Ralph “Chopper” Wilson, a barber turned real estate developer, is an exemplar of urban entrepreneurship.
The Ambassador - Feature
If you are male and around the Lynchburg area and need a hair cut and shave, Ralph “Chopper” Wilson is the man to see. He’s been providing old-fashioned tonsorial services—a straight edge (if you dare), lotions and hot and cold towels—for at least 25 years. U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb, along with former governor Tim Kaine, made sure to pay visits to Wilson’s shop while on the campaign trail—the man knows a lot of people.
These days, though, the 44-year-old Wilson is the man to see in Lynchburg for another reason. For the last seven years he’s been buying and renovating a large chunk of the historic 900 block of Main Street in downtown Lynchburg—turning dilapidated buildings into something approaching their former glory. On one end of the block, in a stretch of once-empty space, one now finds a charming market/diner, a pastry shop, a furniture showroom and upscale lofts—the last all occupied. And later this year, he will finish a restoration of three new buildings next to his first Main Street projects, adding another swath of mixed-use space to his portfolio. Locals say the affable Wilson is a model for entrepreneurial zeal and urban revitalization because, well, he gets things done. Marjette Upshur, director of economic development for the City of Lynchburg, calls him the city’s “ambassador” and “one of the most innovative businessmen I know.”
Spend time with the Chopper—who says he got his nickname because he ate a lot as a kid—and it’s easy to detect his old school savvy. He says he’s spent more than $4 million buying and restoring his downtown buildings, recouping about 45 percent of that amount from federal and state historic tax credits and watching his initial Main Street projects rise in value. Once a deal is closed, he immediately puts contractors to work on the building—keeping a sharp eye on costs. “I’ve had people I know do most of the [construction] work,” Wilson says. “They give me a good deal on things.” And he’s not averse to doing some labor himself.
Upshur lauds Wilson’s commitment, saying that he “stays involved on a personal level with his buildings. He’s actually invested in the community—he’s got skin in the game.” And, she adds, “He knows everything, because he’s a barber. You lean back in the chair and talk. He listens.” The city official calls his success “astounding, because he doesn’t have a large payroll. He flies under the radar.”
While development work is stealing more of his time, Wilson seems as passionate as ever about cutting hair. In fact, if you catch him inside his own 9th Street Parlor—a combination barber shop/spa (with a fountain and heated leather seats)—he’s likely to insist that you sit down for a full facial treatment. And while you’re indisposed, he’ll tout the benefits of a classic shave and trim as opposed to more sophisticated salon pampering. The man knows: He’s been cutting hair since he was 11, when he used to help out at his uncle’s barbershop and give friends a trim at his mom’s house—she was a stylist, too.
Wilson studied business at Elizabeth City State University, but couldn’t get a job after graduation. So he spent a year and a half driving to Roanoke to get a barber’s certificate. With it he started cutting hair again at a local barbershop in Lynchburg, and “everybody that I knew wound up being customers.” About 10 years ago, he bought and remodeled a building on Park Avenue and made it his first barbershop. He then did the same thing in the larger building next door.
Around the same time, his father, who’d left the family when Wilson was young, returned and urged his son to consider real estate. So he did. He built a house on a piece of property he owned then bought and restored a couple of other homes in Lynchburg’s Historic District, including a Victorian that is now his residence. Next came his first Main Street deal, and now the barber cum developer is a unique exemplar of downtown renewal.
Asked if he’ d call himself a barber or developer, if forced to choose, Chopper replies, “I can’t wait to get all the real estate stuff done so I can get back to being a barber.” After a moment’s reflection, he adds: “You know, real estate is kind of like a haircut: You take something that looks bad and make it look good.” And with that he moves off to have a look at some construction work—a downtown man for the long run.