“An American apotheosis is often built on a humbling down fall from grace”, And Charlton Claxton, has his, too, of course. Like his fellow Georgian, President Jimmy Carter, he has been described with the famous Garry Wills line, often having been used to describe President Carter, “Ferocious tenderness, detached intimacy, coolness which nonetheless suggests a proximity of lions”.
Eric Charlton Claxton, or simply Charlie as he is referred to by close friends and family. He is the young scion rebuilding his family’s business in the wake of five turbulent years of very public scandal and heart-breaking tragedy. Charlie is no stranger to scandal or success. At the surprisingly young age of thirsty-two, his career in real estate, and the hospitality business, has already seen the mountain tops of financial success and the valley of an abbreviated stay in a low-security, Martha Steward-esk federal facility in 2017.
Heading into 2020, he is now he is moving forward, reshaping his career on his own terms after his spectacular fall from grace. Armed with lessons learned from hard times, he is refocused on the importance of family, faith, and self-realization. – In this candid interview, the youngest Claxton shares his unfiltered, raw thoughts on what really happened, what the future holds, some very real emotional vulnerabilities, as well as the community conscious business decisions that are driving his comeback. He allows us to have a personal look into his life after the deaths of his younger brother Ryan and Father Edwin; his Orwellian wire fraud conviction stemming from the purchase of a four-hundred-unit apartment complex in 2012; and the personal toll the conviction, his subsequent time away from his family, and the price this exacted on his relationship, family, and closest friends.
So now that you’re firmly back in Georgia and back to work- what is life like? “Life for me these days is incredibly productive. Especially for a guy who is coming through tough times, re-establishing and reintroducing myself to folks. I try not to let anything get me down. I just look for ways to come back a better and stronger man. I’m just so incredibly thankful for the love and support of my family, and the affection and encouragement from others. I think Warren Buffet said it best, “Always be a gentleman. Be the best guy that you can be.”
Why did you agree to do this interview? “Honestly I needed to introduce myself, the real me, to those who don’t know me or they just know some bastardized version of me that they’ve gotten from a website, blog, or news report. There are definitely some who only know me through some caricature
created in the press, so I wanted this opportunity to introduce them to me, all of me….the good , bad,
A native son of South Georgia, Charlie perfectly embodies the southern gentlemen that is so often caricatured by Hollywood- Classically handsome, polite, self-depreciating, and charming to a fault. After a rough 2017, he is refocused on discharging his wider responsibilities as he reconnects and rebuilds his personal life and the family’s relaunched brand.
How did the conviction affect you professionally? “You know, this situation made me think that God has a sense of humor! It actually was a blessing in disguise…as peculiar as that may sound. The fire helped to refine and forge the man that my mother and father raised me to be. I believe that we all get knocked down in life, at the time I was very afraid that people wouldn’t want to work with me again. After the news broke of my problems, our investors were the first to call me to show me their support…. I feel that God gives us hard times so that he can watch us learn from our mistakes and hopefully rise to life’s challenges…. When I was going through this, I had many doubts, wondering if I am good enough. I wanted to be fearless but if was being honest with myself, I was scared to death. It was during this time, that I learned how to pray again (after the death of his little brother, he lost his faith for a while). Through all of this, I have learned that in order to be a success, you’ve got to learn to love failure. I’ve become a big believer that when we try our hardest but fail, but yet we still get back up and dust ourselves off, and find a solution to the problem- that’s when we grow! For me, 2017 was a year of , humility, learning, faith-affirmation, and growth.
And it seems the young Georgian and his team of legal and financial professionals are doing just that-helping Charlie to rebuild his family’s business to pick itself up, dust itself off, and push forward. They are building the company, by all accounts, into the hotel industry’s answer to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Charlie Explains:
“We have a boutique luxury hotel concept under development. We are planning to develop our first hotel in Savannah Georgia. We are gearing ourselves to provide fantastical, one-of-a-kind, curated guest experiences with a decidedly southern flavor!... our lobbies will be community centered spaces that exude energy day and night, complete with café serving coffees and cocktails, free community working space, artist exhibition space, and custom retail concepts. We are doubling down on our existing hospitality operations in Savannah-… (The company already provides high-end vacation and corporate housing with hotel-style amenities) -… The new properties will offer the very best in southern hospitality-we are striving to help our guests connect to the real communities that surround them in a meaningful way. We are hoping to foster quintessential real human connections that forge memories of savored experiences.”
The story of this once beleaguered executive is beginning to look like the future will be a happily ever after. But Charlie’s past is one that is rich and often times tumultuous; one filled with successes and failures.
How has your past influenced your decisions going forward? “There is certainly no doubt about it, My past certainly shapes how I conduct myself. Everything I do is colored through the lens of lessons learned.”
Can you tell us about losing Ryan and Edwin? “In 2007, my kid brother Ryan died on Thanksgiving morning from injuries sustained in a car crash nine days before involving a semi-truck….He was just a kid still really. He was one of those guys who had the most infectious goofy smile and laugh, Ryan was my
best friend…To be honest his death crushed my family and I, and it totally altered my view of the world and my place in it…At the time I was still in college, his death opened up a flood gate of drinking, I just couldn’t deal with his death…Looking back, I know it was the start of a problem that caused me and mine a lot of trouble and heartache in my past…After Ryan died, life continued in a pretty steady personal decline, right up until we lost Daddy very unexpectedly in September of 2016. I got the call that morning that Daddy has collapsed earlier that morning. It was at this point that I realized our time on Earth is very finite and it is up to each of us to do the best that we can. The time had come for me to sink or swim….I like to think I have finally learned to swim instead of doggy paddle.
To understand the interesting dichotomy that has created Charlie, one must understand the two men that influenced him the most growing up, his father Edwin Claxton, and his stepfather Gordon Sheppard, two very different men with two very different lessons to teach. Charlie explains: “I learned a moresensitive, giving, highly-creative approach to life from my father. He had a way of reminding me of who I am and how to give with my heart. Dad was known for being one of those kind hearted men who’d give you the shirt off his own back. He is the one that taught me to see things and people for not just what they are but what they could be…After his sudden death, I’ve now…finally, learned what he’d been trying to teach Ryan and I all of these years.”
The other man who represented the opposite personality in Charlie’s life is his stepfather. He is the near-centurion (93-year-old) Gordon Sheppard, the former CEO of construction behemoth, G.S. Sheppard Inc., one of the premier real estate developers and road builders in the South Florida. From the 1950’s-through the 1990’s, Mr. Sheppard ruled his company with an oversized iron-fist; developing large swaths of South Florida and a large portion of the interstate highway system in the state along the way.
“From Gordon I learned about work from a very early age, he trained me how to push one’s team to reach goals- through hell or high-water. He ensteeled in me a veracious work ethic. I believe his teachings can best be described by telling you about a ring that he passed down to me a few Christmas’s ago…. Gordon had the ring created after his first big deal in the 50’s. Since then he’d worn the ring every
day. It is a 24 karat gold, with a horse-shoe of diamonds, and a golden stallions head. For him, the ring symbolized meeting luck where it lay, that we create our own luck, the stallion symbolized having the courage and stamina to outrun, out last, and outperform the competition to achieve one’s goals…I guess two very different lessons from two very different men, and now after a rough few years I’ve finally found a happy balance.”
Most people can’t help admiring, even rooting for this young man who is picking himself up and using a bad situation to make himself a better man, and to wanting to help others. The old adage seems to fit “The toughest times test us all and prove who we really are”, certainly seems true in this case. As 2019 gives way to 2020, there are a couple questions that we are all still wondering about:
You were the topic of a pretty defaming article a few years back, how do you feel about that? “How much time do you have?” [He responds teasingly]..”Frankly I was eviscerated. The particular writer took a decade long career, and turned and twisted until everything was against me and I sounded like a monster! To be honest, it embarrassed me more for my family and friends. I felt bad that they had to hear such horrible and untrue things about me. I was pretty upset at the lack of facts and the careless and down-right mean way in which things were reported. I have to say, I would give them a C- for accuracy. But these days, I’m not angry…they were doing their jobs; in today’s world of 24-hour media cycles, the more outlandish the stories, they more clicks they get, the more papers they sell. When it is all
said and done, people are just people. We are all imperfect, but Lord willing we all striving to do better tomorrow.
What are some of the things you’ve learned through all of this? “I learned that when someone shows you who they are, believe them! Now in retrospect, I now see that it was a blessing and I am thankful to God that I got to see who my real friends are. Those people whom stood by me when things got ugly. I am so utterly thankful for the ones who went out of their way to stay connected to me and our family. I will love them for that for the rest of my life. And I am equally glad, on the flip side, for those other souls whom proved themselves who proved to be fair-weather friends, I am equally thankful to be rid of them. These days I see that they simply did what was best for them. I suppose the most shocking thing was when I learned that one female friend whom I trusted and loved as a sister, named Jocelyn…. I found out that though she had held herself out to our family and many many other people in Atlanta as being a high-powered attorney. When it all came out that she was more qualified to clean our rental units than having been giving us business advice, and while managing her best friend’s inheritance, she allowing it to go into foreclosure; causing him to lose his entire inheritance. In-fact she was more interested in spending my money than helping anyone, In-fact she embezzled tens of thousands from our company. I find her to be a very sad person, a compulsive liar whom has inflicted a lot of pain on many people…This realization about her was one of the things that hurt me greatly… But on a happier more professional side, I learned to always surround yourself with professionals that know better than you...accountants, attorneys, tax advisors, consultants…I learned that in order to succeed in business, I must reply upon those experts ...after we have verified their credentials (he adds in a teasing tone)…. It has to be a team effort on behalf of our investors. Frankly I learned to always document everything and to be very conscious of all of the decisions that I am making on a daily basis, and to be very careful with whom I trust.
How did it all go so terribly wrong? What really happened? The truth is subjective I suppose but I can tell you what I know to be true…. During the time that we made the deal to conduct the transaction, I
was a 20 something year old whom was drinking far too much, trying to drown the grief from Ryan’s death. I was too inexperienced to put proper financial controls in place needed for a project of that size. We had issued a combined financial statement with another company…kind of like a co-signer when you buy your first car or home… At the time we were doing a major renovation of the 400-unit apartment property, the project spanned across 24 different buildings. I failed to put industry standard accounting practices in place for the nearly seven-figure rehabilitation budget that we were spending on the property. I should have had separate construction, escrow, and operating accounts setup with their own separate checking, thus making the numbers easier to track and account for…. Instead, if a $75,000.00 invoice for roofing shingles arrived, id ship the contractor a check from the operating account where I had wired an equal amount from our construction funds. Basically my staff and I were co-mingling funds which resulted in it being next to impossible, even with help of a forensic accountant, to track the exact sources and uses of specific transactions…I created a mess….a huge mess to be honest…My actions
inadvertently made it look as if the financially struggling property was bringing in boat loads of cash each month in rent. In fact the four years before we bought the property, the seller claimed a $6,000 annual income from the property on his taxes....I believe that was the number. It really is simple math, in
the nine months that our company owned the property, how could a barely scrapping by property suddenly generate $500,000.00 in net revenue, and still have gotten all of its operational costs paid, plus the nearly $19,000 per month in interest we were paying….it simply isn’t financially possible…. But sadly for me, in Federal court, “actual loss” is very different than “potential loss”, which from my experience
seems to be as if a pie-in-the sky number was pulled from someone’s brain and that is the figure that I got stuck with… And this doesn’t take into account that the other-party whom sold us the asset, and subsequently foreclosed and took it back, was able to sale it for a seven-figure profit due to our renovations I am told…The fact is that we never began that transaction with bad intentions, and I believe that our subsequent actions after we bought it have proven this. Some of which include a very expensive renovation, the fact that we ordered all 3rd-party reports needed to complete our upcoming refinance, and we raised the property’s occupancy rate up into the high 80% range from the low 60’s…. Honestly we were trying to take a low-income housing property and breathe new life into the place, to turn it into a property that people would be proud of call their home. There are other details I could discuss but some things are perhaps best left private….But the fact remains that when it all boils down, the buck stops
here. I was in-charge, I am ultimately legally responsible for my actions and the actions of my staff. Back then I was arrogant whom didn’t bother to seek proper accounting and legal advice when I made business decisions. It was my sheer stupidity that caused me and family so much heartache.
Obviously there have been a few dissenters out there whom have had negative things to say about you since all of this happened. How do you feel about that? “There will always be negativity out there. It is very easy for someone to sit behind the safety of their keyboard or their own social circle and bully someone because they never have to look you in your eyes…. Growing up I was bullied a great deal…so it
defiantly is not new territory for me. In my experience I have learned that these people are simply unhappy in their own lives and are trying to make themselves feel better by tearing others down….I
guess it simplest to remember something my father taught me. Which is people are just people with their own fears and things they would like to change about themselves, that we are all vulnerable regardless if we want to admit that or not….I like most people made more than my fair share of screw-ups in my 20’s-
all of which I have accepted responsibility for, paid for my mistakes, and am sincerely asking for forgiveness for. I simply want to be judged by the contents of my character and my future, not my yesterdays….I have learned a lot since then, and frankly I am a better man because of the mistakes I have
made and the price I’ve had to pay for those mistakes. Throughout this process I have learned to value my failures as much as my mistakes. I do not want to hide the mistakes of my past, I want people to see them and learn….So with the guidance of my father’s memory as my moral compass, and the tutelage of a team of legal and accounting professionals, I’ll never make the same mistakes again.”
How do you see yourself right now? “I’m happy, health, with a new lease on my personal and professional life. I have paid the price and now I am ready to clear the air, give the public the facts, and get back to what matters the most- my family, friends, and the continued well-being of our employees and shareholders. I am fully putting this situation in my past and focusing on the future.”
In closing, what do you want people to know? “…That I am an open book and open heart. If you want to know something, please just ask me. I have found that when people wonder about a situation, their imagines can conjure up something far from the truth of the matter.”
After spending some time with Charlie, I now see why people have said that it is easy to find him very charming. I have often been guilty of believing things I have read without bothering to verify that truth of the story. Since the 2016 presidential election, I think that we, as Americans, have all learned to look a little closer at the facts. I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to spend time with Charlie, it certainly reminded me to look at people a little closer and to believe in the inner goodness that we as humans have within us.