LAS CRUCES – A cowboy is in the lobby waiting for Santa Fe real estate mogul Dan Burrell.
Burrell, 37 years old, dressed in a suit, is taking care of business at New Mexico State University in a borrowed office while his privately funded $85 million Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine is under construction up the road.
In an hour or so, he will trade his suit for jeans and hop into the cowboy’s truck, headed for the Jicarilla Mountains near Alamogordo, where he has an industrial garnet mine and a cattle ranching operation in the works.
Not so long ago, Burrell, who is from upstate New York, was back East coming off several years’ involvement in national Democratic politics, including presidential runs by now Secretary of State John Kerry and former Vice President Al Gore.
Today, from his home base in Santa Fe, Burrell is transforming himself into a miner, rancher, benefactor and one of New Mexico’s most ardent entrepreneurs – hoping, he says, to mold himself in the image of billionaire Warren Buffett, “an incredibly socially responsible investor who has built the most successful business platform in the world.”
Burrell is father to a 10-month-old girl, Dylan; husband to jeweler Katherine Jetter; an avid golfer and outdoorsman who manages to stay grounded despite all the globetrotting and deal making.
He tries not to get “too carried away with the importance of one more deal, one more accomplishment,” he says, “because that is the quickest route to losing perspective in life.”
Yet deals and accomplishments are piling up.
Modeled after the umbrella group that is Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Burrell’s New Mexico ventures fall under the aegis of The Burrell Group LLC. The company holds businesses in traditional industries: commercial real estate, natural resources, ranching and agriculture; it also includes a philanthropic venture and investments in private higher education.
The Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine at NMSU is going up “ahead of schedule,” Burrell said. The college has already received 2,000 applications for 150 slots available in fall 2016.
NMSU President and former Gov. Garrey Carruthers says Burrell “is probably one of the most exciting new entrepreneurs in New Mexico.”
His ability to put together big capital packages – including the $85 million college that will share NMSU’s brand and campus in a public-private partnership – makes him especially valuable to New Mexico, Carruthers said.
“Capital flows to good deals,” Carruthers said. “Not many people around can put that kind of money together.”
In July, Hong Kong-based Gemini Investments purchased a controlling stake in the venture that brought Burrell to New Mexico in the first place in 2010, Rosemont Realty, in a deal valued at $115 million.
Burrell became chairman of the new company, Gemini-Rosemont Realty, which manages a commercial portfolio in major cities from Phoenix to Philadelphia, including 16 Albuquerque office properties.
Burrell is planning to spend $25 million to tap a deposit of industrial-quality garnet hidden in the mountains near Alamogordo.
Funding to Orogrande Garnet Co. includes $750,000 in state Local Economic Development Act money and industrial revenue bonds that grant the company 50 percent reductions in property taxes and gross receipts taxes on machinery and equipment purchases.
The venture is expected to generate 50 to 75 jobs at the outset and is on track to become operational by the second half of 2016.
“It creates a whole new economic development concentration in southern New Mexico,” said Jerry Pacheco, senior adviser to the New Mexico Partnership, a public-private nonprofit that consulted on the project.
Burrell also purchased a 55,000-acre ranch in Otero County as a hedge for water rights he will need to run the garnet mine and says he plans to run a commercial cattle operation on the property.
“Enjoy life. Work comes second,” Burrell says – but those are Jetter’s words, he confesses, as she chimes in during a phone call with the Journal. Burrell qualifies: “That’s easy to say and harder to do as responsibilities pile on as you get older. But it also becomes in many ways more and more important.”
Burrell grew up in Albany, N.Y., the son of entrepreneur Chet Burrell and mother Elizabeth Burrell, an educator.
His father – who is chief executive of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield in Washington, D.C., which insures a large portion of the federal workforce including the president, vice president and most of Congress, Burrell said – sits on the board of his osteopathic medical school. His mother sits on the board of his philanthropic foundation.
Burrell graduated with a government degree from Georgetown University and spent his last college year interning in the Clinton White House. He worked on Al Gore’s 2000 campaign for the presidency and then-Sen. John Kerry’s in 2004. He counts Kerry as “an incredible mentor” who “entrusted me with a lot of responsibility at a very young age.”
Although both men failed in their bids for the White House, Burrell got firsthand experience setting up an operation he likened to getting a Fortune 500 company off the ground in a matter of months.
“You go from five to 10 employees to 500 employees in the span of a year,” he said. “You are selling a product and your product is a candidate. You are building a sales force, an operational team… It becomes a Fortune 500 company operation, whereas two years prior you have one guy getting you a rental car at Hertz – which was me.”
Many of Burrell’s ventures in New Mexico are in their infancy and success in business – as in politics – is never guaranteed.
“We all have different definitions of success,” he said. “Letting yourself down, letting your family down, letting your friends down – that is what I fear the most. But I don’t worry about one individual business failure. You’ve got to keep things in perspective. You don’t want (a failure) to be caused by your own lack of effort or willpower. Things if they fail, should fail because they are out of your control.”
From NY to NM
The Great Recession threw a wrench in Burrell’s first foray into the private sector: a private equity firm called Rosemont Capital. It was set up in 2006 by Burrell, Devon Archer and Chris Heinz – Kerry’s stepson and heir to the ketchup family fortune – just as the economy was poised to crash.
“We had this quaint idea that we were going to create this private equity platform and go out and conduct business in the normal course, but within a year that had completely turned on its head,” Burrell said. “So you had to try to find opportunity in that.”
From 2007 to 2009, Rosemont Capital became a buyer of securities created from government-backed loans to high-quality borrowers. It was a lesson, Burrell said, in the “immense power in structuring business opportunities around things that governments are trying to do.”
Rosemont eventually needed to find a new way to grow and purchased BGK Properties in Santa Fe, which held commercial buildings in cities that were vulnerable to distress during the recession.
“We were able to buy $800 million of assets at very attractive valuations,” Burrell said.
Over the next four years, Rosemont acquired another $1.2 billion of higher quality institutional properties, he said, then began shopping for a buyer, which he found in Gemini Investments.
But, as Burrell put it, “If I was going to stay in New Mexico, it wasn’t just going to be for Rosemont.”
Three years ago, Burrell and his family founded the New Mexico Leadership Institute, a scholarship program that mentors promising high schoolers, provides leadership training and $25,000 toward their education at University of New Mexico or NMSU.
Each year, NMLI sponsors up to 33 students and provides a total of $825,000 in scholarships. The goal is more than philanthropic: Burrell says he hopes to stem the “enormous brain drain” in New Mexico, by cultivating strong leaders with a commitment to their home state.
Does Burrell’s desire to give back extend to public service?
Burrell says he has “no immediate plans to run for any kind of office.” But, he said, “If the opportunity down the road arose to serve in some capacity, that would be interesting to me and I would be honored to do it. But only if I felt I could make a genuine impact.”
For now, Burrell has a garnet mine and a cattle ranch and a medical school to get off the ground.
The cowboy waiting in the lobby is Ted Eldridge, a longtime rancher who sold his land to Burrell and agreed to be his ranch manager.
“Dan is a businessman,” he said, “that is for sure, and a good one for a young man. You get a perception of somebody on the phone. Then I met him on the ranch. I looked at him and said, ‘My goodness, I’ve got kids older than you.’ ”
“I think what he is doing is going to be very good for southern New Mexico,” he said. “He’s a busy fellow, yes he is.”