PhillyDeals: Orleans going back to its roots, building 'neat little neighborhoods'

The Orleans strategy , led by CEO George E. Casey Jr. (left) and Lee Darnold, chief marketing officer, isto listen "to the way people live."
The Orleans strategy , led by CEO George E. Casey Jr. (left) and Lee Darnold, chief marketing officer, isto listen "to the way people live." (The Jewel Agency)
Posted: February 29, 2012

"I want to be the Trader Joe's of home builders," says George E. Casey Jr., new boss at Orleans Homebuilders, which exited bankruptcy last year.

Is the McMansion dead? "People are now storing their bikes and kayaks in the old dining room," Casey says. "They eat in the kitchen and the TV room. The living room is the playroom for their kids. Nobody wants a two-story foyer anymore."

What sells now? "Neat, quirky," with flexible floor plans. "We're listening to the way people live."

Casey, a veteran executive at Horsham-based Toll Bros., Realen Properties Inc. of Berwyn, and other companies that fattened as the housing bubble inflated, reports to Orleans' creditor-investors: Strategic Value Partners L.L.C., Greenwich, Conn.; Anchorage Capital Group L.L.C., New York, and the distressed-debt desk of Bank of America.

On their watch, Orleans isn't following high-end rivals like Toll Bros. in building apartments in Brooklyn, Center City, Seattle, and other renewed urban centers.

Instead, Casey, backed by aides like new marketing chief Lee Darnold, who once headed a business unit at Nokia, is building out old Orleans tracts in Chester, Bucks, and Gloucester Counties and in the coastal South, enticing buyers from "higher-tax school districts" farther up I-95. "The core of this business is stuff that's selling for between $250,000 and $600,000, and a little luxury stuff," Casey tells me.

"We're trying to create coherent, neat little neighborhoods," and asking, "How do you get the folks in the neighborhood doing things together, so they're not just coming back to their cave at night?"

So, Valentine's Day candy exchanges. Barbecues. A dog park, because that's how people gather.

"Orleans did all that stuff when they built Northeast Philly," Casey says. "They'd buy a block, put up rowhomes. The corner homes were wider than the rest, that's where the store went." The corner store, "where you congregated. That, and the front steps."

"But then, we went wide. Big lots, big houses. Detached from everything.

"This is the trend now: going back to basics. One of the basics is the desire to have social connections. Maybe 30 percent of people want to be hermits. But the other 70 percent want to connect. . . . A place with strong social infrastructure will sell at a premium." How much? "Five or 10 percent. That fairy dust, that has great retail value."

Won't the buyout firms look to sell Orleans for a quick profit? "Orleans is older than Betty White," Casey says. "It's a 94-year-old start-up, with cash flow. We've got the archives of what made great places to live."

Beer, not diesel

Sunoco says it can't make a profit and can't find buyers for its century-old Philadelphia-area refineries. Instead, it's boosting sales of high-priced craft beer at stores from New York State to South Carolina, according to local news accounts.

Though not in Pennsylvania, where the law discourages Sunoco from retailing Dogfish Head or Yards. Tom Corbett's state may be unable or unwilling to keep basic industry from collapsing, but it's committed to protecting us from competitive beer sales.

Meanwhile, the spectacle of a once-great oil company falling apart as gasoline approaches record-high prices has won attention from would-be oil moguls worldwide.

From Nigeria, Joseph Adebayo Gasper, a self-admitted very small player in the vast oil-trading business, asked if I could introduce him to the mayor of Philadelphia so he can start putting together a team to buy the refineries. (He didn't ask for money. He even offered me a job.)

I posted his letter online, as a lark, where it drew a confidential request for more information from one of Pennsylvania's largest economic-development organizations: "Why not take a shot, right?"

It's official: We're desperate. Hey, even Sunoco founder J.H. Pew was a neophyte once. Though, as my colleague Andy Maykuth reminds me, if someone really wants to buy a Sunoco refinery, call Credit Suisse. It's been trying to sell the Sunoco works since last summer.


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com,

or @PhillyJoeD.

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