Eric Unkauf didn't set out to be a landlord, an environmentalist, or a patron of the arts. When he bought his first old factory building in Glens Falls in 1994, he was simply doing his homework.
At the time, he was a 24-year-old graduate student in electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, working on a thesis project to design and manufacture wind turbines. He needed factory space, and Glens Falls offered some of the cheapest real estate in the region.
With the backing of RPI and two commercial partners, Unkauf bought a dilapidated industrial property at 153 Maple St. for about $137,000. The 25,000-square-foot brick building had been many things in its lifetime - a stable, a speakeasy, and a Pearl's warehouse outlet, to name a few - but when Unkauf acquired it, the structure was "one step up from a shell," he said.
"This was really on the outer fringe of where we were looking, and it wasn't necessarily love at first sight. The windows were boarded up, and the plumbing and wiring was pretty minimal," he said. "But it was cheap."
Unkauf's demeanor is deceptively low-key. He's 36, with a boyish face beneath his beard. His blue eyes light up when he describes how an industrial valve functions, but his gaze slides toward his work boots when he has to talk about himself. He wears a blue machinist's uniform with his name lettered on the chest, and tends to fidget and slouch in his office chair.
He doesn't look like the owner of two businesses and three industrial buildings in the Glens Falls area, with 22 employees and more than 50 tenants in about 380,000 square feet of property.
"If you'd asked me 10 years ago what my vision was, I probably would have been way off the mark from where I am now," he said. "I think you have to start with some vision, but also be flexible. To some extent, what I'm doing is constantly adapting as the situation changes."
He's predicting that most of us will have to start doing the same thing within a few decades, as the world's oil supply dwindles. That's why his latest business ventures focus on alternative forms of energy - biodiesel fuel and wind power. He said it's too early to discuss the details of the wind energy project yet, but "it's pretty innovative stuff."
He recently applied for funding to start a business manufacturing biodiesel refiners. Biodiesel is a cleaner-burning diesel fuel made from vegetable oil, and although Unkauf is realistic about its potential to replace petroleum - "there's no way to produce enough of this stuff" - he thinks of it as a step in the right direction. He currently collects used cooking oil from about 100 restaurants in the region, which he refines and burns as heating fuel for one of his properties.
"My feeling is that in the not-too-distant future, there's going to be a real energy shortage. There's going to be a real need for any kind of alternative," he said. "Even the most optimistic person will tell you that the oil's not going to last forever."
Unkauf's knack for adaptation served him well when his partners pulled out of the wind turbine project not long after he bought the Maple Street property 12 years ago.
"I wound up with the building and equipment, and had to find something to do with it," he explained.
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He split the building's second floor into four smaller spaces, and soon had tenants, including a metallurgist and a cabinet maker.
On the first floor, Unkauf opened his own machine shop, which he dubbed KMA (Kauf Manufacturing and Automation) Corp. He never finished his thesis and said he doesn't plan to return to it. In the long run, his most useful lessons have been self-taught.
"I was around machines a lot as a kid," he said. "Even though I'm only 36, I probably have like 26 years of experience working with machines."
His German-born father, Manfred, is an electrical engineer for Raytheon who started a side business in second-hand machinery when Eric was in grade school. The two spent weekends and summer vacations together, fixing up old machines in the backyard of their home in Franklin, Mass.
"He bought and sold machine tools from plants that were closing in Massachusetts," explained Unkauf. "We moved it all ourselves, no matter how heavy it was … I knew how to run some of those machines by the time I was 10 years old."
As an adult, Unkauf is taking his father's strategy a step further, buying entire factory buildings instead of just the equipment.
His most recent purchase, in 2002, was the old Chase Bag factory in Moreau, which houses a few dozen small businesses. Describing the solid structure, his face comes alive with enthusiasm.
"I really fell in love with the facility itself; I've never seen such rugged construction," he said. "Not only are the walls and floor concrete, but all the roof decks are concrete!"
Unkauf also owns the Shirt Makers building on Lawrence Street in Glens Falls, which he bought in 1998. The massive brick building housed the Troy Shirt Makers Guild for most of the 20th century, and its wood floors still bear the scars of heavy mill equipment.
Although Unkauf's original plan was to find a few big tenants, he soon realized the only way to fill the space was in small chunks. He split the building up into 40 to 50 low-cost rental properties. Just by chance, he said, the space attracted artists, and he decided to go with that theme.
These days, the old shirt factory is humming with creative energy, a hive filled with woodworkers, glassmakers, quilters, potters, painters, photographers, and other artists and artisans.
"There's a much more cohesive vision now as to where it's going than when we started," Unkauf said as he gave a tour of the building.
When asked if he is personally interested in art, Unkauf just shrugged and grinned.
"I own some," he said.