Land Baron

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2005

It must be a wonderful time to be Pat Neal. The 56-year-old, bookish-looking, longtime Manatee County land developer and president of Neal Communities has what every developer and builder is desperate for: land, and lots of it.

Of course, Neal would never gloat in public that he's made all the right decisions in his 37 years of developing. Quiet, unassuming and reflective, he cultivates a modest lifestyle, owning a small 16-year-old motor boat and an older Manatee County frame home where the garage can be accessed only by walking through his master bedroom. He summers in his second home in Iowa rather than in the glitzy hamptons.

But evidence of his prescience stretches from Manatee County to North Port. At a time when local independent builders and developers are scrambling to find enough land to construct homes for the armies of retiring boomers everyone knows are coming, Neal has 8,000 empty lots, eight communities under construction ("when many competitors have few or none," he notes-quietly and modestly, of course) and even more large communities in the planning process. To put that in perspective, his closest competitor, Britt Williams of Bruce Williams Homes, has 2,500 to 3,000 empty lots.

And Neal isn't done accumulating land. He has signs up along state roads that blare, "Land Wanted." He sends postcards to targeted property owners. He has even been known to go door to door asking property owners if they want to sell. Last year was Neal's best yet, with 264 homes sold (pushing the number to more than 6,000 homes the company has built since 1970). That makes him the region's top-grossing locally headquartered builder/developer in 2004, with revenues of $110 million. And now he's predicting that 2005 will be even better.

Last winter, Florida Trend listed Neal as one of Florida's "most influential" citizens, in large part because he is chairman of the Christian Coalition of Florida. It's not a role that the Republican and Catholic Neal highlights-it's controversial, he admits. But, back in 1999, when good friend and former high-profile Christian Coalition of Florida director John Dowless was on the prowl for Floridians of financial means, faith and political experience, he called Neal.

The group wields power in Florida, especially during election years when it seems every politician is vying for an endorsement. That gives Neal a voice in state politics, a voice he has had since 1974 when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives as a Democrat at the age of 25. (Yes, Neal was a Democrat, but only, he asserts, because Republicans were out of favor in the early '70s.) Neal went on to become a Democratic Florida State Senator in 1978 and developed a reputation for expertise in finance (he was appropriations chair). He held office until 1986 when he was defeated by Republican Marlene Woodson-Howard.

Since then, Neal has stayed involved in state and local politics on numerous boards, including as an appointed chair of the 12th Judicial Nominating Committee and, until 2003, serving as the chair of the state ethics commission. Former Sarasota County Republican chair and banker Tramm Hudson says Neal can always be counted on to contribute financially to the cause and to solicit donations from others. Builder Britt Williams good-naturedly adds: "Pat always has lots of friends he'd like you to meet." For the last few years, Neal's competitors and associates have speculated that the developer would be heading back into politics. But Neal, who outlines his life in one-, five- and 25-year plans (he keeps an updated one-page synopsis under his desk blotter), says running for office is not on the list.

"My intent is to build my business for my sons and participate in the political process on the side," he says. "Being a real estate developer isn't compatible with public office." Just a few months ago, his 30-year-old son John left his position as systems manager at C&F Mortgage, Inc. in Virginia and is now going through the training process at Neal Communities, where it is expected that he will be developing his own projects and handling land acquisitions. Neal's younger son Michael is only 13, but has already expressed a desire to continue in his father's footsteps.

They will have a good teacher, and, by some accounts, a demanding one. Neal, a Wharton School of Finance graduate and a whiz with numbers, is known to be a tough boss. He is a workaholic who leaves voicemails for employees at 5 a.m. His hands-on, detailed approach to planning is both a strength and a weakness, he admints. On the one hand it's meant quality, award-winning communities-think University Park Country Club-and enormous success. But micro-managing can be tiring and tiresome to those who work around it. "Failure to delegate," he sighs, confessing his biggest failing. "Anal" is how others have less delicately described him. Williams says Neal is always prepared, and has been known to pin yellow post-it notes to his tie before meetings so he can remember his talking points. He has his own personal publicist who churns out a high volume of press releases on his good deeds. Before this interview, Neal fired off an e-mail, listing every subject he wanted to cover and every noteworthy statistic about his company and biography. When driving around his developments, Neal notices whether his employees' shirts are ironed, their badges are on and their cars are parked in the right spots. His penchant for controlling the details reflects his philosophy on life. "We own our own lives during the period while we're here," he says. "We are responsible for what we do and create. The world is how we make it."

Neal's business world is now centered in his headquarters at Lakewood Ranch with his 104 employees, half of whom-including the executive staff-are women. "Females understand homes," he says. For 35 years, since his earliest developments like Whitney Beach on Longboat Key, and Wild Oak Bay and Wildwood Springs in west Bradenton, he's been tracking retirees who have contacted him after seeing one of his developments or an advertisement.

He records how many times these people have contacted him and is keenly aware of the shift in habits. "I'm a minor expert in retirement decisions," he says. Retirees are younger today, he says-his average buyer is 58-and they don't retire one day with a check in hand. Retirement is more gradual as people test the water over a period of years to determine where and how they want to live. Neal's targeted demographic is "Opals" (older people with active lifestyles). These are not the WWII retirees who were children of the Depression, whose "whole psychographic makeup is: 'I may not have enough money'" and therefore keep their money in the bank and 401Ks, he says. Instead, "Children born after 1946 have lived a life of prosperity and indulgence-a great bike in 1952, a car in 1962," he explains. "They'll buy a home from Pat Neal in January 2005 on average of $500,000, buy a Lincoln and maybe take on some debt, too. We're seeing the effects of this on Manatee and Sarasota."

Unfortunately, he says, the region is woefully unprepared to handle the thousands who want to-and will-move here, and he predicts gridlock on east-west roads in Manatee. By contrast, Lee and Martin counties established strong comprehensive plans that they adhere to. "They purchased environmentally sensitive lands, recreation lands and beaches," he says. "They decided 'this is where we want people and this is where we want preservation.' I'd like to see planning for people to come here because the Constitution provides that they will come." More than 10,000 homes, he notes, were permitted last year in Sarasota and Manatee.

To take advantage of these legions of spendthrift boomers, Neal has found partners-"I always have partners," he says-who have acted as financial investors, enabling him to stay out of debt while he stands in front of the county commissions and home owners' associations and works out the details that he is so famous for. Neal says unlike many other developers, he is extremely conservative and risk averse in his financial decisions. Swiss businessman Rolf Passold helped Neal develop University Park; Frank Cassatta, a homebuilder from Long Island, is Neal's partner in two Manatee County projects, one in Lakewood Ranch and another in the northeastern portion of the county; and father-and-son Nathan and Randy Benderson are co-developers with Neal in the Woodlands at North Port, the city's first planned community of 2,576 homes, a retail center and a "tourist center"-a cluster of accommodations just off the interstate for travelers, such as a Wendy's, a Comfort Inn and a Ruby Tuesdays. These partners not only supplied Neal with the financial backing, but also the model for creating a family business, since each also runs family businesses that will eventually pass from father to children. "I want a community-based family business and that's good enough for me," he says.

And while Neal has developed in Pinellas and Dade counties, he has discovered that his own backyard is best. "There's an enormous competitive advantage here," he says about Manatee County. His son John has recently brought in computer software, called GIS (geographic information system), to find out if a piece of land is worth developing. It's costly-$25,000 for the hardware plus $15,000 a year to manage-but it enables Neal, or anyone using a laptop on the job site, to immediately locate a property owner, look at the property's boundaries, sewer and phone lines, and note its wetlands, floodplains and every tree without having to call an engineer and waste precious time. "I've always done better where I have a GIS system and where I know the people and where the new shopping center is going to get built and the county commissioner who has land jurisdiction," Neal says.

And staying close to home fits with Neal's hands-on approach. "I can drive up and show you the development; it really comes off because I was there this morning and most mornings, making them look good. I can't be hands on in Collier or Orange County."

It's safe to assume that so far, Neal has achieved most of the goals on his annual life plans. So what's on the list for 2005? "I want to get through the approval cycle on seven different communities-five in Manatee, one in Sarasota and one in North Port."

And in 2006?

"I want to acquire new land."

Neal Communities

Founded: 1970

Number of communities developed: 34

Total number of homes built since 1968: 6,000 homes

Number of employees: 104

Number of homes sold in 2004: 264

Revenues in 2004: $110 million

Average sales price of a single-family home in 2004: $355,000 (not including land

Number of empty lots currently owned: 8,000

Number of projects under construction: 8 (University Park, Wisteria Park, Heathfield, Greystone, Silverwood, Edenmoor, Wexford, The Harborage)

On Politics

Why he lost the 1986 Senate race:

"I was controversial as a Democrat, a developer and a conservative. The Equal Rights Amendment was a big female-based gender issue and I voted several times against the amendment. That's the way it goes in politics. I'd had five pretty close elections so it was correct that they [the Democrats] should target me and they did so very effectively."

Biggest accomplishment in the Legislature:

"John Mills and I put the wetlands preservation issue on the agenda, created two years of consciousness raising and training, and crafted and passed the first wetlands protection law in the United States."

What kind of Republican he is:

"I think my attitude would be typical and traditional, at least among Republicans in Manatee County. I'm a fiscal conservative. I believe in a smaller role for government and a greater role for personal responsibility and achievement. The Christian Coalition of Florida holds an undeserved reputation for being out of the mainstream. I feel our positions are typical and almost universally accepted among people I know and visit with regularly."

The agenda of the Christian Coalition:

"Our program in 2005 is defining what marriage is. I think most people would prefer the 3,200-year-old Judeo-Christian concept that marriage is a contract between an adult male and female."

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