Under the Radar

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2004

When Bill Isaac strides out of his summer house across from the Atlantic Ocean in the tiny, tony Hamptons town of Quogue, he looks like a man at the top of his game. His feeling of well being is palpable. He grins, extends a gracious hand in greeting and knows exactly where to seat an early visitor-in a shady spot overlooking the pool, of course-while he finishes a meeting with a previous caller.

His home is part of a small compound: a main house and three guest houses laid out on a perfect green lawn billowing with cornflower blue hydrangea. It's a sunny, beachy environment, miles from any cares. A gardener is silently spraying the area for insects so not even a buzzing mosquito can disrupt the calm.

Chances are, life won't remain so peaceful for Isaac, who spends most of the year in his Gulf-front home in Lido Shores in Sarasota, when he and his older brother, Charles, who lives in Bryan, Ohio, announce their ambitious campaign to remake downtown Sarasota into a retail destination. For the last two years, they've doggedly been going door to door, approaching owners of downtown properties along Main Street and its cross streets about selling their storefronts in the hopes of assembling enough contiguous properties to develop what could be a $100-million project.

What are they building? True to their cautious nature, they still weren't revealing their plans at press time. Bill says that's largely because the plan-and thus its value-keeps changing as they acquire new properties. Charles (also known as Butch) adds that he doesn't want to become another Patrick Kelly, whose billion-dollar residential/commercial project at the Quay site was given front-page treatment for weeks last winter-and not, he believes, to Kelly's advantage. "I am very, very private," Butch says. "I also believe publicity jinxes projects." All Bill would say by mid-November is, "We have all of the property committed that we need to do our project, although in a couple of cases it is subject to working out contract language." Searching through the property appraiser's Web site reveals only two purchases. Whether it's because the Isaac brothers are using other names to purchase properties or only have properties under contract or lease agreement, Butch just says, "You'll never find it." And their real estate advisor, Lee De Lieto, of Michael Saunders & Company commercial property group, is close-mouthed about their plan.

So far, the pair has purchased two properties along Lemon Avenue: Café Ovo on the corner of State Street and Lemon Avenue for $2.4 million and the building at the corner of First Street and Lemon Avenue, which is situated diagonally across from Whole Foods, for $1,060,500. They also have an option on a 99-year lease to build on United Methodist Church's parking lot across from the former Café Ovo, which is on Lemon Avenue and State Street. Rumors have also been circulating that they're interested in the old Burger King at the corner of Main Street and Lemon.

In the past, Bill had mentioned a goal of amassing 200,000 square feet of downtown property. The brothers have assembled a team of 30 local and national retail experts, from architectural advisors to attorneys, leasing experts, construction specialists and public relations consultants. (Their retail consultant-Bob Gibbs of Michigan-based Gibbs Planning Group-visited Sarasota last May to speak at an Argus-sponsored public forum on downtown retail.)

Last summer, Bill thought the project would take the shape of a mixed-use development with retail on the bottom levels and residential on the top. He hopes to bring in national brand retailers, and he likes to mention Crate and Barrel as the type of store he'd like to attract. "I hope we have it," he says about the popular house furnishings retailer. He insists the small independent retailers that make Sarasota distinctive would be the bulk of the mix, and he toys around with the idea that a boutique "hip" hotel, "like W," would be a wonderful addition downtown. The cost? "It's hard to see how it could be done for less than $100 million," Bill said last summer. It's a risky enterprise, he admits: "Retail development is not for the faint of heart."

But then, entrepreneurship runs in the Isaac blood. Both Bill, 61, and Butch, 65, grew up in Bryan, Ohio, the picture of small-town America-population 8,333-and the home of Etch-A-Sketch and Dum Dum suckers. A 170-year-old Gothic courthouse with a big clock tower is the centerpiece of the town square. The entire city comes out to decorate the square at Christmas and residents celebrate when their high school wins the state baseball championship.

In 1899, their grandfather, George Isaac Sr., founded a scrap metal business, The Isaac Company, in Bryan. It has been family owned and run for three generations, although it now focuses on real estate development rather than scrap metal. "We're almost older than dirt," says Butch, who adds that the company is private and mostly known in Ohio. "You won't find us in Dunn & Bradstreet." (In fact, you won't even find a company Web site. The company only recently created its first company brochure because of its Sarasota project.)

George Sr. added a retail store for auto parts and tires to his business, then branched into residential rental properties. When the third generation took over in the '80s, it added commercial real estate development and management to the mix, eventually selling the scrap metal business in 1997 to concentrate on its commercial division. Today the company has developed, and owns and manages about a dozen shopping centers, office buildings and industrial properties in northwest Ohio.

After graduating from Miami University in Ohio in 1961, Butch began working in the family business, now called The Isaac Property Company, and eventually became president. (Three cousins hold officer's positions in the company.) "It's all I ever wanted to do," he says. "I started in 1955 sweeping the scrap yard and painting tire sidewalls. I was in the scrap business for 35 years and switched to real estate in 1992."

Bill, the more gregarious and spontaneous of the two brothers (he'll abruptly end a phone call to look for a barracuda under his dock)-and now the chair of the Isaac companies-also grew up thinking he would go into the family business when he graduated from Miami University in 1966. "There was a time when that was all I wanted to be," he says, "but there was no slot for me." So Bill went to law school at Ohio State University and went into banking where his career took off.

He is best known for chairing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 1981 through 1985, during the failure and subsequent bail out-up to $500 billion in taxpayers' dollars-of the savings and loan industry, one of the worst banking crises in American history. (The causes of the S & L crisis, and the role of the FDIC in contributing to it, are still debated. Was it due to government mismanagement dating back to the '60s, adverse economic conditions or insider greed and fraud?) But those who worked with Bill during those times remember him as a powerful leader.

"When I met Bill he'd been chair for a couple of years in what was one of our worst bank failures," says Jack Murphy, a senior partner at the international law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in Washington, D.C. and back then the general counsel to the FDIC. "He faced a lot of scrutiny and criticism, but he wasn't afraid to make the courageous decisions, and that required political skill. He was open and free with staff. We were under enormous pressure, but he always said, 'We're going to make mistakes and if we don't, we're not moving forward.' It gave us the freedom to do our best." Bill, who lived on six-packs of Diet Coke back then, did his best work under stress, Murphy says.

Don Ogilive, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association for the last 20 years, also knew Bill in those days. "No one has any problem understanding where he stands," Ogilvie says. "He doesn't take the hunker-down approach. He'd rather address people directly."

When Bill left the FDIC in 1985, he founded The Secura Group, LLC, which, according to the firm's Web site, is "one of the nation's premier financial institutions consulting firms" based in Washington, D.C., with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Zurich. An affiliate, Secura Burnett Company, is an executive search firm for the banking industry. About the same time, he traveled to Sarasota for vacation and loved it so much he came every other weekend for two years, staying at the Longboat Key Club. "They knew me so well I kept a suitcase there," he says. When he realized his love affair with Sarasota was permanent, he bought a penthouse in The Sanctuary on Longboat Key and spent a week in Florida, a week in D.C., and then back again. In 1994, he stepped down as CEO and moved to Florida full time. Although still the chair and largest owner of The Secura Group, Bill likes to stay home with his new family-his second wife Christine and their two young children, three-year-old Lennon (Bill calls John Lennon's "Imagine" his favorite song) and two-year-old Quinn. He's not well known in Sarasota social circles-"He's not the black tie type," says his friend Ogilvie-but he serves on two local nonprofit boards: The Goodwill Foundation (which he chairs) and The Community Foundation of Sarasota County, and also is instrumental in a Boys & Girls Club program at New College of Florida called "Keys to the Future."

And he's still a formidable player in the financial industry. On at least one Web site, he is referred to as a "super lobbyist" and he continues to testify before Congress on banking issues. (His clout is such that even Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve who is heading up the investigation of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program for Iraq, returns a call when the subject is Bill Isaac. "I wouldn't call him warm and fuzzy," Volcker says. "He's good at making up his mind and carrying through with force.")

The Isaac brothers will need that will power to get through the city of Sarasota's famously contentious development approval process, which on one hand embraces growth, and on the other, seems to view every new building and developer with suspicion.

Even back in 1994, Bill thought downtown Sarasota had enormous potential. "It's always occurred to me, almost from the beginning, that Sarasota needed to have a more vital, active downtown," he says. "Even the shopping malls aren't that great. I started talking to my family about it 10 years ago."

Butch, cautious, private and more comfortable out of the limelight, took some persuading to undertake what would be the company's most ambitious project to date. About publicity, he just says, "We're not that kind of people." And he's careful to say that whatever happens, "It's not my vision, it's Sarasota's. We don't want to come in and force our ideas on people. But it's evident that Sarasota needs retail." Butch has been in Sarasota every week for almost two years meeting with property owners, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and economic development officials, and city commissioners. Dealing with Sarasota, he says, has not been easy. "I'm tired of this," he says. "It's taken too much work."

Butch says his company is ready for the challenge of large urban development. He's aware of the risks. Creating a new retail district in downtown Sarasota means tearing down old stores; it's very different from the shopping centers and lifestyle centers The Isaac Property Group is used to. Butch is also aware of the seasonal nature of Sarasota. "Retailers can't be successful with just six months," he says. That's one reason why the residential component of their project is essential. (Bill also adds, "There will be plenty of parking.")

Making this work is all about the right economics. "It's what retailers are willing to pay for rent," Butch says. "There's so much distortion about what people can sell for. They believe they can sell for huge profits. That's just not true. It's not true anywhere. People think, if I just hold on to my property another five years, I can double my price. But you have to have people coming here and spending money to raise the price. The people on the street don't understand retail. It won't happen without a developer. You can't form a coalition and get retail. Retailers come in when they see the percentages and anchor tenants. You have to have critical mass. I don't know any developer who would be willing to do downtown Sarasota. If we don't do it, no one will."

Butch says if the project doesn't work out, he'll still probably establish a regional office between Tampa and Fort Myers and acquire a substantial portfolio of retail. But, he says, if and once he's made a commitment to transform downtown Sarasota, he'll follow through. "Our word is where it's at," he says. "Once I give my word, I'll do what I said I was going to do."

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