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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 3, 2003 15 years ago

From Cars to Land

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Carl Lindell Jr. is best known for his car dealerships. But his focus is now more on real estate.Tampa entrepreneur Carl W. Lindell Jr. recently discovered what he thinks might be a choice site for a condominium resort on the Bahamas' Treasure Cay w

From Cars to Land

Carl Lindell Jr. is best known for his car dealerships. But his focus is now more on real estate.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Tampa entrepreneur Carl W. Lindell Jr. recently discovered what he thinks might be a choice site for a condominium resort on the Bahamas' Treasure Cay while fishing in the Caribbean. He and real estate partner Ronald Weisser, president of Lindell Investments Inc., are now weighing the development possibilities.

"We tend to get involved everywhere we go," says Lindell, best known for his new vehicle dealerships. At 59, he's an ardent globetrotter who demands as much fun from exotic travels aboard his privately owned Piper Cheyenne II as he gets from managing his growing and diversified business interests. In five years, Lindell Investments has acquired a real estate portfolio with holdings in four of the 10 Gulf Coast region counties, including a 109,172-square-foot retail center in Plant City, a 76,800-square-foot office building at 11300 Fourth St. N. in St. Petersburg, and a 14.3-acre upscale residential development near Manatee County's Lakewood Ranch master-planned community.

Earlier this year, the partners acquired 2.71 acres on Tampa's Harbour Island for about $4.7 million from an affiliate of Post Apartment Homes LP. They plan to develop three, 20-story condo buildings, with work scheduled to begin early next year.

By chance three years ago, the partners discovered 600 acres of agricultural land on U.S. 41 in the Pasco County community of Land O' Lakes. A Boston developer held an option on the property but wanted out. The developer's waning interest - plus the then-pending expiration of the trust that held title to the property - culminated in a fairly quick $3.55 million sale. "The price of the land has (since) gone up 400%," Lindell says of the Wilderness Lake Preserve project.

It's for certain Lindell and Weisser work and play at a frenetic pace. Modern technology - satellite phones, for instance - enable the two to manage the growing business enterprise whether sail fishing off South American coasts, scuba diving among the British Virgin Islands' coral reefs or taking back-road tours in Europe, Mexico, New Zealand. They travel frequently.

Their zest for life captivates the respect of their peers. Marc Fratello, president and CEO of Tampa-based Verticent Corp., met Lindell and Weisser through the CEO Council of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit entrepreneurial support group for second-stage companies that produce in excess of $3 million annual sales or revenue. They quickly became friends.

"One of the things that attracted me to these guys is they take a big bite out of life," Fratello says. "I think it's pretty evident - from all the things Carl is involved in - the car business is only a part of the empire. There are only a handful of business leaders in Tampa who are recognizable not just for their marquee business names but also for their business acumen. Obviously, Carl is one of those."

A Jacksonville native, Lindell attributes his entrepreneurial acumen to his father - Carl W. Lindell Sr., a World War II naval aviator who became the Southeast U.S. distributor for Castrol Oil after the war. He diversified into auto sales, establishing Lindell Motors and a Volkswagen dealership in 1962 in Tampa.

Meanwhile, the younger Lindell set out to establish his own benchmarks. For one, he earned the prestigious Eagle Scout award from the Boy Scouts of America. He completed a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1966 at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and then a MB A in 1968 at Emory University. A year later he bought the family's Volkswagen dealership.

As an automotive dealer, the younger Lindell expanded into Honda, Acura, Hyundai, Subaru and Mazda dealerships in cities such as Clearwater, Sarasota and St. Petersburg. Today, he oversees the Volkswagen and Honda dealerships in Tampa and the Mazda dealership in St. Petersburg. Over his career, Lindell gravitated to the Young Presidents Organization, an international entrepreneurial support group that serves a membership of about 8,000 global business owners and CEOs. He met Weisser during one of the group's business gatherings.

A Miami native, Weisser also attributes his entrepreneurial acumen to his father, Jack Weisser, a commercial real estate developer who worked throughout Florida's East Coast and Orlando regions. The younger Weisser joined his father's firm after earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Tulane University. Around 1985, the younger Weisser branched off on his own and moved to the Tampa Bay area. It was Weisser who suggested to Lindell he should consider real estate as a way to leverage his wealth.

"I got into real estate because of my friendship with Ron," Lindell says. "Hanging around Ron is like going to school everyday because I've learned so much about real estate development from him."

The partners' real estate operating strategy is simple: Find the best possible developable land, land bank it, complete all governmental planning and permitting processes and then remarket it. It was a template originally contemplated for Wilderness Lake Preserve.

"My assignment for them was to find a site in the Pasco County progress area that they could develop at least five to 10 years out, and a property they could use in the meantime for recreational purposes," says Clearwater land broker Bill Eshenbaugh, who introduced Lindell and Weisser to the 600-acre site. "They thought they were ahead of the market on that one, but what turned out to be a good business decision turned out to be a great business decision."

However, builders who worked with Lindell and Weisser on other residential developments encouraged the two to develop the upscale residential community, says Eshenbaugh.

Of the partners, Eshenbaugh says: "They do business the old-fashioned way: If you shake their hand you've got a deal."

Wilderness Lake lots sell for about $40,000 apiece, Lindell says. That means gross sales on 800 lots at build out could total about $30 million. But he says to add another 25%, or $7.5 million, to get a more accurate estimate on total potential lot sales.

Their work at Wilderness Lake builds on the success they had at Whispering Oaks, a moderately priced single-family community with 270 homes on 120 acres in Tampa's Carrollwood community; and Keystone Shores, a 50-acre residential development on Gunn Highway in Hillsborough County's Odessa community, with 38 homes on acre lots selling from $800,000 to $2 million.

Competitors wanted the Keystone Lakes site just as intensely as Lindell and Weisser because of home-site frontage available on Little Lake and James Lake. The problem centered on assembling the 50 acres necessary to market such a development and the difficult negotiations with the primary property owners - three physicians who lived in three states. "Everybody in town tried to buy it," Weisser recalls. "After we bought it, everybody asked, 'How did you accomplish it.' We were willing to go through the pain and suffering of dealing with three doctors in three states."

In Manatee, the partners set aside their land-banking strategy earlier this year to develop 239 residential lots on Bobby Jones Court adjacent to the Imperial Lakes Golf Course.

The partners have successfully applied their land-banking strategy to commercial development. Four years ago, they acquired an 11-acre residual piece of the Westchase mixed-use residential development in Tampa at Hillsborough Avenue and Pistol Range Road. "In a span of three years, we sold it at about 10 times what Carl paid for it," Weisser says.

Although he wouldn't disclose financial details, Lindell also speculates on early-stage business ventures. Two of those ventures included BrainBuzz.com Inc., a struggling Internet-based job resource for information technology specialists; and Vitalcast.com Inc., an alternative health Internet web service that succumbed to the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. While a risk-taker during the dot-com heyday, Lindell also says he has invested through more established ventures managed by two Tampa-based private investment funds - Florida Capital Partners and South Atlantic Venture Funds.

The decision by Lindell to invest through Florida Capital Partners reflects his sophistication as an investor, says Glenn Oken, a partner in Florida Capital Partners, a private investment firm that invests in established corporations on behalf of entities such as Yale University and the California Public Employees Retirement System.

"Investing in the alternative investment class is something for more sophisticated investors," Oken says. "I certainly have respect for individuals who have found their way to and studied alternative investment class for their investment dollars. Part of that is choosing well. Obviously, Mr. Lindell is very well-read and well-studied, if only based on the fact he's been very successful."

Lindell still reaps considerable rewards from Lindell Motors, though he relies more on others to manage day-to-day sales operations. This year he expects total gross sales of Volkswagens, Hondas and Mazdas to reach $135 million. Sales at the three dealerships have increased by $5 million a year over the past several years, he says.

A stable revenue stream enables Lindell's philanthropic endeavors. For instance, the Eagle Scout contributed $1 million two years ago to the Gulf Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America - the group's largest donation ever. He also considers himself a staunch supporter of groups such as the United Way and Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. At Wilderness Lake, he built a 32-seat pavilion so Lowry Park personnel could stage occasional wildlife presentations.

It is apparent Lindell receives great satisfaction from his real estate partnership with Weisser. He says about 80% of his time is devoted to the real estate operations. In explaining the secret to the success of the real estate operations, Lindell says this: "Just get the right partner. Ron gets more done than two highly paid managers can get done at the same time."

And the two partners are not risk-averse. "We could spend $100,000 and come to the conclusion not to proceed because of an impediment to a development," Weisser says.

Lindell adds: "You're going to have to spend a couple thousand dollars just to be in the game. We just lost a potential 500-unit (single-family) deal, but there will be another that will come along."

LINDELL INVESTMENTS INC., LINDELL MOTORS INC. AT A GLANCE

Business: A privately owned real estate investment and development company. Chairman and CEO Carl W. Lindell Jr. also owns Volkswagen, Honda and Mazda dealerships. He also speculates on some small, early-stage startups.

Headquarters: Tampa

Founded: Lindell Investments, 1995; Lindell Motors, 1962

2003 Revenue: $135 million*

2002 Revenue: $130 million*

2001 Revenue: $125 million*

2000 Revenue: $120 million*

Strategic challenge: Just as many other developers, Lindell Investments faces intense competition from well-financed competitors in search of developable land throughout the Gulf Coast region. Lindell and real estate partner Ron Weisser say it's not uncommon for them to invest in excess of a $100,000 on a bid only to take a loss when a competitor outbids them.

* Includes only Lindell Motors' annual revenue estimates

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