Her name recognition would hardly register if you took a poll here. Oh, a lot of people knew her. But if you did a “man-on-the-street” poll on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch or Main Street in downtown Sarasota or Manatee Avenue in downtown Bradenton and asked, “Who was Mary Fran Carroll?” — you would get a lot of “I don’t know.”
But Mary Fran Carroll is and will forever be one of the most significant figures in the history of Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Carroll died Monday, March 24, at age 92. Officially, she was the former chairman of the board and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch from 1984 to 1997. But her mark in history is profound: She conceived, gave birth to and nurtured to life Lakewood Ranch.
Rex Jensen, one of her successors, aptly called her “a force of nature.” She wasn’t a “grandstander,” or limelight seeker; she didn’t crave being the center of attention. In public settings, Carroll blended in, minded her own business. Until … you engaged her in conversation. And then the force of nature came to life.
Those who knew her can hear her big laugh; see the broad, teethy smile lighting her face; and the simultaneous twinkle in her Irish blue eyes. Literally, they twinkled — with mischief. She told you exactly what she thought, a two-sided instrument that could slice or pack a punch. Did she ever angry? John Clarke, her successor at SMR, chuckled out loud. That’s all he said, his way of saying what many who negotiated with her knew: tough, smart and wise.
Carroll reveled in story telling, especially regaling her audience with wry cracks about the local politicians. She was two steps ahead of all of them. Think about it: Who today could persuade the region’s county commissioners to allow the likes of a Lakewood Ranch?
Carroll loved to tell the story of her becoming a “rancher.” How this spinster banker from Chicago’s upper-crust Northern Trust Bank flew down for a visit to this 26,000-acre ranch in the God-forsaken, no-man’s-land of eastern Manatee County — wearing Espadrilles.
Even though it was 1984, Carroll became a rarity in these parts — a female CEO, and on top of that, a female CEO of a ranch the size of Disney World. Instead of operating theme parks, this Catholic city girl managed cowboys, cattle, citrus groves, sod and rock mining.
Carroll came to Schroeder-Manatee Ranch at the behest of one of the senior members of Milwaukee’s Uihlein family, descendants and owners of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co., which from the 1850s to 1950s was the largest beer brewer in America.
One of her jobs, she often recounted, was to “teach the boys business.” Seven Uihlein families each appointed one of their young heirs to the board of directors of the ranch. And they were green, Carroll said.
When she began hearing initial rumblings in Manatee County of building an international airport east of Interstate 75, Carroll went to the SMR board and said, “Boys, you need to decide what you’re going to do with your property or lose your options.”
Lakewood Ranch was born.
She taught her charges a unique way of confronting business challenges. Insistent on integrity and doing things right, she often started discussions about business problems with this one question: “If money were no object, what would you to do solve your problem?” That became your road map. Figure out what you would do and how you would reach your optimal goal, then do the best you can to reach that with resources available.
This is why Lakewood Ranch is one of the best-looking and best-thriving and growing master-planned communities in America. It reflects what John Clarke calls Carroll’s “flair” — to do it right. It reflects her intellect and, to a degree, a special guile. As Clarke remembers, Carroll was especially good at building consensus among disparate groups. She did it, he said, “by knowing more about the subject than anyone else.”
To that end, her leadership led to extraordinary accomplishments — obtaining state and local approvals and public support for Lakewood Ranch; executing the master plan with high standards; and all the while holding multiple generations of Uihleins together to keep Schroeder-Manatee Ranch in tact.
When you look at other big Florida ranching families — the Lykeses, the Ben Hill Griffins — they eventually split, divided by strife. That Schroeder-Manatee Ranch continues what Carroll started nearly a quarter-century ago is a remarkable testament to this “force of nature.” She taught those boys business, all right. She taught all of us that and much more.
“God, I have to be proud,” Carroll told the East County Observer reflecting on Lakewood Ranch. She deserved to be. She changed an entire region of Florida for the better.