Ranch Boss

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2007

Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton has known Rex Jensen for the better part of 20 years. "I remember when I met him for the first time," he says. "I was a nobody, one of the top tree-huggers maybe, but here this big developer said he wanted to talk with me about Long Swamp-not just how to preserve it, but how to restore it.

"After I picked myself off the floor, we talked. He said he was going to make the swamp the centerpiece of his development," Thaxton continues. "He'd figured out how to do the right thing for the environment out there-and make money on it, too. And then he did it.''

"Out there'' is, of course, Lakewood Ranch, the 7,000-acre planned community that is already home to more than 10,000 people in upscale neighborhoods clustered around nine "villages''-a laboratory for intelligent development and a working model of Sarasota County's 2050 Plan to curtail sprawl and manage growth.

Jensen, 52, is president and CEO of SMR, Inc., Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch. (Schroeder rhymes with Vader.) Besides Lakewood Ranch, the corporation also has aggregate mines, a thriving Brangus cattle ranch, citrus groves, sod farms and a landscape division that raises palms, oaks, magnolias and hollies on the rest of its 31,000 acres straddling the Sarasota-Manatee County line. SMR is controlled by the Uihlein family of Milwaukee, founders of the Schlitz Brewery empire.

Don't ever drop a phrase like "controlling growth'' around Jensen. He'll throw it back at you. The market, and only the market, controls growth, he explains. "Wagonloads of people are coming to Florida whether any of us wish it or not,'' he is fond of saying. "The best we can hope for from government is a degree of management.''

He's fond, too, of lampooning Sarasota County's efforts at controlling growth through the 1960s, '70s and beyond, largely by neglecting to widen roadways, build central water and sewer systems or modernize its airport, all in the wrong-headed belief that inadequate infrastructure would make new residents go someplace else.

Or, as Jensen said with shocking sarcasm at a Manatee Chamber of Commerce small business roundtable last fall, "Sarasota County was busy pooping in the bay to protect its citizens from developers,'' and directing all its growth "solidly into the hurricane zone.''

Jensen doesn't often wear neckties, favoring an open collar and an eager-to-listen attitude that has served him well. His office is large, functional, but without any obvious self-promotion or excess. He is gracious, almost courtly-unless he's riled. Then his combative "my way or the highway" side surfaces, according to people who have worked with and observed him in action.

"He's a straight-shooter. What you see is what you get,'' says Thaxton. "I've never known him to make a dishonest representation."

On the other hand, Jensen can be a master of discretion. "He doesn't show too much. He shows "only what you need to know, and only when you need to know it. I've tried to plagiarize his style,'' Thaxton adds.

"I hope that assessment's accurate,'' Jensen says, smiling. "If people knew what I was thinking, that would be a horrible thing.''

Despite his informal style and his farm upbringing-he grew up on his family's potato farm outside Lansing, Mich.-Jensen doesn't adopt a folksy manner. He's a lawyer by training (cum laude, University of Michigan) and once specialized in entertainment law, representing mostly athletes and broadcasters. The only clients he'll name are Billy Packer, CBS' top college basketball analyst, and play-by-play broadcast teammate, Dick Enberg.

But after three years of law and negotiations, he found his niche in real estate ventures and has been at it ever since, joining SMR 17 years ago, becoming president in 2002, adding CEO to his title two years ago. He flat-out loves the job.

More than 65 percent of his time is claimed by Lakewood Ranch, he says, of which he is by default city manager, mayor and public works director. "I get up in the morning and have no clue what issues I'll face that day,'' he says. Recurring challenges include planning, permitting, purchasing, personnel, promotion-and that's just the Ps.

He plays it all close to the vest, responding to questions like a well-coached witness at trial, answering only what's asked, volunteering almost nothing. It's no surprise he prefers chess to poker. "I don't like to gamble,'' he says.

And he's working to make Lakewood Ranch a sure thing. The owners' vision of a place where residents live, play and work is in view. Its business parks have attracted 12,000 employees working in 3 million square feet of office space. "More than all of downtown Sarasota since it was dirt,'' he boasts.

OK, most of the people who work there can't afford to live there, he acknowledges. "But we're trying to address that; we'd like to build workforce housing on site.'' And the retail villages, including the Ranch's very own Main Street, are still struggling, with turnover at about 35 percent per year. The Sarasota Film Society's long-delayed multiplex theater should help, however, he says.

Jensen, his wife, and their young daughter (another daughter and a son are grown) don't live on the Ranch, but just north of it in Mill Creek in eastern Manatee County. He says his main hobby, building furniture, involves running sharp power tools at all hours. It's easy to put the challenges of the Ranch out of your mind when you have to concentrate on retaining all 10 fingers, he says.

"So, I'd be a lousy neighbor,'' he says, in a community where houses are clustered fairly close together. That's what allows for all that open space: Fifty percent of Lakewood Ranch is parks, trails, athletic fields, lakes, as well as the Long Swamp and Heritage Ranch preserves and four golf courses. When the Sarasota neighborhoods are developed in several years, those will be denser still, he says.

Fellow developer Pat Neal, who's built in several Lakewood Ranch villages, says the master-planned community is pretty much the center of the universe in the area's building biz these days. He figures Jensen is a large part of the reason. "Rex Jensen is smart, fast, agile, hardworking and tough,'' he says. "When I first met him in 1984, I was appropriations chairman for the state senate. He asked for $10 million from the Transportation Trust Fund to build the Tampa Technology Park. I said, 'No thanks.' [But] in perfect Rex Jensen form, he went around me to Senate president Harry Johnson and got the $10 million anyway.''

Later on, after Jensen began working for SMR, he worked closely with state again, handling all the behind-the-scenes work to get Lakewood Ranch's DRI approved.

What amazes Jensen is how Lakewood Ranch has become a "real community'' in just 12 years, evidenced, he says, by the fact there are already more than 85 special interest groups established by residents. Among them are Brownie and Scout troops; two mahjong and three bridge clubs; religious groups; fishing, soccer and roller hockey clubs; travel groups; a French club; wine and food clubs and an assortment of singles organizations.

The one nagging ache that persists for Jensen is the ruinous shell of a multipurpose arena off S.R. 70 on 60 acres. SMR sold that property to a developer who couldn't pull off what was to be the home of a professional minor-league hockey team. But Jensen is convinced it will fill a real need for such a facility hereabouts one day. "It's in foreclosure. In the meanwhile we'll worry about things we can do something about," he says.

There may be one other nagging pain. Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash says Jensen hornswoggled his board four years ago, when he convinced them to let Lakewood Ranch continue building homes without first ensuring crucial roadways were widened to handle the traffic they generated. Virtually all Ranch residences are in Manatee County. "They promised they'd build the roads as home sales progressed. But that didn't happen," McClash says.

"He's used to getting things his way. Growth happened twice as fast as we'd figured, but the roads didn't get built twice as fast. But we won't make that mistake again,'' McClash continues, vowing no more concessions to Lakewood Ranch until the infrastructure can handle them. "Now we've got businesses going under because of the [late] construction. Traffic on S.R. 70 and 64 is a mess. We're having to build noise walls because homes were built too close to the [right of way]. It's becoming a quality of life issue.''

Then he adds, "And the guy can be pretty childish, too.''

McClash was referring to the Power Point presentation Jensen gives to various groups in the region, decrying mindless impediments to builders and developers trying to fill the market's demands. It features sound effects from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and The Three Stooges whenever McClash's face flashes on the screen.

McClash sent SMR's stockholders copies of a newspaper article describing that presentation. "I wanted to see what they'd think of it,'' he says, chuckling. (At press time, no one had responded to McClash's mailing.)

"I call him Mr. Know-It-All,'' Jensen says, not a hint of a smile crossing his face. "The man is so arrogant, thinking he can tell a family from New Jersey they can't move here. He'd turn our community into a speed bump, and growth would just run over us.''

Jensen is dealing with the McClash problem by directing businesses considering a presence at the Ranch southward, to its business parks just over the Sarasota County line, where the climate is far more accepting and permitting has been less stressful, he says.

For that, Thaxton begrudgingly credits Jensen. "He really does his homework, knows what he's doing," he says. "But the thing he does that is most amazing to me is how he brings everything in under the radar. Any other big project and the public hearings are packed. People are objecting to this, objecting to that. When Lakewood Ranch comes in, there's nothing. It's amazing.''

So what's next on Jensen's wish list for Lakewood Ranch? In typical fashion, he doesn't reveal much: "The challenge in the future will be how is it that we continue in light of the infrastructure shortage, in a way that contributes to a continuation of our established standards of quality." 

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