Mark Kauffman may be one of the only people you'll meet who became a doctor "just for a lark." He attended medical school while he worked as a pharmacist, and became a doctor at the age of 27. Fast-forward a few decades and a highly successful career as an orthopedic surgeon in Philadelphia and Sarasota, and Kauffman, now 73, is on his third career: as a developer who has quietly changed the face of this city's downtown.
Sarasotans can thank Kauffman for the Hollywood 20 theater complex at U.S. 301 and Main Street (which he built with former partner David Band), formerly a vacant 200,000-square-foot mall; the renovation of the Crisp Building, a 22,000-square-foot historical building on Main Street across from Hollywood 20; and most recently, the sleek Courthouse Centre on the corner of Ringling Boulevard and U.S. 301, which is welcoming its first tenants. He's also behind many of the city's medical buildings, including the old Doctor's Hospital and University Medical Plaza.
Real estate was not an impulsive career change. Joking that his investments were the kiss of death for the stock market ("I'm the only one who would buy Disney stock and watch it plummet," he quips), Kauffman began buying small commercial properties in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, where he is originally from and where he practiced medicine for seven years. He moved to Sarasota 25 years ago and first opened a solo orthopedic surgery practice before founding Sarasota Orthopedic Associates in 1977, a practice that now employs nine physicians and specializes in everything from arthroscopic surgery and sports medicine to replacements and spine surgery. Meanwhile, he continued dabbling in real estate, and by the time he turned 62 and retired after 17 years of practicing here, he had a nice portfolio of properties and vacant parcels to manage and develop, as well as the time and energy to do it.
"I was satisfied with medicine," says Kauffman. "I practiced for 32 years. But I was working 72 hours a week, up at 5:30 to make rounds and then proceed to surgery. It was time for a change. I do miss the academic aspects of medicine, but I don't miss the hard work or the responsibility. Practicing medicine is a hard job these days."
He founded Sarasota Commercial Management in 1997. The company deals in everything from site acquisition and development to leasing and property management. Currently it manages 22 properties, about 400,000 total square feet, and is run by Kauffman's youngest daughter, Mindy Parker.
"Projects find me, rather than me finding a project," says Kauffman, sitting in a conference room at the sleek new offices of Sarasota Commercial Management, in what used to be a defunct car dealership near the corner of Osprey Avenue and Mound Street. "Real estate is the only investment where you can put your own knowledge, enterprise, skill to use. If you buy a stock or a bond, you can't control what the market will do with the money. With real estate, you have the benefit of your own efforts."
Kauffman's approach to developing is that of someone who is here to stay. "I try to build things that are economically feasible but good for the city," he says. "It's easy and cheap to build a square box. I prefer to build something classy."
For example, Kauffman spent $85,000 on the statue in front of Courthouse Centre, and another $75,000 on the courtyard fountain. Neither piece of art had to be so expensive, but they stand at the gateway to downtown, and Kaufman wanted to make sure he had something unique. He points to a landscaped walkway in a Siesta Village property that could have been left as a breezeway between buildings, and the striking mural on the side of the Crisp Building, which he commissioned even though the building was already fully leased.
He doesn't build out to capacity, and cites Links Plaza, another one of his projects, which he says could have gone up 10 stories, but which he instead developed into a 25,000-square-foot building, a 250-car garage built in conjunction with the city of Sarasota, and a pocket park. He says he is a relatively conservative developer when it comes to taking financial risks (he had 40,000 of the total 90,000 square feet of office space preleased in Courthouse Centre before he started building) and prefers to buy and hold properties than to flip them for a quick buck.
"What works in one area doesn't always work in another," he says. "I don't want to make a stupid investment, one that benefits investors but at the expense of the city. I don't want to put a McDonald's on Palm Avenue, for example. I always try to do something a bit different and a bit better, and I don't make the bottom line my priority."
Tom Jackson of Jackson and Associates General Contractors has worked with Kauffman on various projects since 1986 and says Kauffman is the only developer with whom he has sealed the deal with a handshake.
"His honesty, integrity, character-you just enjoy working with him," he says. "I've never heard Dr. Kauffman yell, never heard Dr. Kauffman curse. But he expects you to keep your word. He wants you to tell him the way it is, not what he wants to hear. We have not missed many openings for him."
"He had a special knack for creating the right relationship with people at different levels of the whole medical care system," recalls Dr. Donald Slevin, senior partner of Sarasota Orthopedic Associates, whom Kauffman hired 24 years ago when he expanded his medical practice. "It's hard to work in a hospital and try to be well liked and well respected without people getting too familiar with you. He's got a great sense of humor; he's fun to hang out with. But in the OR, he had a way of commanding respect. He's not the type of person who inspires the OR staff to joke around with him; he was there to do surgery correctly."
Parker, though understandably biased, says her father's success as a developer is largely due to his intellect.
"He's just really smart," she says. "I have a financial background and will create spreadsheets for him. As I'm in the middle of crunching numbers, he'll say, 'Oh, it's about 70 percent.' And I'll come up with 71.2 percent. I tend to think of him as the big idea guy, but he's also the detail man. Most people have ideas but can't execute them. He really can do both. He definitely has a vision, but then he's the one on the yellow pad, ringing up pro formas. The architects make fun of him because he'll take existing plans, take tissue paper and start re-executing them."
Slevin recalls a time when another doctor in town sent Kauffman a complicated case to study. Kauffman examined the patient and, rather than dashing off a few quick lines of diagnosis, sent back a four-page progress note to the referring physician, who made copies and posted them up with the heading, "This is art." Says Slevin, "He has a way of organizing complex concepts and making order out of them."
Kauffman maintains that many skills he used in practicing medicine carry over, and that people who are good in one field are capable of doing well in any other.
"Brains, skills, work ethic, they're transferable," says Kauffman. "[In] both medicine and developing, you have to relate to people. Practicing medicine is a business, too. You have to have some business acumen to be successful."
And Kauffman's energy is famous.
"When the rest of us were crawling home on our knees after a brutal day in the OR, he was off to meetings in the real estate world," recalls Slevin.
"Nobody outworks me," admits Kauffman. He usually is up by 6:30 a.m. and then reads The New York Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune, followed by an hour and a half of paperwork and tennis at 10 a.m. Afternoons are spent in appointments and meetings. He and his wife, Irene, have a prized art collection and regularly attend the opera and theater. Then there's travel, his children and three grandchildren who keep him busy.
Though he comes across as old-school and rather reserved at first meeting, his face lights up talking about his children, a son and two daughters, who all live and work in town. Irene, a former nurse who worked alongside her husband for years, now has a real estate license and works with him in his new capacity. "What better compliment than that all the kids moved back to be with their parents?" asks Slevin.
At the moment, Kauffman is busy working on a medical tower at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in partnership with Benderson Development, and has several other projects in the pipeline in various stages that he is not yet prepared to discuss. They range from Siesta Key to University Parkway, but many are downtown, including a potential mixed-use project on the site of the Dairy Queen on U.S. 301 near Courthouse Centre he bought last year, which was announced in Sarasota/Manatee BUSINESS last April.
"Sarasota needs more retail downtown, which is coming," he says. "Some more concentrated parking. But downtown parking is a good problem because that means lots of people are driving downtown. The city is working on it. And I don't think you can get enough culture."
Perhaps one of the toughest questions to ask him, a rare one that has him stumped, is which is his favorite development.
He smiles. "You love all your children, don't you?" he asks. "There's nothing I'm ashamed of."
Family: Wife, Irene, works with her husband as a realtor. Children: Randi Brodsky, 48, is a radiologist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital; Gary Kauffman, 45, an attorney with Dunlap & Moran; and Mindy Parker, 39, runs Sarasota Commercial Realty. Grandchildren: Rachel, 18; Lauren, 16; and Neil, 14. Home: Longboat Key. Favorite toy: Tennis racquet. Book on nightstand: History of World War II by Winston Churchill. Community involvement: Founding member of the Sarasota Museum or Art and Sarasota Season of Sculpture. Business philosophy: Integrity is more important than making a profit.