Interview with Rex E. Jensen
President and Chief Executive Officer
By Ed Bertha
Rex Jensen was promoted to President of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR) in August 2002 and was chosen to become Chief Executive Officer in February 2005. In that capacity, Jensen oversees all the businesses of SMR, including agriculture, aggregate mining and real estate development on its 30,000-acre land holding in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
The company’s award-winning development, Lakewood Ranch, is one of Florida’s fastest selling, fully integrated, master-planned communities and has been pro-active in establishing and promoting a community that represents smart growth and green building. Under Jensen’s leadership, SMR’s development plan was selected by Sarasota County to be the first village approved for development as a part of the county’s 2050 plan allowing development east of I-75. Jensen is also credited with designing the state’s first multi-county Stewardship District, which was signed into law in 2005.
Jensen joined SMR in March, 1990, as vice president of real estate. His responsibilities included the overall planning and strategic positioning of SMR’s properties and management of Community Development Districts (CDDs) and utilities established to provide infrastructure to SMR and its developments.
Jensen has more than 25 years of experience in law (corporate tax, technology transfer, entertainment and real estate), corporate venture capital, and real estate development and finance. In 2005 he and two previous SMR CEOs were granted the Gulf Coast Business Review’s ‘Virtues of Capitalism Award.’
Jensen holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History, Economics, and Political Science from Michigan State University (with high honors, 1976) and received a degree of Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan (with honors, 1979).
EB: Are you surprised at how successful Lakewood Ranch has become?
RJ: Honestly, no. I knew twenty years ago when I first came to Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, and saw firsthand the strategic and careful planning of what Lakewood Ranch would become, that this would be a huge success. We have always been great stewards of the environment, we have always been two schools ahead of demand, and we have been wise in our planning and infrastructure building. These are all reasons why Lakewood Ranch has become such a successful and thriving community.
EB: What inspires you?
RJ: The position of trust that I’m in keeps me highly motivated. So many people depend upon the decisions that I make, for better or worse. That means employees, that means residents, that means our business partners. That means a lot of people get hurt by the wrong bet. There is a huge investment of capital in this property. If I make a bad decision, there could be a huge loss, and if I make good decisions, there can be significant profit. Our shareholders have been very faithful to me and to this property. All of that means that I am obligated to show up each day with my “A game”.
EB: What brought you to Schroeder Manatee Ranch?
RJ: Twenty years ago, when the Schroeder-Manatee Ranch executive team asked me to head up one of the most recognizable and sought-after land management, agricultural and development companies in the nation, I did not think I was the right man for the job.
Luckily though when they called me back in March 1990 and offered me a position as the vice president of real estate, a case of laryngitis prevented me from asking too many questions — thus ending the conversation a bit prematurely. That’s probably why I ended up getting the job—because I couldn’t talk! Initially, I didn’t want to work for someone else. I didn’t feel like I fit in the organization. But then I came down here and saw this place and realized the flourishing opportunities here. The way the company was run, the vision and the long range perspective — I thought this is really the kind of group I want to be a part of. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least. I will never forget my first trip to visit with SMR executives, when I saw a sign on the company’s tree farm that read: Clean Air Starts Here — At the time I did not realize how symbolic those words would become of my new employer. I thought “who would think that way,” but it’s extremely representative of the company.
EB: Describe your average day.
RJ: I can’t because every day is so different. When I come to work on any given day, I never know what I am going to face. It’s unpredictable—just the diversity, the issues and the challenges… all of it keeps me going. There’s no way you can be bored. I am responsible for making sure that the company’s 30 subsidiaries and nearly 400 employees have the necessary resources to do their jobs, the support and the information needed to better understand the company in which they work. I’m kind of the go-between between among a lot of different constituencies.
EB: What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
RJ: Over the past 20 years, I’ve tried to fulfill the vision of the founders of both Lakewood Ranch and SMR as a whole. It’s been rewarding to watch SMR develop as a company, to partner with the Manatee County School Board, to help preserve the environment, to improve its irrigation systems and create a number of jobs in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.
In the past year alone, we have led the way to recovery in the residential and commercial real estate markets. We have seen a reduction in residential inventory from 850 homes and condominiums to 214 homes as of this month.
In addition, SMR has been part of a number of grand openings and ribbon cuttings in what many have deemed a down economic year, which I see as a sign of greater things to come.
We’ve grown to a degree; we’ve added new families. People find this to be a great community. They’re realizing it’s a community where they can sink roots and find their own opportunities.
EB: What did you did before SMR?
RJ: I graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in political science, history and economics. I then went on to earn a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1979.
Over the next three years I practiced corporate tax law for a computer software company where I spent time interacting with a number of conglomerates, including General Motors, IBM, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, among numerous others. I got to spend time in some really neat places. I had quite a lot of fun.
Following my stint in corporate tax law, I got into real estate, working for a real estate development project. In 1983, a similar opportunity opened up in Tampa and I packed up and made my way down to Florida. I really fell in love with real estate. I realized it was a lot more fun to abuse the law than to practice it! I spent seven years running my own consulting company in Tampa before joining the team at SMR.
EB: What is the long term vision for Lakewood Ranch?
RJ: In 2010, we hope to finish the entitlement with the 2050 plan for Sarasota County, as well as move forward with and hopefully complete a few new economic development deals. 2010 also marks the 15th anniversary of when Lakewood Ranch sold its first home for $89,000. In the coming years I am looking for Lakewood Ranch to get back into the affordable housing market with the hopes of providing an economical place to live for the some 12,000 people who work in Lakewood Ranch. The entrance back into workforce housing will in a big way set the stage for the coming years, which is going to be big for SMR. We won’t ever abandon the country club and golf lifestyle that Lakewood Ranch is known for but we need to get back to the basics and build homes that are more affordable. We’ll start four new communities north of state road 70 in the next few years and with the addition of communities like Pat Neal’s Central park, we want to have more options here. We are considering an age targeted community as well. We also plan to continue adding new tenants to Main Street. We need to meet the daily needs of residential entertainment. We’re making strides there, but hopefully more will happen over the course of the year. Business owners are attracted to Lakewood Ranch for the same reasons homeowners are. We have the best most convenient location, with easy access to I-75. Our amenities are second to none, and it is clear when you pull off I-75 and enter Lakewood ranch, that you’re somewhere special—unlike anything else in the area. You can just feel the difference.
Copyright © 2010 REAL Magazine
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