According to www.dictionary.com, an entrepreneur is a person who organizes and manages an enterprise or business, usually with considerable initiative and risk. No question, then, that Jeff Hermanson matches the definition. Sit with him for a short while and it quickly becomes clear that he is a serial entrepreneur. Today, he’s the CEO of Larimer Associates, a very successful business and a force behind the redevelopment of iconic Larimer Square, Denver Union Station and Hangar 2 in the Lowry neighborhood. But, borrowing from the Grateful Dead’s classic song, “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been”, it has required quite a circuitous route to land him where he is now.
Growing up in Southern California, the then grade school aged lad had an entrepreneurial idea centered on bugs. “My early recollection is that I was illegally selling bootleg insect collections in sixth grade,” chuckles Hermanson. “I was selling them to affluent students that didn’t want to catch insects and do their own displays.” Fast-forwarding to his college years at the University of California, Santa Barbara his penchant for enriching his business acumen led to organizing a concert. “I think in 1969 or 1970 I promoted a concert through my fraternity,” Hermanson added. “I booked two bands that charged me $2,750 each—the Grateful Dead and Santana. Although I barely made any money, it was indicative of an entrepreneurial spirit that I still have today.”
The soft-spoken businessman credits his grandparents and father for fueling his passion for launching and nurturing startups, but more importantly for fostering the value of remaining undeterred in the face of adversity. In an effort to escape debilitating poverty and intolerable persecution against Jews in Russia, his grandfather and aunt journeyed to Sweden in the early 1900s. Their hope was to find a more welcoming atmosphere and also to earn enough money to immigrate to the United States. Unfortunately, with the break out of World War I the pair was not only separated from their loved ones longer than expected, they suffered tremendous personal loss as well.
“In those five years my grandfather and aunt immigrated to America, coming through New Orleans, traveling up the Mississippi River and settling in Nebraska,” explained Hermanson. “Sadly, through famine and disease, four of the eight children (in the family) perished.”
The family’s heartache was exacerbated during World War II when 39 of the 40 cousins left behind in a little village in Russia died in the Holocaust. Imprisoned in Auschwitz for four years, the sole survivor settled in Israel and raised a family there, while Jeff’s dad arrived in rural Nebraska to an uncertain future. At the age of 12, and unable to speak or understand English, the boy was understandably flummoxed. “He struggled, but ended up building a real life for himself,” says Hermanson. “It was partly by selling suits in Chicago and being a bootlegger, and then by moving to California and opening up a grocery store. My father was a classic entrepreneur.”
Having earned a degree in economics from UC Santa Barbara, the newly minted graduate decided to further his studies, enrolling in the master’s degree program at San Francisco State and focusing on international relations. While attending SFS, he took a break from academia, spending two winter semesters skiing at Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe. Bitten by the ski bug, he set his compass point to Colorado. “My college roommate had moved to Crested Butte so I came and joined him,” Hermanson says. “I think the very first day I was there I got a job waiting tables, so I thought I’d achieved my life goal by having my days free and working at night.” It was 1973 and the experience was so fantastic, he thought he’d stick around for perhaps another year, which morphed into a third year—and the decision to open a restaurant. That was in 1976. He named the fine dining establishment Slogar after the homesteaders who originally owned the place. As if opening a restaurant wasn’t stressful enough for him, Mother Nature served up one of Colorado’s fiercest winter droughts. “It was devastating,” Hermanson said. “It didn’t really snow until mid-February so the ski season was decimated. I ended up having to lay off my staff, but kept feeding them ‘til the end of the season. It was very humbling and insightful like many things in life.”
Summoning the courage to stick it out as his grandfather and father did in their uncertain times, he got the restaurant on solid footing, running it in the black for nine years before selling it to a new owner. Over that period of time he delved into Crested Butte’s emerging real estate market. Partnering with a neighbor, he developed several successful projects before the metaphorical storm clouds began looming in the early 1980s. “A story I most like to tell besides the drought year was that I made my first million when I was 30 years old,” explained Hermanson. “It was during that real estate frenzy and I thought I was the smartest person in the universe. Within two years I’d lost every penny. I was dealing with the banks, and learned about foreclosure and the downside to real estate. Fortunately, I lost all that money when I was young enough to learn a good lesson.”
A Bright Future
Demonstrating his resiliency he opened two other restaurants in Crested Butte and in 1987 got word that there was a space for sale in Larimer Square. The space became home to Josephina’s, a place that he believed could be an economic engine for drawing shoppers and restaurant goers to the historic downtown block. “Josephina’s was wildly successful for us,” said Hermanson. “We grew a restaurant company that at one time had seven restaurants, four of them at Larimer Square.” Seeing a bright future for the block, he and his partners bought it in 1993. In addition to Josephina’s, patrons flocked to Mexicali Café, Cadillac Ranch and Champion Brewing Company, as well as Tommy Tsunami’s around the corner on Market Street and a pair of Josephina’s satellite locations. Marquee retailers populated the block, too, including Ann Taylor, Williams-Sonoma, Talbots and Nine West. The economic engine was humming nicely. But by the late 1990s, his restaurant group imploded and the luxury brand retailers added locations elsewhere.
“The success of my restaurants bred lots of competition in downtown Denver,” Hermanson explained. “When those notable retailers first came to the block they were virtually exclusive to Denver in this location, but once they proliferated to lifestyle malls throughout the city Larimer Square was no longer special in terms of a retail destination.” Again, he bounced back, using those hard learned lessons to realign the tenant balance and also how to use the block as an incubator for businesses. He and his partners closed all of their restaurants, replacing them with chef-driven restaurants forged by strategic partnerships with then up-and-coming chefs Jennifer Jasinski (think Rioja, Euclid Hall, Bistro Vendome), Lon Symensma (think ChoLon, Cho77, Cooper Lounge) and Troy Guard (think TAG, bubu, Sugarmill). A combination of repositioning the mix of tenants, being an active landlord versus simply a rent collector and having a commitment towards nurturing ideas for the spaces has created a blueprint designed to maximize the return on investment for participants.
Larimer Associate’s success with that business model is evidenced by the company’s portfolio of nearly 20 restaurants, a growing number of commercial and multi-family real estate properties, arguably Colorado’s best collection of independently-owned fashion boutiques and chef-owned and operated restaurants, and an architectural and interior design arm whose skills are reflected on Bistro Vendome, Kazoo Toy Store, Moda, Lowry Beer Garden, Scarpaletto and Billy’s Inn to name a few.
“A lesson that I’ve only recently embraced for myself is that it is okay to try things, but be prepared that they might not work out, which happens on the block,” said Hermanson. “I feel very blessed that I’ve had this opportunity. It behooves everyone in this office to take Larimer Square to the next level and we’re excited to be a part of that process.” In the words of another Grateful Dead song, this entrepreneur is “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.”
Larimer Turns 50
The Kansas Connection
As its 50th year closes, Larimer Square is sitting pretty, enjoying an international reputation as a flourishing gathering place of bistros, boutiques and entertainment venues. It’s exactly what founder Dana Crawford had in mind in the early 60s when she envisioned the block between 14th and 15th Streets that had deteriorated into skid row. Named after General William Larimer, the street gave birth to Denver after gold was discovered nearby. Arriving from Kansas, Larimer built Denver’s first house—a log cabin—in 1858, and soon after came a series of firsts: first City Hall, post office, barber shop, drugstore, theater, church, library and reputedly the first brothel. It was a grand boulevard until silver crashed in 1893.
The block languished until Crawford, also from Kansas, arrived. When she learned that “everything in the city began on that block” and that “it was slated for demolition,” she began buying the buildings with investors. “The buildings were tired but didn’t need to be changed, just painted and someone to care,” she said. “Civic pride and a dream motivated us.” Today, Larimer Square is the only downtown block with pre-1900 buildings intact, and in 1971 was named the first historic district in Colorado.
BIO: Kim D. McHugh, an award-winning writer and luxury real estate marketing consultant, is a frequent contributor to Colorado Expression. His articles have appeared in SKI, Tastes of Italia, RockyMountainGolf.com, Hemispheres, Luxury Golf & Travel, and Colorado AvidGolfer.
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