by Teresa McUsic
What do Cadillac, a wine bar, a dozen retail buildings, brewery, meat rub, and a $3 million overhaul of Fort Worth’s Trinity Park playground have in common?
The answer: Will Churchill and Corrie Watson, twin great-grandchildren of the iconic Fort Worth car dealer Frank Kent. The 42-year-olds are still thick in the auto business after inheriting Frank Kent Motor Co. and its 500 employees before they were 30. But in the years since, they have sold and bought other auto dealerships and expanded from the car business to run a wine wholesaler and wine bar; buy, upgrade and lease retail buildings in the Near Southside and west Fort Worth; take over a brewery; and create Grease Monkey Rubs for chicken, steak, seafood and vegetables now selling in all Texas Central Markets.
This summer, they'll help break ground on Fort Worth’s first playground for disabled and able children to play together. The Dream Park will replace the old playground at Trinity Park with a wide variety of play equipment and green space designed by LSI, an inclusive play provider in Minnesota. Frank Kent is the title sponsor, contributing $700,000.
Like most of their non-auto hospitality businesses, the playground idea was something Churchill stumbled across while on vacation in Wisconsin with his wife, Rachael, and son, Cash. Churchill said the company wasn’t looking for a big altruistic undertaking.
“The project just found us,” he said. “It was not our plan to be the title sponsor. We wanted to be behind the scenes and create this type of playground for Fort Worth. But fundraising was difficult, and when we became the title sponsor, it opened up a lot. That explains so much of how we are and who we are.”
The Fort Worth roots of Churchill and Watson run about as deep as they can go, back to even before Frank Kent stepped into the city in 1927 and started selling cars. The twins’ great-great-grandfather was Carroll Peak, the first doctor in Fort Worth, who settled in the town in 1853. Peak and his wife, Marion, had some of the first children born in the fledgling community.
Fast-forward a generation and one of the Peaks’ granddaughters, Florence Peak, would become the wife of Frank Kent, a haberdasher from Clinton, Missouri, who moved to Fort Worth in 1927 to sell used cars for Sanford Webb and Earle North’s dealership. Churchill says the family story goes that the car dealers told Kent if he sold two cars in three days, he would hire him. “Frank sold five,” Churchill said. “And then he had to teach people how to drive them. They were still using horse and buggies.”
Kent started Frank Kent Motor Co. in 1935 with a Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealership on Henderson Street near downtown. By 1953, his attention turned to what would become the company’s prized product when Kent purchased a Cadillac dealership. Kent’s granddaughter, Wendy Churchill, once estimated the dealership sold 31,000 Cadillacs during Kent’s 34 years as a dealer, including to famous customers like Liberace, Texas Governor John Connolly, and Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson. Kent owned a number of other dealerships in the area over his lifetime and was posthumously inducted in the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit in 1989.
Churchill and Watson inherited the business after their mother, Wendy Churchill, passed away in 2005. Will Churchill, a TCU graduate, was a sales manager for Kent’s Hummer division at the time. Watson, a UNT graduate, worked in marketing and advertising for Kent.
Kent Motor has no board of directors and no shareholder interests, Churchill said. “We usually make decisions together over a bottle of wine and a nice dinner,” he said. “The only expectations we have are for ourselves.”
That gives them the freedom to put “morals and ethics above profits,” Churchill said. “Corrie and I have had a lot of help,” he said. “Our mother left us a legacy. If we can create other legacies, we want to support that.”
One place they said they’re doing that is by buying and refurbishing older properties in the Near Southside and far west parts of the city. The brother and sister own more than a dozen buildings combined in those areas and have upgraded them with new air-conditioning units, LEED-certified windows, new wiring and plumbing, and other enhancements.
The big Near Southside push followed the twins’ venture into wine. That started when they began serving wine and holding tastings and dinners at the Cadillac dealership, and it grew into the Cadillac Wines wholesaler.
The twins said the real estate acquisitions grew organically when they were looking for a place to open a wine bar after selling their Honda dealership and a piece of land in downtown Fort Worth in 2015. The sales left them with a nondisclosed amount of 1031 exchange money, which refers to a federal Internal Revenue Code that allows investors to reinvest after a sale of other property without having to claim capital gains.
They looked at West Seventh Street and found the rents too high, while downtown Fort Worth property owners thought the wine bar would compete too much with existing places, Churchill said. That led them to West Magnolia Avenue in the Near Southside, where they found a location and opportunity to buy the building. Kent & Co. Wines, which has more than 300 wines in stock to purchase by the glass or bottle, was born.
From there, their holdings in the area grew fast. Churchill and Watson were looking for more parking and found other building owners wanting to sell to them instead of just leasing out their parking space. The twins focused their Near Southside purchases on and around West Magnolia and South Main Street, refurbishing the properties for retail and residential lofts.
“It was not a grand scheme we had,” Churchill said. “The plan was just for Kent & Co. Wines. But when we asked for parking, the owners said, ‘Why don’t you just buy us?’ Then we fell in love with the area.”
Buying buildings for cash, Churchill and Watson then swung deals for tenants they wanted, breaking a logjam on West Magnolia where prospects were unable to find reasonable rents and had to look elsewhere.
The twins’ tenant list includes Heim Barbecue, Melt Ice Creams, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Cartan’s Shoes (an existing tenant), Chimera Brewing Co., The Space events center, and Kent & Co. Wines, among others. Churchill and Watson founded The Space and Kent & Co., and they took an equity interest in Heim when they brought the restaurant onto West Magnolia out of the food trailer that Emma and Travis Heim founded the business in. Earlier this year, they purchased Chimera from founder Carlo Galotto, drawn by the lure of owning West Magnolia’s only brewery and Galotto’s pizza lineup, regarded as among the city’s best.
Mike Brennan, president of Near Southside Inc., a nonprofit charged with revitalizing the 1,400-acre community of neighborhoods and historical buildings, finds what Churchill and Watson are doing in the area a good fit with other local investors in redeveloping the landmark buildings, largely constructed in the 1910s through 1920s.
“Anytime we have investors that come in and purchase old buildings and restore them and find locations for local businesses, that’s a huge win for the district,” Brennan said. “They are owners who believe in the importance of maintaining the buildings’ architectural integrity and bringing these buildings back to life.”
Some of the buildings in the area are protected by historical designation, but many are not, Brennan said. “We have a long list of like-minded investors and property owners in the area,” he said. “It’s important for the district to attract those developers willing to take on that challenge with a clear commitment to the community beyond just a bottom-line investment.”
While Churchill and Watson said their real estate investments are making money, they have leased properties below market value for some tenants, Churchill said. “We’re not a charity, but if there’s an opportunity to give back, we step up and give businesses opportunities,” he said.
Melt founder Kari Crowe, for example, tried to find a reasonable rent on West Magnolia before she founded her business on the cheaper West Rosedale Street. Churchill and Watson gave the popular shop an “under-market lease” to bring it off of West Rosedale into the heart of West Magnolia, Churchill said. “We could have doubled the lease rate, but the move was good for the street,” he said.
Members of the Fairmount Neighborhood Association have mixed feelings about the redevelopment, some complaining on social media of the “Kentrification” of the area — a term coined by Churchill but blasted on Facebook by Fairmount homeowners dealing with increased noise, street parking and properties values as a result of West Magnolia development.
“We are happy that investors are able to see what we could see in terms of a beautiful, walkable, tight-knit community,” said Sara Karashin, president of the Fairmount Neighborhood Association. “But development is a double-edged sword. Once investors see the value in an area, there is a fine line from investing because they love the area and wanting to grow in the area.”
Karashin said Fairmount is petitioning the city to start a permit-only parking program on neighborhood streets, which would cut down on many of the issues for neighborhood houses directly next to Magnolia businesses.
But overall, Karashin said Fairmount recognizes Churchill and Watson as two of the first big investors in Magnolia business properties, as well as their passion for the community. “Kent and Co. is part of the family,” she said. “And we are working together to find solutions as the area continues to grow.”
Churchill said he was initially upset about the Facebook postings to Kentrification; he defends his companies’ business practices. “We are taking buildings that are in distress, and we are fixing them up and bringing them back to code and ordinances — that’s half of gentrification,” he said. “But we also haven’t displaced one tenant and have brought in largely mom and pop businesses.”
Brennan also supports what Churchill and Watson and other investors are doing in the area, citing that West Magnolia was recently awarded a Great Street of Texas designation by the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association, joining such illustrious streets as the Strand in Galveston and Main Street in Fredericksburg.
“In the age of social media, things can get rough,” Brennan, who lives in the Fairmount neighbor Mistletoe Heights, said of the Facebook postings. “Everybody’s very passionate about the neighborhood. This is our place. We are definitely seeing increases in property value and some rents are going up, which is always a concern, but we haven’t yet seen key businesses get pushed out or closed.”
Heim, for one, is “as grassroots as you can get,” Brennan said. “Their tenant list demonstrates their commitment to the area,” he said.
Churchill said moving some of its business out of the auto dealership world and into hospitality and real estate holdings is important going forward. “Back in time, you could specialize and be fine,” Churchill said. “In today’s time, it’s a lot smarter for us to have a diversified portfolio. It gives us greater options.”
The twins connected with Heim after Churchill’s wife, a vegeterian who was throwing a shower for a friend, was directed to Heim as a potential caterer. Churchill and Watson expanded their Grease Monkey rub to all Texas Central Markets from the Fort Worth store in spring 2017. The twins launched the seasoning because Churchill is sensitive to salt, he said. Like many such products, friends and family asked for the recipe, so they decided to manufacture it for retailers. Churchill and Watson use a packer in Arlington to blend and package the rubs, created the recipes, designed the labels and packaging, and handle distribution in-house.
Watson said she thinks her great-grandfather, Frank Kent, would approve of their entrepreneurial endeavors. “He was an innovator himself,” she said, noting at one point he branched out into the travel industry. “Today, it would have been easier for him to be multifaceted like we are.”
As neophytes in the hospitality world, Watson said their biggest strength has been not to be afraid to ask for help. “We have leaned on people in the industry, and they have been very responsive,” she said. “It’s not a sign of weakness to ask.”
As fraternal twins, Watson and Churchill don’t finish each other’s sentences, but they do make a complete team, the Arlington Heights graduates said. “I sling it and she cleans it up,” Churchill said. “Neither can do the other’s job. We happen to be a perfect twin balance.” Watson said her brother is “brilliant, well-spoken and a natural leader.” Churchill calls his sister “the calm in the storm with a heart the size of Texas times two.” The key to their partnership is “ultimate trust,” he said.
This turn into other types of business has not deterred the twins from the auto industry, however. In April, Frank Kent Motor Co. sold its Hyundai dealership to the Hiley Automotive Group, but the month before, Kent Motor acquired AutoNation Chevrolet and AutoNation Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram in Ennis, south of Dallas.
In addition, the twins own Southwest ADI, a GM wholesale business, where they are a reseller/distributor for GM parts and add-ons throughout the Texas marketplace, except for West Texas and the Panhandle. Churchill said Southwest ADI is their most profitable business.
But the heart of their business is selling cars, with Cadillac their name brand, Churchill said. “Automotive is always our core, our common thread,” he said. “Cadillac has always been and will always be the center of it.”
The business holdings of twin Fort Worth entrepreneurs Will Churchill and Corrie Watson:
Automobiles: Frank Kent Cadillac; Chevrolet, Buick and GMC; Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-RAM
Real estate: Dozen commercial and mixed-use properties on the Near Southside and West Side. Tenants include: Heim Barbecue, Melt Ice Creams, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Cartan’s Shoes, Chimera Brewing Co., The Space.
Wine: Cadillac Wines wholesaler, Kent & Co. Wines retail shop
Food: Grease Monkey barbecue rub, sold in all Texas Central Markets
Auto parts: Southwest ADI, GM parts wholesaler
Teresa McUsic is a Tarrant County freelancer.