Brian Eckel can be kind of intense. Paul Loukas noticed it the first day he started working at Eckel’s Wilmington-based real estate firm, Cape Fear Commercial, in 2010.
“I came into the office at 8 o’clock, and I was expecting some warm welcome with small talk, you know … and I see nobody’s talking to me,” Loukas said. “Everybody has their heads down, and I ultimately realized it was because everybody’s so busy.”
Then Eckel walked by with his head down, talking on his phone and pacing back and forth. “"It was as if he's working on closing a $100 million deal,” Loukas said.
Loukas asked Eckel about it later that day, saying, “Wow, that was really intense – must be some big deal.”
No, Eckel explained. It was a 1,500-square-foot lease.
And that’s the way Eckel works, Loukas said. “Everything’s the most important thing … it’s not necessarily driven by whether you’re making more money here or more there; it’s literally: Do the best thing possible,” said Loukas, now broker in charge at Cape Fear Commercial (CFC). “And he really always believes that one deal leads to three deals so you gotta operate that even your smallest client could be your biggest client one day ... It was an eye-opener for me.”
Fast forward 13 years later, and Eckel’s company, which he founded here with childhood friend Vin Wells in 2001, is one of Wilmington’s top commercial real estate and development firms, with millions of dollars in development projects across the Carolinas.
That alone is enough to place Eckel in the business community’s spotlight. But Eckel has also been involved in numerous examples of high-profile work outside Cape Fear Commercial, including serving on the Partnership Advisory Group that evaluated selling New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health and being appointed to Novant Heath’s corporate board. Development projects include the county’s new government building, Autumn Hall’s growing office campus and now taking over Project Grace.
A PROJECT UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
In 2023, Eckel faced criticism from State Treasurer Dale Folwell after Eckel and his firm began working with New Hanover County to resurrect a dead redevelopment project.
Project Grace reimagines the use of a county-owned downtown Wilmington block bordered by Third, Chestnut, Second and Grace streets. The property, about 3 acres, includes the main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library and a 650-space parking deck.
After working on the project since 2016, the Project Grace partnership between Zimmer Development Co. and New Hanover County died when the Local Government Commission failed to approve its financing plan in 2022.
This October, the LGC, which reviews debt issuance requests by municipalities, approved the county’s nearly $56 million financing plan for the CFC version of Project Grace by only one vote.
The treasurer said his objection to the sale of Wilmington’s hospital to Novant Health and his criticisms of the hospital’s quality after the sale are separate issues from Project Grace. But he draws a parallel between Eckel’s role on Novant’s board and his firm’s involvement in Project Grace and other New Hanover County and Wilmington deals as smacking of a conflict of interest.
The treasurer has also repeatedly cited the involvement of Eckel’s company and colleagues in other city and county transactions as the basis for his concerns.
During an interview in November, Folwell said, “I think that the people of New Hanover County and Wilmington deserve a much higher level of sunshine and transparency than to have every single transaction have one person’s or one company’s fingerprint.”
TAKING A LEAP
Eckel, his colleagues and public officials have disagreed with the treasurer’s view.
“I am proud of the work that has been done and the significant cost savings of more than $4.5M that has been provided (through CFC’s efforts on Project Grace), and we will never apologize for hard work and trying to be the best we can,” Eckel wrote in an email in August. “We are excited, and we will continue to work hard to make Project Grace a reality and continue to bring positive things to this community.”
New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet noted that over the past five years, the county has awarded or completed 19 capital projects, of which only two involved CFC’s development division– the Government Center and Project Grace.
“We stand by all of those projects and are proud of all of those partnerships. The county is always transparent in our capital plans and purchasing policy and practices. In every engagement and agreement, the county has followed the letter of the law, ensuring it was open to any qualified firm,” Coudriet said.
As part of the CFC/county plan, the project will still include a new library and Cape Fear Museum as well as a minimum (as stipulated in the county’s and CFC’s development agreement) of $30 million in private development.
“Project Grace is a unique, generational, community-building opportunity. It is not a get-rich opportunity,” said Chris Boney, chief relationships officer at Project Grace’s architecture firm LS3P. “It is a much more nuanced thing. For Brian and his partners to take that on, it was a big leap of faith.”
WORKING THEIR WAY UP
Eckel and Wells also took that leap when they decided to form CFC.
Eckel, born in 1973 in Virginia, moved to Wilmington in 1974. His family lived in Echo Farms, and he met his wife, Carroll Trask, in Wilmington when he was 15 years old.
Before starting Cape Fear Commercial with Wells, Eckel worked in Atlanta for Ackerman & Co., representing Fortune 500 companies and tech startups.
Wells worked for a publicly traded real estate investment trust. At a mutual friend’s wedding in 1999, Wells and Eckel started talking about creating their own commercial real estate venture.
“When Vin and I started the business, we had 100 breakfasts and 100 lunches all at Sweet & Savory,” Eckel said, referring to a restaurant off Eastwood Road near Wrightsville Beach.
Outside of the cafe, their office was Wells’ house on Wayne Drive, where they discussed their need to build a client base, Eckel said.
“The only way we knew to do that was just go talk to people,” he said. “For the first two years, Vin and I were just grinding every day to try and get business. We were the property manager. We were the development arm. We were everything.”
They were even the post-hole diggers for two years, putting up their signs at properties they had listed. Although they’ve hired people to put up signs since then, they embarked on a recent job themselves for old times’ sake.
“We thought it was fitting to return to our roots, and we personally put up signs on the Project Grace site,” Eckel said. “That was a special moment for us to remind us of where we came from and how we care about our hometown.”
Eckel and Wells have grown their business to 40 brokers and staff members.
“One thing we believe in is talent and building a strong team,” Eckel said.
Eckel said CFC employees seem to like the culture Wells and Eckel have built. “Most people don’t leave, which is a good sign we’re doing something right.”
Eckel said he feels his co-founder deserves much of the credit for the firm’s success. Wells is “really the anchor of this company, even though for some reason I get thrown into the spotlight,” Eckel said. “This company would not be where it is today without Vin Wells.”
Eckel describes himself as a creature of habit.
He wakes up a few hours before dawn and eats the same breakfast almost every day: an omelet made with two egg whites and spinach. His lunch is delivered from the restaurant K-Bueno to his office, and it, too, is always the same: chopped salad with grilled chicken.
The 49-year-old (he turns 50 on Dec. 13) finds an hour or more each day to spend at the gym before returning to work.
“Nobody works harder than Brian Eckel,” said Boney, who is not just a colleague on the Project Grace development team but also a longtime friend of Eckel’s. “I don’t think Brian sleeps at all. And he’s constantly thinking about how to improve his own business, the hospital and the community at large.”
But he also finds time to play.
“Whether it’s golf or surfing or kiteboarding or working out, he’s got to find outlets for his energy,” Boney said, “and he never does anything halfway.”
Eckel said he loves to travel, adding that he and his wife raised his kids by taking surfing trips to places like Costa Rica and El Salvador.
“I love anything outdoors – paddle boarding, hunting, offshore fishing,” Eckel said. “One of my favorite hobbies is bow hunting.”
The Eckels take a family trip once a year.
“I have to have somewhere on my calendar to go,” he said, adding that their next big trip is a two-week safari.
Three of his four children are pursuing careers in business. The Eckels’ daughter Madeline is a senior at Clemson University, graduating in May from business school, while their son, Web, is a freshman at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in business school. His youngest daughter, Lucy, attends Hoggard High School, and the oldest of the four, Julia, 23, works as a development coordinator at Cape Fear Commercial.
Eckel does sometimes take his work home.
“I get messages from Brian at 3 in the morning with an idea. ‘Have you thought about this? Wouldn’t it be cool if we do this? We can make this project better if we do this.’ And it’s just constant, and it’s a great thing,” Boney said. “He truly has the community’s best interests at heart. And yeah, people think about developers a certain way, but with Brian, what you see is what you get.”
Cape Fear Commercial Projects
Cape Fear Commercial, founded by Vin Wells and Brian Eckel in Wilmington in 2001, creates apartment projects and mixed-use developments in the Wilmington area and beyond. The following are just a handful of projects in CFC’s development pipeline.