Executive Spotlight: Tim Burke of Mill Town Capital
PITTSFIELD — Like many young people who grew up here in the early 2000s, Tim Burke thought he had seen the last of the Berkshires when he graduated from high school. The local economy was different than it is now, and the opportunities for advancement were elsewhere.
That attitude hasn't completely changed over the past 20 years, especially among the region's young people. But, maturity has a way of changing a person's outlook.
Burke wound up in Boston, working in the financial side of the state's burgeoning biotechnology industry, but as the son of Hillcrest Educational Centers President and CEO Jerry Burke got older, he began to realize that the Berkshires would be a good place to raise a family. All Burke needed was a good local opportunity.
He found it as the CEO and managing director of Mill Town Capital of Pittsfield, an investment firm founded by Dave Mixer in 2016 that has invested in several local projects and most recently purchased venerable Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield.
We spoke with Burke recently about how Mill Town was formed, the company's investing strategy, and his take on Pittsfield from a younger and an older point of view.
Q: Why did you form Mill Town Capital?
A: It was really formed by Dave Mixer. He was really the founder and kind of the source behind Mill Town. He's from the Berkshires [Dalton] and was working to come back to the region and make an impact. He just needed help starting that up and seeing what it was going to look like.
Q: Where did you fit in?
A: For me, it was an opportunity to work with a guy like Dave who was really ambitious and thoughtful about what he wanted to accomplish here and having the resources to do it. It was a great opportunity to do interesting work investing in businesses, developing real estate, working hard on community projects and supporting nonprofits. It was an opportunity where we could really potentially see the results of what we were doing.
Q: What does Mill Town consider before making an investment?
A: On the business side, the first thing we consider is people. It's really all about whom the entrepreneur or the leader is within the business, and what their expertise and background is with the space. Then it's kind of considering where we can add value in that type of investment, the kind of potential that is there, not just locally, but in the market that they're in.
On the real estate side, it's a people decision, obviously, but what we do is see the potential of the neighborhood, not just the individual asset itself, but if we zoomed up to a satellite view, what is the broader potential of the neighborhood.
Q: You've invested in a lot of property along the Tyler Street corridor in Pittsfield. Did those items you just mentioned factor into your decision to do so?
A: That happened a bit more organically, but yes. Basically, we are investing partners with Dave Carver at St. Mary's on the church project. Once we made that decision, the next day we took a walk all over some of those neighborhoods on Tyler Street and decided that they had a real good residential urban fabric and we decided to be more proactive with investing in that neighborhood and helping it have high-quality housing.
Q: The city of Pittsfield has designated Tyler Street as a development area, and it's also the site of a federal economic opportunity zone. What do you think can happen over there?
A: I mean, I think those programs are nice, but ultimately I think it takes a lot of risk capital to really move the needle.
I think the neighborhood has a lot of potential. It's always been a kind of residential fabric that supported the commercial on Tyler Street. I think there's an opportunity there that with more high-quality residential over time, the commercial can come back.
Q: Why did you leave the Berkshires?
A: I left to go to college after I graduated from St. Joe [St. Joseph's High School in 2002]. I went to Bentley [University] and majored in [corporate] finance and accounting. Coming out of Bentley, all of the opportunities were out in the world, and I really didn't give a second thought about coming back right away, which, I think worked out well because I was able to get a wide range of experience both professionally and personally really all over the U.S. and in Asia.
Initially, I worked for United Technologies Corp., a manufacturing conglomerate. I was in their financial leadership program right out of college, so I was moving around every six months, learning a different part of the business every few years.
Q: Why did you come back?
A: I was working in Boston and Cambridge in the biotech industry, but we really wanted to come back here for personal reasons. Both my wife and I have family here, and I know what a great place this is to raise a family. We always thought that if we could make it work professionally, we'd give it a shot on the personal side.
Q: I remember hearing (former state Sen.) Ben Downing say something once, like when he graduated from high school the idea then was to leave Pittsfield and never come back (Downing was two years ahead of Burke at St. Joseph's). Was it like that when you graduated?
A: I would say staying in Pittsfield was just not part of the mentality then of the people I went to high school with at St. Joe or any of my colleagues at Pittsfield High or elsewhere. Everyone was kind of focused on trying to get into a good school and taking off from there.
I don't recall ever having thought that we were going to come back here someday and try to so something locally. We never even considered it, in my recollection.
Q: The Berkshire economy is different now than it was then. Do you think that attitude is changing?
A: I don't know if it's changed among high school kids. I think it's probably the same. I think it's changed among people in my generation because we're in a different phase of life.
We have young families and were more interested in the benefits the Berkshires have, which we all didn't see in high school because we were focused on school, sports and activities. We weren't really going to Tanglewood or Mass MoCA or out to dinner in Pittsfield or Lenox or any of those things. We really didn't take advantage of that when we were kids.
Q: Your father has spent his career in education. Why didn't you follow him?
A: I never had a great feel for it. He's an education guy, but he comes at things with a very businesslike approach. He got his MBA kind of halfway through his career.
He was reinforcing the mindset that if you have a business background, you can do whatever you want. I think it's just a fundamentally good place to come at things from, particularly with what we're hearing now.
Q: Is Mill Town going to continue to invest in Pittsfield, or are you planning to branch out?
A: I think our focus is on Pittsfield, but we're open-minded to investments or programs throughout the county and even beyond if they make sense. ... trying to do things in other areas there are a lot of unknowns. I think we're trying to get our heads around that, but that's where we could potentially go in the future.
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