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Lakewood Ranch pioneer shares insights on building a community

After 20 years at the helm, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO Rex Jensen sounds off on what makes a community.

As president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch since 2005, Rex Jensen heads up one of the most recognizable and sought-after land management, agricultural and development companies in the nation. (Photo by Lori Sax)
As president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch since 2005, Rex Jensen heads up one of the most recognizable and sought-after land management, agricultural and development companies in the nation. (Photo by Lori Sax)
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 Rex Jensen likes to build things.

Proof lies in his long career at Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, which is nearing 30 years. He joined the company, which is the developer behind Lakewood Ranch, in 1994. He was named president in 2002 and CEO in 2005. During Jensen’s time at Lakewood Ranch, it has blossomed into a preeminent, nationally recognized master-planned community. It now has some 55,000 residents and nearly 2,000 employees, to name a few data points.

But Jensen also likes to build things with his hands, in his workshop, using raw lumber. He’s built a variety of furniture, recently scrolling through his phone to show a visitor to SMR’s offices some photos of a bar he built. The hobby, he says, is one of the ways he unwinds from work. Jensen recently sat down with LWR Life to talk about the state of the community, his career, his woodworking passion and more.


Lakewood Ranch is less than 18 months away from hitting 30 years as a residential community. What’s the status of the community?

We are an established master-planned community on the cusp of planning its last properties. That doesn’t mean developing them, but it means planning them, determining what they are, how the infrastructure will be done and what kind of products they will contain. That isn’t to say Lakewood Ranch won’t expand further, but it won’t be under my watch. We can see the end; we can see the goal line.


What was the best decision you and the team made when initially developing Lakewood Ranch?

The way we financed the community. (It used Community Development District bonds, which alleviated the need for short-term debt.) Because that gave us the luxury of building it right the first time and not trying to do things in phases, like ‘we’ll do two lanes today and come back and four-lane them later.’ We built the amenities up front. We didn’t say ‘trust us and, after 500 homes, we’ll give you a park.’ We built the parks up front, the trails up front. It’s allowed us to weather economic storms. Having money may not be everything, but lacking it is a real problem. And we’ve never lacked for capital.


What decision would you take a mulligan on or a do-over?

The whole thing with the arena. That would have been a great community amenity. But it didn’t pan out. (A potential 7,400-seat ice hockey and entertainment arena, which was slated to be built between State Roads 64 and 70 in Lakewood Ranch, went into foreclosure in 2009 after six years of starts and stops.) I think part of what one does is you go ahead and fix a bad decision, which we did. We tore the arena down, we bought the mortgage on the property, reacquired it and sold it a second time for a great profit.


Why did so many people doubt a master-planned community on such a big piece of property — 33,000 acres over 55 square miles — would work?

People know what they know, and the flip side is they don’t know what they don’t know. When you look at when we started, the typical project or community wasn’t anything like Lakewood Ranch. It was a small project, usually at a maximum 120 to 300 units, and it was all houses. There was no community to it. It was a project.

You had to get this far from either Sarasota or Bradenton to find large land ownerships. And it’s only on the large land ownerships you get to do something different. But in those days, there was nobody doing anything different because I-75 hadn’t been put in yet, and the infrastructure wasn’t out in this area.

It (also) hadn’t been done before. Manatee County, and Sarasota for that matter, had been nice, but sleepy little markets. The big Florida migrations hadn’t really begun.


What mistakes have you seen other master-planned communities make?

They tend to equate slogans with substance. I can name several of them in Florida that are a slogan every other week. When they find one slogan that doesn’t work, they turn to something else with another slogan. It all boils down to if you’re going to create a community, you have to go at it from the standpoint of lifestyle. Most of these folks don’t get that.

That’s the biggest thing I see — a lack of understanding of what a community really is. A community isn’t just the physical structure: the psychological term for that is edifice complex. If you think about where you came from, how you were raised, your friends, your social fabric, schools you can walk to. That’s what it is. You have to have a well-rounded environment and not just a home to go to, shut the doors and go to the back patio and have a cocktail at 5:30. That’s nice, but there’s more to life than that. And I think that’s what many master-planned community developers don’t understand.


What are some master-planned communities you think get it right?

Irvine Ranch in California would be one. The Woodlands in Texas would be another. These are iconic communities that are kind of products of their own environment. They fit the larger context of where they grew. Summerlin (in Las Vegas) is another one. Those communities have weathered the test of time and progressed quite rapidly.


If you could a push a button and make one change to how Sarasota and Manatee county commissioners make decisions on development and growth, what would you do?   

A mindset change. There has always been a phobia, not just in these two counties, but everywhere, about large projects. And I frankly think large projects are actually better than a whole series of small ones. If you put 1,000 people in 10 projects versus 1,000 people in one, I think you will get a better result with the larger one because you can plan it, you can have a mix of uses in it. If you have a whole series of small projects, the only choice is to pave it with wall-to-wall homes. And you hope your neighbor will put a school on your property, but you sure don’t want to do that.

That’s what people have got to get over. It’s not just an absolute numbers game. The cumulative impact of a series of small projects is actually much more severe than the same amount of development in a larger, better-planned project. And for some reason that’s hard to grasp. And I wish it weren’t.


What’s the best part of your job at SMR?

The creativity. The ability to paint on such a big canvas. The fact that when I start my day I have no idea what it’s all going to contain, how it’s going to end. The variety.


The worst part?

Dealing with some of the sad human issues you have to deal with. There is an outbreak of mental health issues going on in this community, and sometimes it happens to employees, sometimes it happens to others, and dealing with those kinds of problems can be a real grind. And they are out there. And they are legion.


What are the characteristics of a good leader?

You have to have your eyes out for what’s happening around you. You can’t be a cow grazing in the grass and let a rock hit you that’s falling out of the sky. And there are so many people who are that way. They don’t just raise their head out of the grass and look to see what’s happening.

You have to lead from the front.  You can’t have a situation where you ask people to do things you couldn’t or wouldn’t do. You can’t panic. A leader who panics isn’t a leader. You have to find solutions, not have problems. There are many people who like to have problems, but you have to fix them.


When Florida Trend magazine named you to its list of the 500 most influential executives in the state in 2021, you said, in answering “something surprising” about yourself, you hate publicity. Why?

I like to just do things. I don’t do things for publicity or adulation. I do them to accomplish certain goals, and I find publicity distracting.


What do you enjoy when you aren’t working?

Woodworking. … I build furniture, including desks and credenzas. I built a wet bar. I do it out of raw lumber, with no plans. Just create it as I go. I’ve been doing that for 15 or 20 years. You can’t be thinking about the office while you’re trying to keep your fingers busy, so it gets business out of my head.


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