not what we're doing. We're trying to make an impact in the community.”
The two women are fond of phrases that state a purpose and over the last 18 months they’ve tweaked what they call their purpose:
“To inspire evolution through impact and innovation.”