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Around the time that the "reverse reparations" spot stirred outrage, the Uhlmann Co. was presented with an investment opportunity.
Having sold its cereal and charcoal divisions, the Uhlmann Co. made its main business managing money. A man named Jeff Hall, one of five original partners in Crush Tech, approached John Uhlmann in 2002 with a plan to use a special terrain leveler to profitably extract limestone from a quarry near Springfield.
Uhlmann, then the Uhlmann Co.'s chairman and co-chief executive, was intrigued. But his relatives on the board did not share his tolerance for risk or his interest in geology. So Uhlmann personally guaranteed the $1.8 million in loans that Uhlmann Co. made to Crush Tech.
He was not a passive lender. A short time after Crush Tech purchased the terrain leveler for $670,000, Uhlmann took a 92.5 percent ownership interest in the company.
Uhlmann's stake is disputed by Gary and Terry Watts, who say their signatures were forged on a restatement of Crush Tech's original operating agreement. Gary Watts says he and his brother were baffled when Uhlmann showed up one day and announced that he had fired Hall. "How do you fire somebody when you're not even in the company?" Gary says.
A short time later, Uhlmann told Gary and Terry Watts that they were out, too. He changed the name of the company to Mo-Kan Rock & Gravel.
The Wattses later sued Uhlmann. He denied cheating the brothers. In his answer to their claim, he accused them of making off with tools and other assets that belonged to the company. A judge dismissed the suit last September.
The venture wasn't profitable, in any case. Crush Tech and Mo-Kan Rock & Gravel incurred "significant losses," according to court papers, until Uhlmann shut it down in 2003.
Uhlmann ended up with the deed to Gary Watts' Knobtown quarry after Crush Tech broke up. Working with an excavator named Kevin Thomas, Uhlmann developed a plan to quarry the limestone and then prepare the ground and adjacent land for future development. They called the project Hillside Village. Drawings imagined nature trails and a "water feature" amid the houses, townhomes, office buildings, shops and restaurants.
Though inexperienced in real-estate development, Uhlmann was thinking big. "He wanted to take something that was nothing and make something out of it," says John Martin, a consultant who advised Uhlmann on the project in 2008.
A proposal to spend $109 million in and around Knobtown excited city officials. "That area is in desperate need of attention," Councilwoman Cindy Circo said when the request for tax abatement came before the Planning and Zoning Committee. The City Council approved the request.
The tax break was meaningful only if Uhlmann and Thomas were able to develop the land. They were not.
The business model was flawed. Uhlmann and Thomas designed the project with the idea that the quarry operation would provide cash. But the rock was stubborn and could not be removed at a profit. Finally, in November 2008, the partners leased the quarry to an established operator, Quality Aggregates, in a last-ditch effort to generate a return.
Martin, for his part, points to events beyond Uhlmann's control. He attributes the failure of the development to the financial crisis of 2008. "The world changed," he says. (Thomas declined to comment.)
Whatever the root cause, the companies that Uhlmann set up to develop Hillside Village stopped making payments to creditors in early 2009. Bank Midwest had made 10 different loans. The debt, including interest, was more than $10 million.