The Making of a $20M Idea

Justin Catanoso
The Business Journal Serving the Greater Triad Area, October 1, 2004

Let’s dispatch with the news first.

Greensboro-based Quaintance-Weaver Hotels & Restaurants, which recently brought the city the luxury O. Henry Hotel and upscale Green Valley Grill, is getting ready to do it again. Sort of. The hospitality firm is planning a $20 million, eight- story, 150-room hotel in Greensboro, tentatively called the Proximity Loft Hotel. Rooms will be roughly 20 percent less expensive than the O. Henry (which costs about $160 per night), and the restaurant will be smaller. But that’s just the beginning. Dennis Quaintance, president of the firm, expects to have no fewer than six more Proximity hotels in North Carolina within 15 years. “If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t mess with it,” he says. Quaintance hopes to build this new hotel near the O. Henry, but the exact piece of land hasn’t been locked up yet. Regardless, the best part of this story is understanding a little of how a $20 million idea comes into being. It began one Sunday last spring, with Quaintance and his wife/business partner, Nancy, walking briskly through their Fisher Park neighborhood. They were lamenting the fact that after three years of trying to make the numbers work, they had to give up on building an O. Henry in Raleigh. Both were eager for another big project, so the question arose: where is the hole in the hospitality market, not just Greensboro, but overall? The highly creative, high-energy couple tends to generate more ideas in a day than most of us do in a year. Soon, Nancy offered this gem — let’s do for hotels what Target has done for shopping: offer high-style and fashion in an affordable way. OK, but how? Nancy thought a moment more. People like renovated places. Spacious, full of light. Let’s find a factory with big windows and convert it into a hotel with loft-like sensibilities.

“That’s it!” Dennis blurted out. His heart was racing, as it often does. They dashed home and Dennis immediately began sketching floor plans and facades. Later, they drove all over town looking for the perfect property to reclaim. Naturally, it does not exist. “No way are you going to find the right property in the right location,” he says.

So the idea quickly evolved: Build a hotel with spacious rooms, tall ceilings, exposed ductwork and huge windows — and make it look like it was once an old textile factory. The name helps some. Proximity Cotton Mills once operated in Greensboro. “I’ve been thinking about adaptive re-use for years,” Dennis says. “But it has to make sense. We have to be able to build this for less than we built the O. Henry ($25 million).” The idea, however, wasn’t a go yet. In the unusual hierarchy of the Quaintance-Weaver enterprise, few big decisions come top down. Instead, Quaintance ran ideas past his top three management executives at the time — Will Stevens, Bart Ortiz and Jim Slowin. In order to encourage and nurture entrepreneurial instincts, the four shift into “possibility mode.” Ideas are pitched without judgment. The only feedback is positive, or none at all. Thus, crummy ideas die a natural death, and no one gets embarrassed. “I drag them through the possibility phase,” Quaintance says. “I can’t sing. I can’t dance. But I can get a three-dimensional image in my mind. And I can see human beings walking through it and the leadership systems that support it.” Still, Quaintance requires validation. He calls himself a “reluctant entrepreneur” who always keeps an eye on the backdoor. He was prepared for the loft hotel idea to die — if his managers didn’t embrace it. “Dennis has put together a team that works for a set of values; we don’t work for Dennis,” Stevens says. “We also all have different traits. That’s important. Dennis throws out a lot of ideas. A lot. We have to decide what’s a concept, a developable idea or an action plan. “After all, we’re the ones who have to achieve what he envisions. If we don’t buy into it, it’s not going to happen.”

This loft hotel idea had legs. Quaintance knew it because at different intervals, Stevens, Ortiz and Slowin would drop in and say, “I’ve been thinking about that project and …”

Little by little, the concept grew into a plan. That’s when Quaintance decided he was “willing to get $50,000 pregnant” before pulling the trigger.

Soon, a construction consultant and design engineers were hired to do some rough pricing. A month ago, a consultant from Denver flew in to do a market analysis. Later, the sales staff started talking to corporate clients. The stars were lining up. This week, a formal design team meeting was held, complete with Centrepoint Architecture from Raleigh. Quaintance says the property should be open by mid-2006. He already envisions two in Charlotte and two in the Triangle. Stevens can see two more in the Triad, and one each in Wilmington and Hickory. Quaintance is fully aware that Proximity, in the short-run, will steal customers from the O. Henry. That’s OK, he says. The city, while saturated with limited-service hotels, has room for more full-service properties. Plus, he’s placing a bet on the Triad’s future. “If we float our boat in this pond, and we’re intending to,” he says, “then we need to make sure this pond stays healthy.”

Nancy Quaintance picks up on the water-based analogy: “It was a very funny walk we had. I never thought the idea would go anywhere. We tried to poke holes in it and found out it floats. This is a good idea. That’s how our Sunday walks go.”