LOVE, HONOR AND DEVELOP Taking a big gamble in a slow economy, a husband-and-wife team of young MBAs tries to revive a Towson landmark.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The wedding vows between Laura and Charlie Moore could have gone something like this: Do you promise to love, honor and go into business with your spouse?

Just as sure as Mr. Moore was in 1980 that he wanted to marry his college sweetheart after graduation from Dartmouth College, was equally certain that he wanted to form a business partnership with her as well.

"All of my business experiences since college were geared toward attaining the goal of working with Laura on our own project," Mr. Moore says.

So 10 years, two MBAs and several work experiences later, Laura M. and Charles P. Moore have emerged in Mr. Moore's hometown of Baltimore "like a breath of fresh air," according to one observer.

For their first joint project, they have become wedded to an idea on a scale as grand as the landmark Hutzler's department store they want to revamp.

The plan is to convert the four-story, Art Deco building in Towson -- which in 1952 ushered in the age of the big suburban store -- into an upscale home furnishings mall. Called the DECOR Home Fashion Center, it would house up to 90 vendors in its 200,000-square-foot space, selling everything from furniture to antiques to lighting, art, china and bath fixtures.

Through their recently created Emporium Development, the Moores will provide Its location next to an expanding Towson Town Center, its high profile atop the hill at York and Joppa roads and its proximity to Towson Commons -- a commercial and office development rising along the west side of York Road between Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues -- has county leaders abuzz about the prospects of DECOR being the much-needed link between Old Towson and New Towson.

"The key, in my mind, is returning this grand dame of a building, a large vacant building in the county seat, into a bustling commercial center again," says Dick Story, director of economic development for Baltimore County. "DECOR is something that appears to be able to do that. It is another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of downtown Towson."

San Diego-based Hahn Co., owner of Towson Town Center and the adjacent Hutzler's building, is willing to give the Moores a chance. The proposals it has received for the building include a cultural arts center, an office building and a general merchandise retail mall.

But, says Hahn spokeswoman Kim Wenrick, the DECOR concept "seemed the most complementary" to the ambience Towson Town is trying to create in its evolving regional shopping giant, which will include Nordstrom and other high-brow tenants when it is completed in 1992.

The 50-year-lease the Moores are negotiating with Hahn has myriad, undisclosed planning and design requirements that must be fulfilled before the deal is done.

Emporium Development has only until the summer to sign the lease with Hahn, so the Moores have begun a marathon search for tenants in places such as Boston, New York and Baltimore.

But with the economy in recession and no clear sign of a recovery, the big question for the Moores is whether they will be able to fill up their tenant roster with 90 upscale vendors who are willing to make a firm commitment by midyear.

Sources involved in the project, who declined to be identified because the Moores are reluctant to discuss specific retailers they have contacted, say the couple has spoken at length with well-known several home furnishing chains but has received commitments from none of them. The sources identified those retailers as Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma and Casa Nova.

A spokesperson at Illinois-based Crate & Barrel said the housewares chain had been approached about being an anchor store at DECOR, but the retailer was "not considering the market at this time." Officials at Williams-Sonoma, a kitchenware specialist, and Casa Nova did not return phone calls.

Mrs. Moore says Emporium has high expectations for a letter of intent from Domain -- a posh Boston-based home furnishings store with Virginia locations in Tysons Corner and Pentagon City.

"The initial aspirations for the project, which are very, very high-end, will be watered down a bit in order to fill the center up" with tenants, predicts Darrell Davidson, who will do the retail design work for Emporium through his firm, Davidson Design & Development Consultants.

Another issue is financing. The Moores say they have an unspecified number of financial partners, but they are still searching for capital.

"We're still short of the $15 million needed for work on the building," Mr. Moore says. That figure doesn't include the parking structure that has to be built in order to ease county concerns about traffic and overcrowding.

Despite the tentative nature of the project, the couple has managed to build a following of Moore supporters who are taken with their "youth, intestinal fortitude and energy," says Robert H. Levi, former chairman and president of Hecht Co., whom the couple first contacted locally about their home fashion center.

At ages 31 and 33 respectively, Laura and Charlie Moore impress observers with their polished presentation, comprehensive research and educational and business backgrounds.

The two met during Freshman Week at Dartmouth in 1976: Charlie Moore, the handsome, lacrosse-star son of a prominent Baltimore banker, and Laura Murphy, the pretty, athletic daughter of a commercial fisherman on Cape Cod, Mass., fell in love over a game of table tennis.

The ball bounced to the ground. Laura picked it up and winked. The rest, the two say, is history.

While in college, Mr. Moore, a lacrosse star at the Gilman School, became a two-time All-American. Miss Murphy directed her attentions to bucking the mostly-male establishment at Dartmouth. The college had just gone co-ed shortly before she entered the freshman class and she founded its second sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.

They married in the summer of 1980 after graduation, and Laura went on to Harvard to get her MBA and Charlie went to Boston College to get his. She then went to work as a consultant and manager at Boston-based Bain & Co., one of the top five strategy management firms in the world. There, Mrs. Moore specialized in the strategies needed to make shopping centers successful.

Mr. Moore has been involved in several different venture capital and growth company operations since he received his MBA.

Douglas B. Riley, Towson's new county councilman, recalls being approached by a friend and legal colleague to see the DECOR duo in mid-December.

"I said, 'I can see them in 10 minutes or I can see them next week,' " recounts Mr. Riley. "Now, I was at my office in Towson and they were downtown and somehow they got here. I don't know how they did it, but they got here."

"They struck me as being young and extremely energetic, but in control of the situation," Councilman Riley recalls. "They seemed as if they had done their homework."

The homework the Moores have done show there are more than 90,000 households in the Towson area earning $75,000 a year or more, the prime target market for DECOR.

Also, using the Cocooning Theory -- the idea that baby boomers are going to direct their dollars to beautifying their homes throughout the 1990s -- Emporium is predicting impressive sales of $500 per square foot.

The idea of a center devoted exclusively to home furnishings is hailed as a good one by industry experts, who say the only centersof its kind are places such the Architects & Designers building in New York, which caters almost exclusively to decorators shopping for their clients.

"Everyone is going to lean to upscale in the '90s with regard to home furnishings," says Richard Udouj, director of the New York-based Home Furnishings Council, which was created a few years ago to heighten consumer awareness about interior decorating. "It may not necessarily come from Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley. Sears and J. C. Penney will start going upscale too."

The winning idea for a home fashion center came on a camping trip by a lake in New Hampshire in the summer of 1988.

"We realized the potential of a mall devoted to a single category besides apparel," Mr. Moore says. "There is a mall in Germany devoted exclusively to electronics and we thought what was good about that idea and what was bad. We thought, what other categories would make a good shopping experience?"

"Home furnishings just made the most sense. We are rehabbing XTC our house in Boston and we often came home frustrated, tired and empty-handed, having driven 20 minutes here and 30 minutesthere," Mrs. Moore says, adding that the average affluent sofa buyer goes to 4.5 stores before buying one.

But no matter how well-thought-out and logical the DECOR concept, when Laura returned from her camping trip her plan surprised her colleagues and supervisors at Bain.

She was making "well north of six figures" a year, says William Achtmeyer, Mrs. Moore's supervisor at Bain. "Then she decided to take off with Charlie on this grandiose scheme. She was heading on the partner track, definitely. I made it clear that if the venture doesn't work, I'd like her to come back."

Laura Moore graduated from high school two years early and seemed destined for a quick trip along the fast track. At Bain, she was promoted from consultant to manager in a record two years, Mr. Achtmeyer says, primarily because of her ability to work with people and solve problems.

During Mrs. Moore's years there, Bain was growing about 30 percent to 40 percent a year. People were often very heady and charged, but she was known by co-workers to be very calm.

"You'd give her 24 hours to put together a corporate strategy and she'd smile at you and do it," Mr. Achtmeyer says.

"I saw Laura as a person who quietly works within the corporate cycle," says former Bain co-worker Tina Rodriguez, who now has her own consulting firm in Baltimore. "It was a surprise that she would decide to go out on her own."

By her own admission, Mrs. Moore saw herself rising up the corporate ladder rather than being engulfed by an entrepreneurial spirit. "My whole notion of success was making it up the corporate ladder of a large company. I loved it at Bain, but this is all very, very exciting," Mrs. Moore says.

So it is Charlie Moore who is seen by friends, associates and even himself as the driving force in initiating a joint project.

"Every time Laura had a case in shopping center strategy, I would look for an entrepreneurial opportunity," he says.

Mr. Moore started selling strawberries in his Homeland neighborhood at the tender age of 10 to buy a baseball glove and began a camp for young boys in Green Spring Valley at the age of 16.

But it was his experience working as a chief financial officer for two years at Davicon, a Boston-based medical instruments company, that onlookers say made his own endeavor an obsession.

Davicon was growing rapidly on the strength of a licensed medical technology to alleviate back pain. Mr. Moore believed the only way Davicon could reach its full potential was to share control of the company with its financial investors.

The chief executive of the company disagreed. The two had a falling out and Mr. Moore left, and he and Laura came up with the DECOR idea only a few months later on their camping trip.

OC "Davicon was the reinforcing experience that made me positive I

wanted to implement my own decisions rather than the decisions of others," Mr. Moore says.

Friends say that what also may be giving Mr. Moore the burning desire to make it on his own is that he feels he has something to prove. His father was a successful banker with Equitable Trust for 20 years before starting Moore & Co., a real estate development and financial consulting firm downtown, where Emporium now rents space.

And the fact that Charlie Moore got his business degree from Boston College while his wife received hers from Harvard is not lost on onlookers either.

"Charlie wants to have something to prove. He has a wife who has done very well and has very impressive academic credentials. He has a father who is also very successful," says a friend who wanted to remain anonymous. "Charlie is very competitive."

He is also a good marketer, manager and negotiator, says Robert A. W. Brauns, a former client of Mr. Moore.

"He once went into a negotiation asking $250,000 in capital for my company and came out with half a million," Mr. Brauns says.

Mr. Moore's ability to pump money from wells that appear dry is going to be tested heavily in the slumping economy. Some people have wondered aloud about the effects this pressure-cooker situation could have on the Moores' 10-year marriage.

Thousands of couples went into business together in the 1980s, and those who divorced often found their enterprises had collapsed with the marriage.

"I was surprise Charlie wanted to go into business with Laura," says Mr. Brauns. "This is hard stuff to do with a spouse."

But Mr. Moore sees things differently. "Having a partner you love, trust and respect greatly can be a plus for business. I think that I trust Laura's judgment more than anyone else's in the world."

So, the two set about their plans for the DECOR Home Fashion Center. If Towson is successful, the Moores are fixing up a scheme to start 20 such malls around the country.

Both Laura and Charlie say they refuse to believe that the poor economy could stop them. Friends of both say the couple can be pretty headstrong, but Mrs. Moore is most often cited for the trait.

"One thing about Laura, once she has formulated a point of view, she can be very insistent about backing that even though the facts may prove otherwise," Mr. Achtmeyer says.

For her part, Mrs. Moore says it's not a matter of being headstrong, but in being confident her research spells success. "I come to my decisions thoughtfully. I don't shoot off at the hip," she says. "So once I come to a decision, I stick to it."

So, with the decision made, the Moores are forging ahead in spite of the doubters.

"Quite honestly, we both feel so strongly that this is going to succeed that we haven't even thought about failing," says Mr. Moore.

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