Jay Ellis will consider buying scenic ranchland across the West on two conditions. First, the acreage needs to be close enough to towns with “amenities” -- entertainment, places to eat, and an airport or landing strip. The parcel also needs to contain “live water,” or some combination of lakes, rivers and streams. Then, after spending an hour or two on the property, if Ellis thinks that, yes, it’s of such caliber that he’d buy it with his own money, he’ll make an offer.
Once Ellis’s private equity fund, Sporting Ranch Capital, acquires a ranch property, then begins the work of turning it into a trophy. The product (on the market after a year or two) is a “sporting” ranch, from anywhere between 200 to 1,000-acres, and costing somewhere between two and eight million dollars. Ellis’ buyers, not surprisingly, are “high net-worth individuals;” they are among those fortunate few who have, as he put it, “had a significant monetization event” in their lives, maybe more. And they’re emotional buyers—they’ve always wanted a picturesque ranch in the West.
As a first step, the Dallas-based firm arranges to spruce the place up, hauling away old trailers, rusting farm equipment, piles of trash, and “unsightly structures.” It also works to restore the land so that the new owner can enjoy hunting and fishing. Depending on the property, this could involve restructuring a river, previously degraded by cattle, by putting in the verdant banks, deep pools, and slight riffles characteristic of any stellar trout stream. They’ll even add oxbows to a river, if the hydrology allows for it. At a 516-acre property in New Mexico, the firm added four lakes. Remodeling or building ranch houses they leave to the future buyers. By the time the firm is finished, Ellis says, they’ve done everything necessary to “take what God made and make it better.”
After spending years on Wall Street, Ellis relocated to Dallas to run the equity sales desk at Morgan Stanley. He says he’s always loved the mountains, and began looking at ranches online for a hobby. Business and pleasure began to mix a few years after the housing crisis, when the market for ranches began to thaw and prices had dropped significantly from where they’d been pre-2008. With the financial backing of T. Boone Pickens, the famous Texas energy entrepreneur and conservationist, Ellis quit his job at Morgan Stanley and started Sporting Ranch Capital in 2012. The fund has since acquired five properties, three of which are on the market now, or will be soon.
The key to Ellis’ success, he says, is finding property that’s not already on the market, but whose owners are interested in selling, or could become interested. His offers are cash with a 30 day close, which can be very appealing; a ranch can take a while to sell, and the people he buys from are sometimes facing difficult financial straits. For example, perhaps none of the kids are interested in taking over the family ranching operation, or the owner is financially over-extended or is being foreclosed upon. His sellers are not always strapped for cash, though; Ellis recently purchased a 204-acre ranch on the North Provo River, near Park City, Utah, from the Mormon Church. To them it was a just rundown cattle ranch. To him, it was a fisherman’s paradise.
Ellis says he sometimes get tips on potential properties from land trusts, who see the conservation element of his work aligned with their interests. “They love us to pick up the pieces,” he says. Or he’ll simply drive around and give his card to current ranch owners with property that appeals to him. People are always friendly and keep his card. At the same time, he admits, “sometimes they’re a little wary."
Wyatt Orme is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @wyatt_orme.