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Business Observer Friday, May 14, 2010 10 years ago

Hanging Tough

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The painful back injuries Wayne Ruben suffered after he was named the Review's top entrepreneur turned out to be the least of his troubles. The real estate bust brought more aches.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A lot has happened to Sarasota-Manatee developer Wayne Ruben in the nearly 10 years since he was named the Review's Entrepreneur of the Year in 2001.

He had back surgery in 2003 and again in 2004, which put him out of work for more than a year. When he returned to work, he teamed up with his son, Aaron Ruben, in what he calls one of the most rewarding moves of his career. And, after more than two decades of being the guy who asked banks for loans, he joined the board of a bank and became the head of a loan committee.

Of course, there's also this major change: When Ruben won the award in 2001 he was a top executive with Benderson Development, one of the largest property owners and commercial landlords in Florida. His career with Benderson through that point included supervising more than 50 large-scale commercial development projects across the state.

Now Ruben heads up his own development firm, Ruben-Holland Development, in conjunction with construction executive Roger Holland. The company, not surprisingly, has gone through several extreme highs and lows the last five years during the boom and bust.

Ruben-Holland, which has hovered around $5 million in annual revenues the past two years, has survived like many others in real estate: It cut expenses any way it could and it now tries to mix the right combination of patience and aggressiveness when going after work.

“I try to find the projects I enjoy the most and focus on those,” says Ruben. “The land-entitlement process is what I love the most about development.”

Ruben, 54, is currently involved in several commercial and residential developments in Sarasota and Manatee counties, although few of the projects have the pizzazz of his pre-bust ventures. There are no super-sized shopping malls.

Nonetheless, three projects stand out, including one where Ruben got to put his passion for land-entitlement to good use. That project is to build a series of tennis courts, softball fields and family recreational areas at Tom Bennett Park in North Manatee County, near State Road 64 and Interstate 75.

The $3 million project is being funded partially by Manatee County and has gone through four years of planning, zoning and more planning hearings and meetings. Approvals were finally granted, however, and the 100-acre project is scheduled to break ground in May.

“That was a lot of hard work,” says Ruben, “so it's nice to see it finally come to fruition.”

Another project Ruben has spent time on is what's being termed the Fruitville Initiative. That project involves 300 acres Ruben co-owns with a consortium of business partners on Fruitville Road east of I-75.

Ruben was part of a group of developers and community members who met recently with Sarasota County officials to discuss how to develop the property as one entity, instead of a project done by piecemeal. The project could include residential and commercial components and it would be built under walk-friendly, New Urbanism development principles.

Even though it's likely years away from actual construction, the concept behind the project has gotten the attention of the Sarasota County Commission. In fact, commissioners recently asked county staff to write an amendment to the county's comprehensive land use plan that would allow the tracts to be developed at once.

A third project that has taken up Ruben's time lately is Legends Bay at IMG Academies in Bradenton. The residential development, billed as the only luxury waterfront real estate community being built from Bradenton to Venice, has run smack into the recession. Sales over the four years of the project have barely crept along.

“The absorption rate is slower than we'd like,” says Ruben, “but we are making it through.”

The project calls for a total of 189 single-family homes. So far, about 15 homes have been built. One recent boost to the project: Fort Worth, Texas-based homebuilder D.R. Horton broke ground on six new models in the community late last year, a significant move in that regional homebuilders have avoided the Gulf Coast for a few years.

Ruben has undertaken one more role since being named the Review's top entrepreneur in 2001: Bank director. In 2007 he joined a who's who list of Sarasota business leaders on the board of Gateway Bank of Southwest Florida. The list includes Sarasota attorney Charles Bartlett; Willis Smith Construction President and Chief Executive David Sessions; and local real estate developer Gavin Meshad.

Ruben approached his role with gusto, including the banking school classes he attended. Now he's in charge of Gateway's loan committee, a role reversal considering all the times he has sat on the other side of the table.

“Banking has changed a lot in the last few years,” says Ruben. “There is a great amount of diligence now that goes into loan approvals.”

— Mark Gordon

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