WHEN YOU WALK INTO A ROLLS-ROYCE dealership, you expect to see mink coats, handmade suits, and Gucci loafers. But, until recently, the first person you encountered when you entered British Royal Motor Cars in Houston was a short, scruffy man in a rumpled, untucked short-sleeved shirt and wrinkled, high-water pants drinking coffee with the dealership’s sales manager. One of the mechanics? No, it was the owner. “ Texas Monthly?” he asked one day earlier this year, standing up to greet a reporter. “Jerry J. Moore. I’m going to make you a hero.”
The getup—and the remark—is classic Moore, who for years has charmed and disarmed people with his dressed-down attire and homespun witticisms. His blue-collar demeanor has also allowed him to escape notice from gypsies, tramps, and thieves. (A neighbor once mistook him for a gardener and asked him to clean up the lawn. “I got twenty-five bucks,” Moore says.) But don’t be fooled: Until the early nineties, the spry seventy-year-old was the shopping center king of Texas, worth an estimated $800 million—and he’s mounting a comeback. He’s once again buying up and developing strip malls around Texas and scouting for more all across the Southwest.
Moore has always had a flair for turning real estate into gold. Born in Houston in 1927 to Polish-Jewish immigrants (his father, who died in August at age 94, was a plumber), he dropped out of San Jacinto High School after the tenth grade and hawked vacuum cleaners door-to-door. In 1958 he founded his company, Jerry J. Moore Investments, and bought his first piece of real estate—a three-room shotgun house in North Houston—with money he borrowed from Irvin Shlenker, the legendary founder and chairman of Houston National Bank (“Money will buy time,” Shlenker advised the young entrepreneur). Once Moore fixed it up and sold it, he bought three more just like it. He then did the same with apartment buildings and small shopping centers, which often contained only a laundromat and a convenience store. Initially he focused on Houston’s working-class neighborhoods because in his experience, he says, people there “pay their bills.”
By the mid-sixties he had hit on a money-making strategy: find cheap, run-down strip malls in high-traffic areas, spruce them up, and jack up the rent by 20 to 40 percent. He was still able to undercut the developers of newer shopping centers across the street by as much as 40 percent because he didn’t have construction costs or high interest payments on his debt. He also saved money by employing his own construction and maintenance crews rather than subcontracting those jobs out. It all worked so well that he eventually dropped his home and apartment