HAMLET — After more than a half-century as Tri-City, Inc., the Richmond County real estate development company has changed its name to honor its founder and family patriarch, the late Claude Felton Smith Jr.
The rebranding as C.F. Smith Property Group was celebrated during a Richmond County Chamber of Commerce Connections After 5 event Thursday evening at Cole Auditorium.
The official unveiling of the new name and logo was made on social media several hours earlier.
The idea for the switch, according to Smith’s grandson and the company’s CEO, Neil Robinette, came during a refresh of the Tri-City website.
“Our designers were playing around with our logo and our name … and we just threw out the idea and said, “What if we just thought about rebranding completely?’”
Neil Robinette admitted he was never fond of the name because there were other companies called Tri-City and whenever he was asked what the three cities were, he wasn’t sure what to tell them — because he really didn’t know.
But his mother, Claudia Robinette, Smith’s daughter and president of the company, later said it came from the development of the first shopping center, which at the time was located between Rockingham, East Rockingham and Hamlet.
“In this day and age, it’s important to have brand recognition and a way to distinguish yourself,” Neil Robinette said.
Not only does the new name honor Smith’s legacy, Neil Robinette said, “but it’s also a great story for us to tell.”
A LIFETIME OF OPPORTUNITY
A timeline brochure available during the event chronicles the history of Smith’s entrepreneurial spirit.
The brochure — as well as bottle koozies that were handed out — featured a quote from Smith: “If you’re looking for a big opportunity, seek out a big problem.”
It appears that solving problems led to many opportunities — as well as successes — in Smith’s life.
Growing up in Marston, Smith was only 12 years old when he bought a combine to harvest grain. Then, three years later, he purchased a crop duster.
After graduating from N.C. State University, Smith’s father financed his purchase of the Marston Broom Factory.
From there, he received several patents, including one in 1954 for reinventing the modern broom and one in 1957 for a broom-making machine. According to the brochure, production increase from 20 dozen daily to 400 daily due to Smith’s inventions.
In 1965, Smith founded Tri-City, developing his first shopping center in Rockingham and building hotels in Charlotte, Asheville and Knoxville, Tennessee. He was also involved with the development of North Carolina Speedway (later renamed Rockingham Speedway) which also opened in ‘65.
During the ‘70s, Smith acquired apartment units in Houston, Texas and Rockingham, founded the Western Sirloin Steakhouse Restaurant Group, developed the Lenoir Mal, and purchased the 1,200-acre McKay Estate adjacent to the speedway.
Smith’s involvement in real estate development continued throughout the ‘80s — with nine grocery-anchored shopping centers in the Carolinas, the purchase and development of golf course communities in Pinehurst, and the development of St. James Plantation in Southport.
In addition to building a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Fort Wayne, Indiana — and four more in North Carolina — Smith also started an airfreight business to transport cargo for corporations, including Burlington Industries, during the 90s.
The company has continued to grow over the past 20 years, with projects in more than 20 states across the country — yet it still calls Richmond County “home.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
From broom-making to real-estate development, Smith’s family has been involved with the business(es).
“Diverse, exciting adventures awaited almost every day,” Claudia Robinette said, as she recalled bagging mop heads, dipping broom handles in paint and other tasks alongside her sister, other family members and fellow Marston residents.
As the Smith sisters grew, so did Tri-City and they spent their after-school hours at the office, running errands and doing odd jobs.
“Our experiences were many and invaluable,” she said.
Claudia and husband Kenneth Robinette, who serves as the chief operating officer, also raised their children around the office — both of whom would come to take on leadership roles.
Neil Robinette was working at a property development company in Greenville, South Carolina, and wasn’t intending to join the family business.
But fate had other plans.
He said his grandfather, who battled cancer for years, had wanted him to come back home.
Smith had finally convinced him to return and was expecting to make the move during the summer.
Within the next day or so, on January, 14 of 2014, Smith passed away and his grandson would come to fill his shoes.
“A new chapter would begin that day,” Claudia Robinette said, “and another generation would lead Tri-City, now C.F. Smith Property Group.
“Neil resigned from his job in Greenville and came back to help with the business,” she continued. “Together, we all jumped in and handled any issues and began to organize, strategize and realize the potential that lied ahead.”
Also during the transition, his sister, Gabrielle Goodwin, stepped in to help with the company’s marketing efforts and increasing community involvement, exposure and increasing local tenants.
“I’m very proud of our children and I know their grandparents would be, too,” Claudia Robinette said. “It’s very rewarding to have your children come back home and work in the business, and also grow professionally and become involved with the community.”
Both Neil and Claudia Robinette said that the employees they work with on a daily basis are considered part of the family.
The C.F. Smith Property Group “family” poses for a photo at Cole Auditorium for the celebration of the company’s rebranding.
Since Smith’s passing, the company has continued to grow — with projects in multiple states and right here in Richmond County.
“As Claude Smith would say, ‘Do it, move it, no one ever sat their way to success,” Claudia Robinette said. “No one has been sitting at Tri-City
Several years ago, Richmond Plaza underwent a multi-million dollar renovation giving storefronts a facelift and bringing in new national and regional retail outlets, including Rue 21, Dunkin Donuts, Kay Jewelers and Pee Dee Outfitters.
In addition to shopping centers, the firm has also been involved with the construction of standalone businesses, from a Starbucks in Wilmington to an Aldi grocery store in Fort Wayne, Indiana to a FastMed medical clinic across from Richmond Plaza.
Late last year came the announcement of bringing Planet Fitness to the plaza, in addition to Firehouse Subs, Aspen Dental and a new home for Verizon in a building out front closer to the road.
The team, Claudia Robinette said, looks forward to the opportunities in the next 55 years.
Richmond Community College President Dr. Dale McInnis presents, on behalf of state Sen. Tom McInnis, a state flag that has been flown over the capitol to C.F. Smith Property Group CEO Neil Robinette.