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Thursday, September 19, 2013
Kennelly develops a legacy

Lakewood Ranch — a fast-selling, master-planned community of houses, businesses and schools residing on what was once 32,000 acres of agriculture — was born out of patience.

Rex Jensen, the CEO and president of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR), Lakewood Ranch’s developer, preaches, practices and expects patience, and he makes employees earn every minute of the word when they enter his office.

No one knows that better than Brian Kennelly, the president of Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty, an SMR subsidiary, whose job has required him to fill a plain map of 32,000 acres with shapes and orange marker — representing commercial projects — without coloring on the lines.

“I always felt it was a luxury to say, ‘Here’s a map with 32,000 acres on it and here’s my part to help develop that,’” said Kennelly, who leaves his job at the end of the month to rejoin The Starling Group, his former employer and SMR customer. “Rex (Jensen) challenged me. I appreciated the opportunity to play a role in that bigger scheme.”

Kennelly leaves a company that, on his watch, waited out a stagnant economy and burst through it, with apartments on the way to Lakewood Ranch and additional hotels farther out.

Commercial property here carries an occupancy rate of 92%, and its flagship community hub, Lakewood Ranch Main Street, has even less vacant space. Its office space has the lowest vacancy in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

For Kennelly, patience better bring reward — and it has.

“One thing Rex (Jensen) talks about is the market drives a lot of decisions on timing,” Kennelly said.

“Lakewood Ranch is a very patient company that is committed to the vision of the master-planned community. I consider it a luxury to be able to wait for the right time to find the right development group to come out of the ground with the right product.”

In a candid conversation, Jensen and Kennelly reflected on the latter’s seven-year SMR career, which ends at the end of the month when he moves six miles to the Starling Group, a Sarasota-based real-estate company.

Kennelly will get an ownership in the company, run by longtime comrade Fred Starling.

SMR and the Starling Group have collaborated on eight projects, including IRISS’ global light-manufacturing facility in Lakewood Ranch Business Park and the under-construction Intercoastal Medical Group building at Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Rangeland Parkway.

“I don’t believe it is Brian leaving Lakewood Ranch,” Jensen said. “He’s actually joining our best customer that does a lot of business in Lakewood Ranch. We weren’t successful in getting rid of him.”

The beginning
Kennelly and Jensen first met in 1999, when Starling developed one of his first properties in Lakewood Ranch. Jensen eventually recruited Kennelly from the Starling Group in 2006 to be the eventual successor to John Swart.

Jensen admires Swart for bringing three Publix groceries here, businesses such as MGA Insurance and Neal Communities’ headquarters, and retail strips such as Main Street and San Marco Plaza.

Kennelly worked under Swart for 16 months as executive vice president of SMR’s commercial group before taking over, a transitional strategy meant to carry on Jensen’s vision.

“This place is always about continuity,” Jensen said. “That way, we can be about evolution, not revolution. We can have gradual transitions in this company and a consistent way of doing things.”

When Jensen spoke about Kennelly, he used the present tense, as if his commercial leader had another seven years with the SMR. Likewise, Kennelly struggled between the past and the future, frequently correcting himself when he said “is” or “we.”

His work
Kennelly came on in a period of growth before the economy tanked.

The company went through a period of re-tenanting, and the commercial president helped maintain Jensen’s patient approach; he kept vacant a piece of property adjacent to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and across from Main Street.

But, then, Main Street began to grow with new tenants and trademark events such as Music on Main — which, when it started in 2006, was not year-round and only a portion of the street was blocked off.

Kennelly began a move to bring multifamily housing here.

In December 2011, SMR sold the 11.4 acres of land across from Main Street to Davis Development to build a 237-unit apartment complex now under construction, The Venue at Lakewood Ranch.

Lost Creek Apartments, located off Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, reached 100% occupancy about six months after opening in January 2012.

Creekside Apartments will be a 256-unit apartment complex adjacent to Lost Creek.

SMR is also under contract for another apartment project.

Now, young businessmen working in Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park and hospital employees have a place to live.

And, in Jensen and Kennelly’s world, without waiting for the hospital and Main Street to be successful, there would be no apartments.

“It’s right product, right time,” Jensen said. “To try and do the apartments prematurely you have nothing but failure.”

At times, the patience was frustrating for Kennelly. Kennelly wanted to fill the once-blank Lakewood Ranch map with more color and more shapes because that was his job.

Kennelly has thrown plenty of weird ideas Jensen’s way. Jensen was there to listen — if Kennelly talked quickly enough.

“I was always going to ask another question than what I came in with,” Kennelly joked to Jensen. “I figure if I got you in the room, I got you.”

Jensen added: “What this guy does is he comes in and says, ‘Can I have a minute?’ It’s not a minute. It’s like getting rid of Columbo (the television detective known for bugging criminals with questions until they confess to a crime).”

His legacy
With Kennelly leaving, Jensen must find a patient replacement.

Kennelly’s transactions typically take two years to complete.

It’s a job that will require smartly bringing more high-density projects to Lakewood Ranch, because Sarasota’s 2050 plan requires it to do so.

“We’ve got to fill the job and the job is the big job,” Jensen said. “If you stop and think about the magnitude of Brian’s operation, it’s basically his own mini economic development corporation. One of the tasks we need from his successor is to increase the stock of hotels in the area.”

Soon, the tenses will change for good. Kennelly might still catch a glance at the Lakewood Ranch map, but from a different perspective. He’ll probably come knocking on Jensen’s door, asking for a contract to sell him land.

“We have a future together, and Rex says we’ll just be on a different side of the table when we meet,” Kennelly said.

Kennelly won’t move away from his Lakewood Ranch home, and you will likely see him on Main Street, drinking a beer, while his legacy stares him in the face.

“I don’t know how you can’t (think of legacy) when you work with a project this large,” Kennelly said. “I’m proud of the team. I understand and know the vision — the thresholds that we want to ... ”

He stops himself.

“ ... That Lakewood Ranch wants to attract. I guess I can’t say ‘we’ right?”

Contact Josh Siegel at jsiegel@yourobserver.com.

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