Big Man Off Campus
Why one entrepreneur built his empire in a New England college town.
By David Whitford--Northampton, Mass.

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Ever since I was a baby child, the Waifs are singing. They're a folk act from Australia, appearing tonight at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass. Outside it is windy, wet, and cold. Inside it's steamy-warm. The lights are low, the food smells good, the band sounds great.

I knew I was born to roam.

Eric Suher, 40, the owner of the Iron Horse, is standing by himself in the back of the room. He's wearing his work uniform: billed cap pulled low, blue button-down Oxford, black fleece vest, khaki pants, leather walking shoes. His hands are in his pockets, shoulders slightly hunched, blue-green eyes coolly scanning the bar, the stage, the kitchen, the crowd. Suher popped in five minutes ago from the Calvin Theatre, which he also owns. (A hippie jam band called moe. is playing the Calvin tonight; it's a different scene over there--raucous and very loud.) He scampered two blocks in the rain, cutting through parking lots, jumping puddles. He'll be back and forth all night: That's how he operates. Not breathing down employees' necks necessarily, not checking the till (he counts only once, at the end of the night), but present, always present. Seven nights a week, often until 2 A.M., month after month without a break. "It's my business," Suher says simply, "and I want to be on top of it."

I had to climb to the top of the hill ...

Suher (he says it like "sure") has been tending to his business since he was a little kid in Holyoke, Mass. He was selling ice cream from a truck before he was tall enough to see over the counter. Toys meant nothing to him, according to his mother. Instead, for his seventh birthday, he received a gift subscription to the Wall Street Journal. At exclusive Deerfield Academy (Suher's idea entirely; his three brothers were content with Holyoke High), he caught the business bug so bad that he ended up blowing off college. "I taught there 44 years," says retired faculty member Peter Hindle, "and he was the only one I can remember who ever did something like that."

The absence of a college degree does not seem to have hindered Suher's progress in life. Today he presides over a thriving miniconglomerate that encompasses four live-music venues in Northampton, a $10 million silkscreen-printing company in nearby Holyoke, and about 1.2 million square feet of commercial and residential real estate.

Just to see what lies beyond.

Suher may never equal the late Bill Graham of San Francisco as a music promoter. He can't hope to match Chicago's legendary Sam Zell as a real estate baron. His silkscreen business, E-S Sports, pales in comparison to any one of the long-shuttered mills that made red-brick, hydro-powered Holyoke a major center for paper and textile manufacturing in the 19th century. It might be different if he could pick just one business and focus on it, but he loves them all too much. Suher hardly fits the B-school image of the CEO who relentlessly executes his company's core competency, but he is a familiar archetype in the landscape of American business. He's the classic small-town entrepreneur: patient, versatile, unconventional, less concerned with growth for growth's sake or even return on equity than with his own quirky ambitions--and deeply rooted in one place.

For Suher and others like him, it's not about roaming or seeing what lies beyond; it's all right here, wherever "here" may be. Every thrill, every opportunity, every outlet for passion that a life in business brings. Right here at home.

Most of my life I've been rambling free, When I die I want to come back home.

The hostess in the dining room at the hotel Northampton greets Suher with a tight smile and shows him to a table by the window. She's a former Iron Horse Entertainment Group employee, Suher later explains. He fired her when she didn't show up for work one New Year's Eve. The waitress is another story. "Eric!" she cries effusively. "She's someone who wanted to be an employee," he says. Having hired and fired hundreds of people over the years, Suher can't go anywhere in Northampton without meeting someone who works for him, used to work for him, or wants to work for him. "It's a fortunate and unfortunate situation," he says.

Suher's business career began at Deerfield, where he was co-chair of the student activities committee. "We were given a nice, hefty budget for a spring concert," he says. "I booked NRBQ and John Sebastian [of Lovin' Spoonful fame]. About four days before the concert, something just clicked in my mind. I said, 'Print some T-shirts for it!' So I did a T-shirt that said NRBQ AND JOHN SEBASTIAN on the back, and on the front it said DEERFIELD ROCKFEST. I sold 300 shirts in about an hour, just going in and out of the dormitories. Excuse me for one second." Suher is staring out the window at the Calvin Theatre across the street. He reaches for his phone. "I just saw my house manager go to lunch," he explains, "and I'm seeing the delivery truck pull up with no one home to take the beer in."

Suher made almost $2,000 selling that one batch of T-shirts, and he was transformed by the experience. It had something to do with witnessing firsthand an everyday business miracle: value creation. "I'd always loved business, but this gave me an idea," he says. "If there's such a demand for these shirts, what else is there demand for on the shirt side of things? It wasn't even about the money. It was about the excitement of doing something new that no one [at Deerfield, anyway] had done before."

For years Suher had been a solid student, but in the fall of senior year, he says, "I basically stopped opening the books." He applied to Amherst but was deferred once they saw his winter grades. UMass accepted him, but by then it was moot. He had made up his mind to follow what he says felt like "the natural progression"--out of the classroom and into business for himself.

As his classmates marched off to the Ivy League, Suher went on the road with NRBQ, selling hats and T-shirts at every show. He told his former teachers, his parents, even himself that college was still in his plans. His father--a cattle dealer who had dropped out of college to join the Army--never believed him. "He was pissed," Suher says. His mother was crushed. "I wasn't just crying, I was sobbing," says Betty Suher, recalling the Deerfield commencement ceremony. "Through the whole thing, sobbing. How could he do that to me?"

Within a year, Suher quit pretending. Tired of hassling with suppliers, he spent $20,000 of his saved-up money on silkscreen machinery. "Once I made the commitment on the equipment, there was no turning back," he says. Back home in Holyoke in the summer of '84, he set up shop in a rented former radio station studio on Dwight Street, but right away he was looking to buy. He soon found what he was looking for in a rundown mill building on Jackson Street--formerly American Thread Works, now E-S Sports. Eventually he bought the entire block.

'This was my first building in Northampton," says Suher, pausing briefly in front of 21 Center Street, opposite the Iron Horse. Lunch is over, and Suher is showing a visitor around town. "The restaurant opened a year ago. In the basement I have a little club that has live music six nights a week." Northampton (pop. 28,978) suits Suher and his ambitions. Smith College is here, the campus spilling onto Main Street less than half a mile from the Calvin and the Iron Horse. There are 14 colleges and universities in the surrounding Pioneer Valley, with a total student population of 65,000--a happy demographic for landlords and nightclub owners alike. And the valley is filled with still-solid Industrial Age buildings: not just factories and mill buildings but churches, schools, and civic landmarks of all kinds, many of which now reside in Suher's real estate portfolio.

"That's the building I just picked up--the Masonic Lodge," says Suher, continuing west on Center before angling back toward Main. "It was vacant. I may end up converting it to office space for myself and a residential unit or two.... The bank building is mine. Just an absolutely beautiful building. It's been vacant for three years. It's one of those tough projects. It needs a real specific tenant.... That's my church, the old First Baptist. Every window is stained glass. I paid $125,000 for it in 1993. We're going to turn it into a venue for same-sex weddings; we have the largest per-capita lesbian population in the country. But I've got to get in there soon or I'll be looking at a pile of rubble."

A quarter mile beyond the church, Suher's tour ends in front of the former National Felt building on West Street. It's a classic Suher project: a sturdy, red-brick relic, bought from the bank at the bottom of the market, lovingly restored to preserve the wood floors, open rafters, and lofty interior spaces, and now filled with high-end professional tenants, including a rare-book dealer and Suher's architect.

Teri Anderson, Northampton's economic-development coordinator, praises Suher for his "good sense of history and architectural preservation." Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, says Suher is "probably the first person who comes to mind when we're thinking about people who have invested in the community and shown great optimism." That said, Suher seems to make Northampton officials a little nervous, partly because he owns so many buildings and partly because he doesn't talk much about his plans. "He's an unusually private person," says Beck. "People would love to know more about the why."

In Holyoke as in Northampton, Suher looks for distressed, historically significant properties that he can buy cheaply, refurbish, and eventually rent out. Though he did most of his serious buying in the depressed early 1990s, picking up other people's mistakes, he's not a classic speculator. Once he buys, he holds on forever. "I hate selling," he says. Suher would rather pay taxes on an empty building (which he can afford to do because he has very little debt) while he decides what to do with it. He has had several offers in the past few years from developers who wanted to convert his crumbling church in Northampton into condominiums, for example. But Suher is keen on the concept of a same-sex wedding chapel with catered dining in the vestry. And besides, condos are not his game. Suher's enthusiasm for real estate is based on another everyday business miracle: the way that properly managed assets can produce an endless stream of income.

"Anybody in real estate will say guys like me are probably not smart," says Suher, who refuses to buy high on the hope prices will go higher still. "I'm very careful, maybe a little bit too conservative. I could have made a lot more money over the last few go-go years just by speculating more. But we're in a major real estate bubble right now. Someone is going to get caught holding the bag, and I don't want it to be me."

'Okay, guys, all set?" it's seven on a rainy Thursday evening, the night of the moe. show. Suher swings open the heavy doors of the Calvin Theatre and kicks down the door stops. "Have your IDs out if you're drinking!" Knowing his customers, Suher has called in a posse of black-shirted bouncers who normally work Pearl Street, the rowdiest of his Northampton venues. As the young patrons press forward, the black shirts match licenses to a book of templates from all 50 states, slap wristbands on the qualifiers, and subject the males to full-body pat-downs. "Trevor," Suher shouts above the din, "I'm opening up another line. Figure it out!" He ducks into the box office, emerging moments later with a deck of tickets and a fistful of ones. General admission is $24. "With kids it can't be over $25," he explains. Waving both hands over his head now and wading into the crowd, Suher is open for business.

Suher used to take his girlfriend to the movies at the Calvin. The building was falling apart; they were nearly bombed one time by a piece of falling plaster. Built in 1924 and named for Calvin Coolidge, the Calvin was once part of a chain of glitzy show palaces that stretched from Connecticut to Vermont. It finally closed in 1994, done in by the multiplex plague and the same economic downturn that allowed Suher to start buying Northampton real estate on the cheap. The Calvin stood vacant for years.

But Suher was watching. He cultivated a relationship with Ronald Goldstein, son of one of the original owners and a fellow promoter who dearly hoped to see the Calvin reopen as an entertainment showcase. "I think I understood him," says Suher. "He also loved music. I'd share with him my thoughts and ideas in terms of the building."

One afternoon in late 1996, the phone rang in Suher's office. "It was Mr. Goldstein," Suher recalls. "He said, 'I'm going to take your offer.' He wanted a deposit right away. The day after we signed the papers, I got a phone call from some well-known developers in New England. They offered me $750,000. That's nearly double what I paid for it."

Suher thought about it, hard. But that's not why he bought the Calvin. As with all his real estate acquisitions, Suher hoped to save it, draw income from it--and in this case, not incidentally, cement his hold on the live-music scene in Northampton. By then he already had rescued the Iron Horse, another storied venue that had fallen on hard times. Today it hosts over 300 live shows a year. When an act gets too big for the Iron Horse, it can play Pearl Street, which Suher bought in 1998, and eventually the Calvin. Northampton today has a live-music scene to rival Boston's, largely because of Suher--his will, his ambition, his hold on yet another small miracle of business: its ability to shape the whole world, or at least one one small piece of it.

This has been a tough year for Suher. His dad passed away suddenly last spring. His golden retriever, Stedman, a companion for 14 years, died over the summer. In the fall he and Erin Peterson, his girlfriend for the past nine years, decided to take a breather. ("I've learned his work is his life, for now," Peterson explained in an e-mail.) Gretchen Hitchner, a girlfriend from way back, knows the feeling. "He was three hours late for our first date," she recalls. Suher used to talk about going to college when he turned 40, but he's no more ready to sit in a classroom today than he was 20 years ago. In fact he's beginning to accept that he may never be ready, just as he may never be ready for marriage or even a permanent address. Suher bought a big house in Holyoke 14 years ago. It's a white Colonial on a tree-lined street, with a fenced-in yard that Suher's dog could run around in, if Suher had a dog, and a nearby school that his kids could walk to, if he had any kids. The house is empty. Suher renovated it from top to bottom but still hasn't moved in. "The kitchen is already outdated!" his mom exclaims. "Never used it, and it's outdated!"

Suher's kid brother Frank, his partner in E-S Sports, just celebrated his tenth wedding anniversary. Even some of the musicians Suher has known for years are settling down and raising families. Suher, meanwhile, still works late nearly every night. He sleeps in a spare apartment in town (he has plenty of those). He eats on the fly and rarely has time for movies or parties or dinner with friends. "It's a very, very strange thing when I think about everything I've given up," says Suher.

But here he is driving through Holyoke now, on streets he's known his whole life, past buildings whose history he studied in school, buildings he owns. He parks outside an empty one, fishes for his keys, and opens the door. Now he's bounding up a narrow flights of steps. "Watch out for the dead pigeon!" he says. He climbs another two flights and arrives on the top floor. It's a ghostly space, big as a gymnasium, absolutely empty. Sunlight streams through wrinkled windows and sets the dusty air aglow. "You can do anything with these buildings," Suher says excitedly. "Look at these wings. Great stuff! Great stuff!"