Even Rex Jensen's admirers use words like crusty and bristly when they describe the accomplished developer. Jensen's success, however, is based on much more than being tough.
The Manatee County School District was wedged in a tight spot in the late 1990s.
School officials were well aware a major population spurt was forthcoming in east Manatee County, a surge that would require lots of schools. The difficulty, however, lied in the increasingly high land prices that accompanied the growth.
But Schroeder-Manatee Ranch President and CEO Rex Jensen, whose firm controls 30,000 acres in east Manatee County, didn't see much of a problem. Jensen simply called a bunch of school officials into SMR's office, showed them a map and bluntly asked them where they wanted to build schools.
The offer stunned school officials, according to people at the meeting.
“Nobody else was doing things like that for the school district,” says Manatee County Superintendent of Schools Tim McGonegal, who adds that more recently the district has had to ask county commissioners for help in wrangles over land deals with other local developers. “That was in our best interest, but it wasn't necessarily in his best interests.”
Jensen, 56, says helping the school district get a foothold in east Manatee County is one of his proudest accomplishments with SMR, a career that began in 1990 when he was hired to run the company's real estate division. That says something, considering SMR's Lakewood Ranch is a rare master-planned community in Florida in that it has come through on most of its grand live-work-play ambitions.
Jensen's work with the school district also reveals a badly kept secret in Sarasota-Manatee development and business circles: Jensen might have a gruff, tough negotiator side, but he's also a softie who will steadfastly only think big-picture when it comes to what's in SMR's best interests. In that regard, several people who know Jensen say he deftly combines his power and influence with responsibility and vision.
“I think Rex has the best mind in three counties,” says Mary Fran Carroll, who ran SMR prior to Jensen. “He's bristly, but he has a great ability to zero in on the core of the problem while other people just talk around the issue.”
Adds Jensen: “If you view yourself as an island, that's what you'll be. I've never wanted to be that.”
Indeed, Jensen's influence on the Sarasota-Manatee region is anything but an island, even past what SMR has done with Lakewood Ranch. Would-be builders and would-be public officials, for instance, have been known to ask Jensen for advice before they move ahead with a project, or a run for local office.
Jensen's influence even stretches to places where he has a limited role. That's the case with the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, a pro-business networking and lobbying group run independent of SMR. Craig Cerreta, a local Realtor who is the past chair of the Alliance's board, says some high-profile board members who recently joined the group specifically mentioned they admired what Jensen accomplished.
Still, despite admiration from several quarters, Jensen has had several well-documented, public fights, both with political entities and individuals.
Most recently, there was the front-and-center position Jensen took against Amendment 4, an effort to change the approval process for comprehensive land plans Florida voters rejected Nov. 2. There was also SMR's battle with Sarasota County officials over Villages of Lakewood Ranch South, a 5,100-home project planned for north Sarasota — SMR's first residential project to cross county lines.
Moreover, Jensen has had the occasional one-on-one verbal spats with public officials, including a long-standing feud with Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash. McClash, especially during the boom years, accused SMR of overburdening local roads. Jensen says McClash has an anti-growth, anti-development stance that's harmful to the entire county, not just SMR or Lakewood Ranch residents.
Jensen, the oldest of five children, says he only gets into arguments when he sees an injustice being done to someone or something.
“There has never been a time in my life when I've thrown the first punch,” says Jensen. “But I hate bullies. If they throw the first punch, I plan to throw the last.”