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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 5, 2009 12 years ago

'Unstoppable Passion'

The name Bob Roskamp carries significant weight in Gulf Coast development and philanthropic circles. Its heft, however, was born of tragedy.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The name Bob Roskamp carries significant weight in Gulf Coast development and philanthropic circles. Its heft was born of tragedy.

One day in 1972, Bert Roskamp returned home from church and ate some lunch.

He then went outside and shot himself to death.

The suicide shook many in the large, extended Roskamp family, no one more than Bert's younger brother, Bob. The younger Roskamp was 34 years old at the time — 10 years younger than Bert — and was at the cusp of what would be a four-decade long entrepreneurial career, a life that would include building one of the largest senior housing companies in the country out of a Bradenton headquarters.

At the time of Bert Roskamp's death, the common refrain was that he was in a better place: He had suffered from schizophrenia at a time when the multiple personality disorder was treated with leper gloves, as little was understood about it medically. And Bob Roskamp recalls his big brother's schizophrenia was like an emotional slingshot.

On the one hand, Bert Roskamp could be high functioning and brilliant, his relatives say; he even held down a job at Bob Roskamp's then fledgling real estate development company in Chicago for a few years. Bert Roskmap was also prone to big hallucinations, however, such as the time he shredded the tile on his kitchen floor by walking around it for hours in ice skates, saying Bobby Hull, the famed Chicago Blackhawks hockey player, was on his way over.

But Bert Roskamp's schizophrenia and eventual suicide also became the seminal moment in Bob Roskamp's life. Says Roskamp: “Seeing the evil of that disease changed our lives.”

So much so that the legacy Bert Roskamp left for Bob Roskamp was one of pushing him to new heights: First, in growing a company that ran facilities for physically disabled adults in Chicago; later in building the Bradenton-based Freedom Group, Inc. into a $150 million senior housing conglomerate with 2,000 employees nationwide at its peak; and finally, in founding the Sarasota-based Roskamp Institute, one of the nation's leading nonprofit research centers that studies disorders of the mind, from schizophrenia to Alzheimer's disease.

Today Roskamp, 70, remains active in several businesses, projects and charitable efforts in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, as well as several real estate developments in the senior housing industry outside of Florida. His business interests stretch from suburban Philadelphia, where he and his family maintain a summer home, to Arizona, California and Michigan.

Although he has had stumbles in various stages of his business life, in local and even some national construction circles, Roskamp is still considered a go-to source for how to build a profitable senior housing complex — one of the few current growth areas in the Gulf Coast building industry. He's credited with creating the concept of a so-called 'debt free' senior living community, whereby a client pays an entry fee prior to construction for a residence in a given facility, which allows Roskamp to develop the property at low or no debt.

Roskamp's resume in the philanthropic arena is also stellar, even past his multimillion-dollar research facility. In 2001 for example, he and his wife, Diane Roskamp, gave $1 million to rebuild an auditorium at the Sarasota-based Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a space that now bears their name. The couple also made a similar-sized donation to the Ringling College of Art and Design earlier this year and Roskamp has served on several arts and education-related boards in the area.

“He's probably the most giving human being I've ever met,” says Woody Wolverton, a Sarasota businessman who has known Roskamp since the late 1980s. “By God, he's always giving to some cause or to someone.”

'A meaningful difference'
A bulk of his financial giving — an amount that's well into the seven figures over the last decade — has been directed toward the Roskamp Institute, a 45,000-square-foot science lab near an industrial area on the Sarasota-Manatee county line. The institute, in an old Bausch & Lomb facility, has 60 employees, including a dozen or so Ph.Ds.

Roskamp hopes the institute, which is now connected to a new for-profit boutique-style drug company researching medicine for Alzheimer's, will be the defining aspect of his legacy. The ultimate goal is to be so successful that there no longer is a need for the center, that it will help find a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

“We want to make a real difference in diseases of the mind,” says Roskamp. “If we succeed at this, my life will have meant a whole lot more than it has to date.”

The institute was founded in 2003, soon after Roskamp parted ways with a similarly focused program he had funded at the University of South Florida in Tampa through his family's foundation. At the time, Roskamp and some of the program's top scientists and researchers said they had run out of space and needed their own building.

School officials countered that the move had more to do with Roskamp seeking to free himself from the regulatory and bureaucratic constraints found at a big college — an anti-establishment attitude that Roskamp has had with other projects and ventures.

Even today, Roskamp bristles at the hoops and hassles necessary to get approvals to go ahead with Alzheimer's drug testing and studies, courtesy of the notoriously slow U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “It takes an immense amount of time to get things done,” Roskamp says. “You have to be patient and persistent.”

The Roskamp Institute had $27.6 million in assets in 2007, according to its 2008 nonprofit filing with the IRS. It also reported $5.2 million in revenue that year, with $2.8 million of that coming directly from grants and gifts. While the institute's assets were roughly the same over the past two years, the revenues were down sharply, from $8.8 million in 2006.

The key recent development for the Institute has been the addition of Archer Pharmaceuticals. Archer is a for-profit company set up to test potential drugs that target the proteins in the brain that scientists have identified as a main cause of Alzheimer's. The Roskamp and Archer researchers have made some good progress, Roskamp says, but to go much further the company will have to partner with some big-pocketed entities.

Says Roskamp: “I simply don't have the resources to fund public trials.”

Nonetheless, while Roskamp admits he doesn't always have patience, persistence is more of his forte. Gersham “Ross” Roskamp, one of Bob Roskamp's older brothers, says persistence is at the epicenter of his sibling's “unstoppable passion” that guides his life.

“He's very driven to have an impact on the world,” says Gresham Roskamp, a current business partner with his brother in several ventures, including a Napa Valley winery. “It makes no difference what industry he's in.”
That drive and ambition however, hasn't always led to the types of successes that have shaped the bulk of Roskamp's career.

For a few years in the late 1990s, for instance, Roskamp and some Sarasota-area business partners put some initial seed money into buying Native American Indian land outside of Sacramento, Calif. The group formed a company to develop and manage what they projected would one day be a high-end casino, but the deal ultimately fell apart; Roskamp and his partners were briefly mentioned in a 2002 Time magazine article that looked at similar deals from the perspective of the Indian tribes, an article that partially led to some changes in the laws governing those deals.

“It was an intriguing idea to explore,” Roskamp says of the Indian casino venture, “but we didn't proceed.”

Entrepreneurial risk
This is all a long way from the rural Iowa farm town where Roskamp grew up as one of eight siblings. Roskamp's father, a World War II veteran, was a minister from a Dutch reform church — a living that brought God into the Roskamp house, but little money.

Bob Roskamp attended a one-room country school, where he says he was valedictorian four years running. “The other kid failed,” he jokes.

Growing up poor, though, taught Roskamp self-reliance. He was delivering newspapers by the time he was five years old and he was working as a farm hand around town by the time he was 12. On the latter, he drove around from farm to farm in his fixed-up 1937 Plymouth, taking work wherever he found it.

Given his family's size and finances, Roskamp knew the only way he would make it to college was on an academic scholarship, which he earned at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls. His uncle John had a factory in town, which would give Roskamp a chance to earn some side money.

After college, Roskamp and his wife settled into what they thought would be their life: Raising kids and for Roskamp, teaching physics at a suburban Chicago high school. By the late 1960s, the teaching career was in full swing, as was the family, with four young children.

It was then that Roskamp took his first big entrepreneurial risk. He sold his house for $5,000 and put half the money into buying a defunct home for the disabled in Chicago. His idea was novel at the time: Give people in mental homes responsibility, even for small and menial tasks, and you'll give them a reason to live.

No doubt Bert Roskamp's schizophrenia was a factor, at least in the business model. But Roskamp also wanted more for his family and was willing to take a chance. “I didn't have anything,” says Roskamp, “so I didn't have anything to lose.”

Roskamp's brothers, Ross and Miller, would later join him in the business, as did Bert for a time. But by the mid-1970s, the federal government began to heavily regulate the industry, making the business model infinitely more challenging.

So the Roskamps moved on, with Bob heading to Florida — land of the retiree. In the Sunshine State, Roskamp saw another opportunity in building senior living facilities that treated the elderly with a modicum of respect, something that was in short supply at the time.

Continuing care
The move would define the next 20 years of Roskamp's career. The Roskamps initially relocated to the Largo area, but Bob Roskamp's first project in Florida was in Sarasota. That's where he teamed up with a trio of physicians from Doctor's Hospital to build a senior living facility that catered to a more high-end crowd.

Roskamp believed the business model at the time for any type of senior living, from a nursing home to an assisted living facility, was flawed in that it treated its clients like cattle, not as discerning customers. So Roskamp built facilities with features such as private bathrooms and freshly cooked meals.

The people came in droves and Roskamp grew the business. By the early 1980s, he was expanding to other niches of the industry by developing several complexes known as Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs).

The concept was like a hybrid nursing home-hotel, centered around providing a room and long-term health care for a resident in return for monthly payments.

Roskamp built his first continuing care facility in Seminole and later built another one in Bradenton. The complexes were some of the first for-profit CCRCs in the state.

Roskamp branded the facilities Freedom and created a new company under that name. That's where he also pioneered the concept of developing the properties at low-debt levels, a philosophy that peers and competitors across the country have copied and some still use today.

Other properties Roskamp would go on to develop on the Gulf Coast include Casa Mora Rehabilitation in west Bradenton and the Sarasota Bay Club, just north of downtown Sarasota.

The success and fast-paced growth of Freedom Group surprised Roskamp. “We never wanted to build a national empire,” he says. “We just wanted to have some fun and do some good.”
Roskamp says he looks back at many of his business ventures in the same way. Indeed, he says his big life goal has long been as simple as to make sure he learns something new everyday and do some good in the process.

One thing Roskamp says he won't do is retire, although he has attempted to slow down.

“I'm not going to start anything new at my age,” Roskamp says. “I keep saying that and something else comes along.”


Who. Bob Roskamp, Sarasota
Industry. Senior living communities, Alzheimer's disease research
Key. Roskamp has gone from being an Iowa farm boy to becoming a highly regarded philanthropist and developer in the Sarasota-Bradenton area.

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