In 1984, Mary Francis Carroll traded her white gloves and a business suit for cowboy boots and a vision to show the world that life existed east of Interstate 75.
Her task was to improve the profitability of the Schroeder-Manatee Ranch’s agricultural operations and make the company sustainable for future generations. But how she did that was a testament to her vision for what could be: a master-planned development that was more than houses and roads; she wanted to build a community.
And in Lakewood Ranch, she did just that.
“Her fingerprints are all over the place,” said Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, developer of Lakewood Ranch.
Carroll, the founding CEO of SMR, died Monday in her home at The Glenridge on Palmer Ranch. She was 92.
Carroll became involved with SMR after a prominent landowner visited her office at Northern Trust Co., in Chicago, for her expertise in the trust department.
Following that visit, she traveled to the 30,000-acre property in eastern Manatee County dressed causally by Northern Trust’s standards, but not casually enough for the seven ranch families who, together, owned the property. They made her wear cowboy boots to the family meeting that ultimately led to her appointment as chairwoman of the board of directors and becoming SMR’s CEO and president in 1984.
The Uihlein family charged her with making its agricultural operations — tree, turf and cattle — profitable.
Carroll hired John Clarke, who eventually became the company’s second CEO, to lead the charge.
At the same time, Carroll saw the development of nearby communities and began casting a grander vision for the property’s future.
“We weren’t in the middle of the Sahara Desert anymore,” Carroll told the East County Observer in an October 2010 interview for SMR’s 15th anniversary. “That led me to development.”
In December 1989, Carroll’s vision came to fruition with the approval of the Cypress Banks development of regional impact, an area that now includes some of Lakewood Ranch’s original communities — Summerfield and Riverwalk. She and her team used the economic downturn in the late 1980s to explore other master-planned communities around the country.
They applied what they learned — choosing to develop the property holistically — when they broke ground on their communities in 1994 and began home sales in 1995.
Carroll led the charge in 1989 for SMR to build the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park, a 1,273-acre campus-style business park located east of I-75 and south of University Parkway.
Despite the reluctance of Sarasota County commissioners, Carroll was determined to get the business park approved. She strode up to the podium in the commission chambers wearing a purple dress to match the “purple blob” representing the property on a map.
“Commissioners were so impressed with the dress, they voted unanimously to approve the park,” said Clarke. “That was how she was. She was a very strong, outspoken and colorful person.”
Today, the corporate park and Lakewood Ranch, in total, boast more than 1,200 businesses.
“She could talk with the chamber of commerce, the head of Northern Trust Bank and still mix with the farmers and ranchers out on the ranch,” Clarke said. “She was able to walk across different worlds, and she could mix all of them. Bringing people together was one of her defining abilities.”
Jensen agreed, calling her “a force of nature.”
“She didn’t have a reverse gear,” he said.
Jensen attributes the success of Lakewood Ranch’s development not only to Carroll’s vision and perseverance, but also to her commitment for pursuing quality and avoiding shortcuts in business.
“That’s really how we survived the downturn,” he said.
During her years with SMR, from which she retired in 1997, Carroll accumulated plaques for groundbreakings of Lakewood Ranch High School, Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and others. But she was particularly proud when a bridge on Lorraine Road was named in her honor.
Aside from her work out east, Carroll was instrumental in developing The Glenridge on Palmer Ranch, and served as its first chairwoman of the board.
In a November 2008 interview with the East County Observer, Carroll said watching her plans for Lakewood Ranch develop from ideas on paper into a thriving community was the “experience of a lifetime.”
“God, I have to be proud,” she said.
A Mass for Mary Fran Carroll will be held at 9:30 a.m. April 2, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, 2506 Gulf Gate Drive. A reception will be held at 4 p.m. that day in the main lobby of The Glenridge on Palmer Ranch, 7333 Scotland Way. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Sarasota Community Foundation.
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