A painting of an ice hockey scene hangs in Ron Allen's sixth-floor office in downtown Bradenton's SunTrust building. Allen, president of NDC Construction Company, is a hockey fanatic-he owns season tickets to the Tampa Bay Lightning-and played in an adult league until 2000, when a serious concussion sidelined him from work for a year. He spent six months in bed under doctor's orders not even to think about business.
Allen, now 44, downplays the experience. "The thing that saved me was the Winter Olympics and the presidential voting fiasco," he says. "It was high entertainment. I had everyone calling me for the latest updates. John McKay [former Florida senator and a business partner] used to call to find out the latest news on CNN."
The irony, says Allen, who grew up playing competitive hockey in Pittsburgh, is that he was playing a non-contact game the day he and another player rammed into one another head-on at J.P. Igloo, an arena his company built in north Manatee. Allen immediately picked himself up off the ice. "After I threw up, I went back and played for another half hour."
Luckily a friend of his, a trainer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, understood how serious a concussion could be and made arrangements for him to visit a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh. He was diagnosed with a grade-three concussion, the worst kind, and was put on medications and ordered to bed. For months, Allen was disoriented, suffered severe headaches-especially when trying to accomplish mental tasks-and struggled with memory loss. "I would go to a movie, and 15 minutes later I couldn't tell you what I'd seen," he says. "It was like a heavy dose of the flu."
But asked if the event was life changing or if it altered his business practice in any way, Allen pauses for a moment, as if struggling to find something profound to report, and finally says, "It really didn't." His partner, Gary Huggins, and employees kept things together while he was recuperating, he says, and he had little doubt about his return. "You just have to fight to get back," he says.
Richard Fawley, president of Fawley Bryant Architects, who has worked with Allen for 15 years on at least six different projects, says, "Allen likes to walk up to the edge, lean over and say, 'That was hard, but fun-and not too bad. Perhaps we can lean over farther next time.'" Manatee Chamber of Commerce president Bob Bartz, who knows Allen from his long commitment and service (he was the chamber's youngest chair, in 1996), says Allen's low-key manner and self-deprecating humor cover an intense can-do attitude and competitive streak that does not allow him to contemplate defeat. "He just loves a challenge," Bartz says. It is this same attitude, according to Bartz, that propelled Allen back to health and his company-now 32 employees strong-to prominence in Manatee County.
Allen came to Bradenton in 1984 to work for Westco Builders, a subsidiary of the national design-build firm National Development Corporation, shortly after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. He came with a degree in business administration and the blessings of his father, James Allen, one of the three founders of Pittsburgh-based National Development Corporation. "I finished finals, got married and moved, all in a two-week period," he recalls. Even then Allen knew he wanted to work in building and development. "I've always liked the ability to transform raw land," he says.
Initially, Bradenton was culture shock. "I was 23, and at 2 o'clock on a Saturday there was nothing to do," he says. But he did devote his time to learning the development business. Allen worked for Richard Olson, the owner of Westco, and credits Olson, now retired, with teaching him the ropes.
In 1997 Westco Builders was renamed NDC Construction Company to take advantage of National Development Corporation's larger reputation. Later, when subsidiaries of the parent company were encouraged to seek local control, Allen bought the Florida operation and recruited Huggins from a larger Fort Lauderdale firm to head the construction part of the business. "He is very good at what he does," says Allen, "so I don't spend my time with the details and can concentrate on the financial and business aspects."
Although NDC is one of the largest construction firms in Manatee-doing $40 million to $50 million in business each year-Allen is not interested in growing the company into a mega outfit. "We are very selective of the deals we chase and what we work on," he says. He prides himself on knowing the names of the wives and families of every one of NDC's employees. Although he's built three single-family homes, he sticks to commercial projects today: "The last home I built was for my parents, and I told them that's the last one I'd do. It's too personal." He also prefers to work locally. "If a client asks us to go outside the area, we will do that," he says, "but our focus really is Manatee County and some of Sarasota."
The company is multifaceted, with its hands in real estate development, construction and property management. For example, NDC is currently managing a renovation and addition to Palma Sola Elementary School, additions to two high schools for the Manatee County School Board, and the new Manatee Players theater.
NDC's completed projects vary from the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex (formerly J.P. Igloo) to the Bradenton City Centre, the Manatee County Administrative Complex, the 60,000-square-foot Lakewood Ranch Medical Office Building I and the nearby Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM).
LECOM's ultra-tight time frame-the school wanted to open its doors to students in the fall of 2004 and had only picked Manatee County in 2003 as a site for its second campus-demonstrated Allen's hard-charging abilities. He and his team came up with the idea of using precast concrete. The entire 110,000-square-foot facility was constructed in Orlando before the foundations were poured, while the necessary government permitting was done. When it came time to put it all together, every piece was tagged, brought over in trucks and assembled like Lincoln Logs. From the first meeting through site planning, architectural drawings and governmental approval to completion took only 14 months. The company won a national award for its precast design. "I love to do things that people don't think we can accomplish," Allen says. "As a community, you get the opportunity to build a medical school once in a lifetime."
The company is currently involved in five of the 11 downtown Bradenton building projects, including the $5.5 million, 500-space judicial center parking garage.
Upcoming work includes construction of the old Bradenton City Hall property on Manatee Avenue and 15th Street, where Allen and an investment group consisting of Sarasota attorney and developer David Band, McKay and Chip McCarthy plan to break ground on a large mixed-use project of two 15-story towers with 106 luxury condominiums early this summer. He'll also be starting the second Lakewood Ranch medical office building and a 288-unit apartment building behind LECOM.
Allen likes to balance large commercial projects with work for nonprofit and community organizations. His portfolio includes the $19.5 million Bradenton Village HOPE VI lower-income housing complex and the $800,000 Salvation Army day-care center.
As an independent subsidiary, NDC continues to be affiliated with the Pittsburgh headquarters, utilizing it for accounting. The property management wing is still headquartered there. Allen also regularly talks to his father, now a resident of Longboat Key, whom he considers a mentor. "There isn't a deal we don't talk about, because I love hearing the different aspects of what I may not be catching," Allen says.
Allen claims that finding great properties starts with an idea-not necessarily his own. After that it's a combination of patience and watchfulness. And he zealously studies the market, particularly the types of employees who are moving into the area and the types of classes offered by the region's higher educational institutions, since these markers can help him identify unmet needs in the marketplace. "There's a reason for the new hotel management school [at USF Sarasota-Manatee]," he says.
The "Sandpile," now the Promenade at Riverfront, 23 acres of prime real estate on the Manatee River in downtown Bradenton, is one of the projects he helped develop. Says Allen, "I looked at that piece of land for 15 years before we got anywhere, because the timing wasn't right." In 2000 Allen and his partners-Band, Mark Kauffman, Ed Vogler and Benderson Development-took a 100-year lease on the property and have been developing it ever since. The first phase, 232 units of high-rise luxury apartments, was completed in 2004. The second phase, currently under way, is a 15-story condo complex. The remaining nine acres are slated for retail, restaurant and office space.
Allen strives to keep employee turnover to a minimum, taking particular care to match the right employee to the right job, and giving each person the ability to grow with organization. "We don't lay people off even if they're in between projects," he says. "And when we have good years, they participate. Almost all of my employees are active in the community. That's part of our philosophy and that's me." Besides his chamber involvement, he is in his second term on the board of Manatee Community College and sits on the boards of the YMCA, Manatee Glens and Manatee 100 Club, a business group that supports law enforcement officers and their families.
With such care for where he lives, it comes as no surprise Allen is a devoted family man. He loves to spend time with his wife, Nancy, a residential real estate broker, and used to coach soccer and hockey for his twin boys, James and Cameron, and his daughter, Alyssa. Now that they are older, he makes time to attend their games. "Most of the year, it's hard to catch me after 4 p.m.," he says. "I won't spend my time on the cell phone talking business when my kids are out there playing a game."
Over the next five years, Allen would love to see downtown Bradenton become a thriving area day and night. He hopes that with more residential units the area will attract high-caliber national restaurant chains and retail stores. As for his own contribution, he takes the long view. "When all is said and done," he muses, "somebody will say that we have done some good in the community and that we have changed something for the better."
Has he given up hockey? Sadly, yes, he says. But Allen courts thrills in other ways. In addition to working out regularly with weights and doing cardio exercise, his passions include four-wheel off-road motorcycling and occasional sports-car racing with a friend who owns a Nextel Cup race team. "I'm the guy in the surf when the storms come by," he says, "I like to feel the adrenaline flowing through my body."
Ron Allen says the steps to building his successful development business are basic:
- Knowing your market and its future.
- Spending lots of time in the community listening to people.
- Looking for a need that's not being met.
- Focusing on raw materials-people. "I talk to people in different industries. 'Where are our people coming from? What are the trends? What courses are being offered in high education?'"
NDC'S CURRENT PROJECTS
1. LECOM Apartments
Location: LECOM campus, off Lakewood Ranch Boulevard
Cost: $29 million
Start: November 2006
Expected Completion: March 2008
Total Square Feet: 260,000
Owner: NDC Development Company
2. Judicial Center Parking Garage
Location: 615 12th St. W., Bradenton
Cost: $8 million
Start: September 2005
Expected Completion: Late spring 2006
Parking Spaces: 516
Leasable retail area: 11,000 square feet
Owner: City of Bradenton
3. Lakewood Ranch Medical Office Building II
Location: Lakewood Ranch Hospital
Cost: $12 million
Start: Spring 2006
Expected Completion: February 2007
Gross Leasable Area: 60,000 square feet
Owner: Lakewood Ranch MOB II, LLP
4. Palma Sola Elementary School Renovations
Location: 6806 Fifth Ave. N.W., Bradenton
Cost: $9 million
Start: March 2006
Expected Completion: April 2007
Total area: 78,000 square feet
Owner: Manatee County School Board