It has been five years since one of the region's most prolific homebuilders headed south — a worthwhile expansion. More growth is forthcoming.
It's good to know when to go back into the water.
As 2012 approached and the last decade's economic wreckage eased, Pat Neal and other executives at Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities saw sufficient signs of a rebound to feel safe moving south into Lee and Collier counties.
Five years and 11 communities later, Neal Communities expects to expand its southern footprint soon with at least one mega-community of 1,000-plus homes in Collier County. “We have one under contract, but we have not finalized that yet,” says Michael Greenberg, Neal's Southwest Florida regional president.
The Collier site would by far be the company's largest community in its two-county southern market, adds Greenberg, a former WCI Communities and Toll Brothers senior executive who became Neal Communities' regional president just as the company started its southern expansion. “We're looking at both Collier and Lee,” he says of prospective large communities.
By the time Neal Communities made its southward push, the company, founded in 1970 by Pat Neal and his father, Paul Neal, had grown to become the largest locally owned residential builder in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Along the way, it created a brand synonymous with east Manatee County's Lakewood Ranch master-planned community.
While other residential developers returned land in Lee and Collier to lenders amid the real estate slump, Neal grabbed it up at bargain prices. When the light changed, the company wanted to be ready. Pat Neal, winner of the Business Observer's Entrepreneur of the Year multiple times, has made a career out of that strategy.
“It came out of the recession strong,” Greenberg says, attributing the strength to the company's low debt and an independent ownership that freed it from shareholder and Wall Street pressures. “We were very well positioned.... to take advantage of our opportunities to buy ground at affordable prices.”
The company also seeks more land to add to its inventory of smaller communities of 300 homes or less in Lee and Collier, especially in Bonita Springs and Estero.
Neal homes in Collier and Lee run from the $200,000s to the $600,000s. “In the Sarasota market, we build from the high $1 millions to the multimillions with Neal Signature Homes,” says Greenberg, referring to the company's luxury-home division which builds in the north region.
In Naples, the company has built Richmond Park, Reflection Lakes, Avalon and Canopy. Its Fort Myers area communities are Coastal Key, Coconut Cove. Cypress Walk, Daniels Place, Estero Place, Oaks of Estero and Watermark.
“Our brand,” Greenberg says, '“Is where you live matters.' We really approach the location of where we try to buy ground to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace.”
“We're very purposeful,” he adds. “We create communities that create neighborhoods.”
Designers, Greenberg says, seek to create distinctions in architecture, with a variety of home styles that complement each other. “We do a lot of things that others do not do,” he says, citing nature walks, boardwalks and preservation of vegetation, creeks and other natural features.
Building 11 communities in five years would have been impossible without development of a standardization process that Pat Neal says today lets his company build twice as many homes per employee as in 2007. Automation — especially in scheduling and communicating with trade partners — has made “us able to do more with less,” Greenberg says.
The company posted sales of 241 houses in the two counties last year, while the company regionwide sold 1,109 homes and generated revenues of $430 million. Closings last year grew 13% over 2015, the company says, and puts its homes sold since inception at more than 12,000.
Buyers visit design centers of 4,000 square feet in Bonita Springs and 6,000 square feet in Lakewood Ranch. There, customers work with design consultants for selections of finishes, flooring, elevation style, structural options and other features. That process, says Greenberg, makes “every home a personal experience.”