Swallowed whole: Closing Company bought by giant

Businesses change hands every day, but it's not every day that a Fortune 500 company swoops into Charlottesville to pick up a local biz.

That's just what happened when LandAmerica Financial Group Inc., a Richmond-based title company that recently made Fortune's famous list, discovered the Closing Company, headquartered on Seventh Street near SNL's new home in the former spy building.

For Closing Company owner Cheri Lewis, the sale, which was final on April 2, is a way to see some corporate dreams come true.

"It's like my child," she says of the business she started on a shoestring a decade ago.

So how did a Charlottesville operation end up attracting the attention of the nation's third largest title company?

Lewis says she worked with LandAmerica on a variety of deals over the past few years, though she had never planned on selling to them. Then, last year she received an unsolicited offer from another entity. "It got me thinking," says Lewis.

LandAmerica, a 125-year-old company with 97 subsidiaries throughout the U.S., Canada, and Latin America and 2003 revenues of $3.4 billion, made her an offer she says she couldn't refuse.

The deal includes keeping the Closing Company name and logo, as well as keeping Lewis as area manager for a minimum of three years.

"LandAmerica liked the way we've done business," says Lewis.

Doug Adamson, a mortgage professional with Bank of America who's been a Closing Company client since the early days, says he's not surprised at the sale. "I think that a company like LandAmerica would come into a market and look for the strongest entity to buy," he says. "They agree with me that they've found it."

Theodore L. Chandler Jr., LandAmerica's president and C.O.O. backs him up. "It's clear that the Closing Company shares our commitment to superior customer service," he writes in an email.

As for how much LandAmerica paid for that superior customer service, Lewis is mum.

"The price was fair," she says. "They got a good deal, but we did too."

The Closing Company (which Lewis owned with Hook publisher Blair Kelly) is not LandAmerica's only recent acquisition. In 2003, according to LandAmerica spokeswoman Lloyd Osgood, the company acquired 11 title companies and three other businesses. This year, the growth rate is even faster. As of April 1, the day before the Closing Company sale, LandAmerica had acquired eight new companies.

Fortune magazine, in addition to putting LandAmerica on the famous "500," named it one of the 50 fastest growing companies as well as one of the nation's most admired companies.

"This occurrence of having a larger non-local company enter the market," says Bob DeMauri, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development, "could be an indication of more things happening like that in the future."

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

DeMauri says it's both. It's good for the small business people who have a chance to make some money on a sale, and it will likely bring more money and investments into Charlottesville. But, he says, it could be at the expense of some of the "personal contact" a smaller business typically provides.

Not to worry, Lewis says. Customers will simply get some new perks.

"The big thing," she says is having access to the enormous LandAmerica network, and letting customers track the progress of all closings online. An attorney who sits on the planning commission, Lewis says she wouldn't have minded some tracking on this business sale.

"It was a lot of work," says Lewis, citing piles of paperwork and a full audit.

Now that it's done, Lewis has her eyes on the future. Though she had already managed to build her business from one office to four (the others are in Greene, Fluvanna, and Staunton), the LandAmerica deal means the Closing Company can continue to expand. Lewis hopes to open new offices in Lexington and elsewhere in Virginia in the near future– a future she says looks pretty bright thanks to LandAmerica.

"They just want us to continue doing what we're doing," she says. "It sounds like a line, but now I really believe it."

Cheri Lewis sold the Closing Company.