Fifteen years of cultivating relationships culminated in the deal of a lifetime for Robert Morford, when his Nassau Street based firm, Garibaldi, Morford & Dodds, sold four Bristol-Myers Squibb (B-MS) buildings to a Boston-based investment firm, Eaton Vance Management. The $283 million deal included three buildings on Scudders Mill Road and one at 100 Nassau Park Boulevard. It did not include development rights on Scudders Mill. B-MS will rent back the buildings on a 10-year lease.

“This is the capstone of my career so far, the largest we have ever done in dollar volume,” says Morford, who has represented the pharmaceutical firm since 1992. He bought the Nassau Park building for B-MS in 1996 and represented B-MS in the purchase of the Hopewell property in 1997.

Deals like this — to sell the real estate and lease it back — are always an option for any company, Morford points out, and B-MS has been considering it for six years. But this year, with investors eager to diversify, the capital markets were “incredibly strong,” he says. “There is a lot of money looking for very few deals.” Bidders were varied, “ranging from REITs (real estate investment trusts), to developers teamed up with foreign money, to big equity funds like Vance.”

It was a crunch to get the properties on the market. Morford and his cohorts, who include Gerald E. Moore Jr. and Gerald A. Bower, started working on the deal only in July, loading volumes of information to get ready for an online auction. Bidding was spirited; the deal closed on December 14 and was announced on January 22.

The Scudders Mill Road properties brought an average price of $349.86 per square foot, according to CoStar, a commercial real estate database. The three five-story buildings total 657,408 square feet and their prices ranged from $70.5 million to $80 million. About 1,900 of the 7,500 B-MS employees in New Jersey work on Scudders Mill Road.

At 100 Nassau Park Boulevard the price was about $53 million for the three-story, 215,141-square-foot building, which amounts to about $246.35 per square foot. Bristol-Myers Squibb’s 935 employees occupy just part of the building. B-MS retains ownership of its properties in Lawrenceville, Hopewell, Skillman, New Brunswick, Hamilton, and Hillside.

In comparison, two nearby buildings at 100 and 150 College Road, which have 302,560 square feet, sold for about $71.5 million in March, 2005, an average price of about $317 per square foot.

“Bristol-Myers Squibb monetized its assets in a time when the rate of return is low,” says Jerry Fennelly of NAI Fennelly. “By pulling the cash out of their buildings, they can pay for a lot of things.” Bristol-Myers is in the process of building a $110 million generic drug manufacturing plant in upstate New York, and this deal will more than pay for it.

“Bristol-Myers Squibb credit drove this deal; the buyers bid on the credit worthiness of the tenant,” says Morford. “We got not only a handsome price, but also the flexibility of shorter leases.” He declined to tell the leasing price.

A graduate of the University of Delaware, Class of 1974, Morford left an office on Palmer Square to join Peter Dodds in the company Garibaldi, Morford & Dodds, associated with Corfac International.

Morford must have inherited the real estate gene from his grandfather, who was the director of real estate, worldwide, for the Singer sewing machine company. And what he learned from his grandfather is a lesson assimilated by his pharmaceutical client: never own property next to a vacant lot unless you buy the vacant lot.

It seems that, at one point. B-MS offered to sell, not only the buildings, but also the development rights to the adjacent land. Developers, specifically the real estate investment trusts (REITs) eagerly bid on those rights. But then B-MS took the development rights out of the auction. It’s the same maxim: If you don’t own the neighboring lot, you can’t dictate what is built there.

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