Page through each issue of The Land Report in 2012, and three trends stand out:
1) Legacy properties continue to command a premium. Witness Larry Ellisonâ€™s mega-million-dollar purchase of the island of Lanai.
2) The market continues to crave income-producing properties, especially productive farmland.
3) Americaâ€™s leading landowners view stewardship as a critical element of their trust. Witness Louis Moore Baconâ€™s remarkable conservation gift, which led to the creation of the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area.
One transaction encompassed all three of these elements: the sale of Montanaâ€™s historic Broken O Ranch. The history of the Broken O predates statehood. Its legacy is peerless. And its capacity to produce cattle and prodigious amounts of grain is matchless. When these 124,000 acres changed hands in November, one passionate, innovative business- man assumed an imposing mantle that had been meticulously crafted by a peer from an earlier era. For these and so many other reasons, the Magazine of the American Landowner is proud to designate the sale of the Broken O as the 2012 Deal of the Year.
Located along a 20-mile stretch of the Sun River, the roots of the Broken O reach deep â€” to the days of the Montana Territory. Its current incarnation was masterminded by Bill Moore, founder of the countryâ€™s largest privately owned paint company, Kelly-Moore. What began in the 1980s with Mooreâ€™s acquisition of a single ranch property along the Sun River evolved into what Forbes described as â€œone of the largest agricultural operations in the Rocky Mountain West.â€
The Broken Oâ€™s new owner â€” Stan Kroenke â€” is no stranger to the land either. Kroenke ranked No. 10 on the 2012 Land Report 100; among his other ranch holdings is the largest contiguous ranch in the Rocky Mountains, the 540,000-acre Q Creek Ranch.
â€œStan looks for quality,â€ says Kroenkeâ€™s broker, Joel Leadbetter of Hall and Hall. â€œThe Broken O is so diversified with agricultural and recreational opportunities, and itâ€™s such a large continuous landscape. Thatâ€™s rare these days. The Broken O also complements and enhances the attributes of Stanâ€™s other ranches and their operations.â€
The rich and alluring history of the Broken O Ranch dates back to the 1800s, a time when cattlemen of the Lonesome Dove era ventured west to tame vast sprawling landscapes. One of those intrepid hopefuls was Daniel Flowerree, a Missourian who made his fortune in Montanaâ€™s gold fields. After settling in the Sun River Valley, his Flowerree and Lowry Cattle Company boomed, running as many as 40,000 head. Then a series of brutal winters took a bitter toll.
Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, Flowerreeâ€™s ranch was acquired by the Teton Land Company. In the decades that followed, the operation eventually grew into one of the largest cattle operations in the West. In 1945, John Hamilton of Hamilton Beach appliances purchased it.
Bill and Desiree Moore bought the Hamilton Ranch in 1988. One of Mooreâ€™s next acquisitions was a neighboring tract, the Freeman Ranch. He would forge a deep, long-lasting bond with the family. Dan Freeman became a close friend and Billâ€™s right-hand man.
Over the ensuing two-decade span, Bill Moore and Dan Freeman worked in concert, assembling more than 20 blocks of land and building the enormously successful ranching and agricultural enterprise that is in place today.
â€œAs his ranch manager for more than 20 years, Dan brought Billâ€™s dreams and his passions to fruition. It was a rare combination,â€ says Mike Swan, the sellerâ€™s broker. Swan, who was affiliated with the leading firm of Bates Sanders Swan Land Company throughout the marketing and sale of the Broken O, announced the formation of Swan Land Company in February 2013.
The Broken O is its own hedge fund,â€ Swan says. â€œProduction is at such a massive scale that any one of the individual entities could make a tremendous agricultural operation independently.â€
In addition, the Broken O features a matchless recreational component. Twenty miles of Sun River create an immense resource not only for fish but also for waterfowl, upland birds, mule deer, and elk. Thanks to the Sun River and other historic rights that date back more than a century, the Broken O is the largest private water rights owner in the State of Montana.
The ranch also enjoys close proximity to â€œthe Bob.â€ At more than 1.5 million acres, the renowned Bob Marshall Wilderness is one of the largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48.
Along with building an agricultural empire, Moore also built a reputation as a steward of the land. He improved the ranchâ€™s extensive pastures by planting native grasses. Moore placed three conservation easements on approximately 9,700 acres along the Sun River corridor. The Moores eventually became a mainstay of the community, employing a large number of locals, funding a community center in nearby Augusta, and donating to local schools and charities.
Kroenke is also no stranger to land stewardship. â€œStan bought his first ranch in 1997, and balance has always been important to him,â€ Leadbetter says. â€œHe looks at everything: the business, ecosystem, fishery, wildlife, and landscape. He always strives to be a very good steward while running sustainable ag operations.â€
A deal of this size requires a tremendous amount of preparation. Swan spent months working with Freeman and the sellerâ€™s legal team to prepare volumes of due diligence material, including inventory lists, equipment and cattle documentation, background information on 27 houses, soil reports, land title commitments in three counties, information about water rights, state and federal land leases, grazing permits, gravel permits, DEQ permits, conservation easements, and hunting leases, to name a few.
â€œThe preparation was instrumental to the successful transaction,â€ Swan says. â€œOur goal was to package the ranch to the point that when the buyer came through the door, everything they needed to know about the Broken O was at their fingertips.â€
And interested buyers did come knocking, including private investors and investment funds as well as corporate entities.
As luck would have it, Leadbetter and Swan are both based out of Bozeman; the two know each other quite well. â€œWe both grew up on ranches in Southwest Montana and have ag backgrounds,â€ Swan says. â€œWe were working with a buyer and a team that understood the materials we provided and spoke the same language. That was paramount to the transaction.â€
Of equal importance was that Leadbetterâ€™s client instantly recognized the sterling qualities of the Broken O. â€œStan looked it over, and he knew he wanted it,â€ Leadbetter says. â€œHeâ€™s that kind of guy â€” very bright â€” and wants to continue that legacy of innovative agriculture and enjoy the wildlife and fishing and all that the Broken O has to offer.â€
An especially rewarding aspect only became apparent after the closing. The central character was not present, but his legacy continues. â€œIt is a blessing we were able to sell the ranch to an individual of Stan Kroenkeâ€™s commitment to agriculture and land stewardship. My sense is that this transition will not only see a continued commitment to the current agricultural operation that William Moore established, but a continual enhancement and improvement of the ranch overall. Iâ€™m sure if Bill Moore were alive today, he would be pleased.â€ Swan says.
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