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Giving Power

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  • | 5:22 p.m. January 7, 2011
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David Lucas has a failsafe way of judging character.

“Never trust anyone who cheats at golf,” he says. “Golf doesn't build character, it reveals character.”

So if you're lucky enough to be invited to a round of golf with Lucas at any of the stunning courses his company has developed over the last several decades, please don't do what one hapless banker did a few years ago and pump up your prowess in the clubhouse.

Lucas says he immediately saw the banker lied about his handicap watching his swing on the first tee. The banker is no longer doing business in the Fort Myers area, Lucas notes.

In Lee County, few people are as influential as Lucas, 63, the chairman of the Bonita Bay Group. Even through the challenges of the recession that savaged the development company, Lucas' reputation in business circles remains untarnished.

A 1971 Harvard Business School graduate, Lucas took over the management of Bonita Bay Group when founder and father-in-law David Shakarian died in 1984. Shakarian, the founder and chairman of vitamin retailer General Nutrition Corp. (GNC), had assembled 4,000 acres in Bonita Springs and out of that land sprang Bonita Bay, a lushly landscaped community of 2,400 acres that would set a precedent for new developments.

As the Gulf Coast's population grew, so did Lucas' influence. The Bonita Bay Group's collaborative approach with environmentalists and its attention to quality and detail won praise from business partners.

For Lucas, choosing partners in business never came with an agenda. “I start out assuming people are honest,” he says. “First impressions are usually pretty good,” he adds. Hesitating for a second, he says: “Not always. Sometimes I get fooled.”

Although he won't say how much money his family or the company has given to charitable causes in the area, his generosity is well known. “I don't expect anything back,” he says. “I don't keep score.”

Lucas is also a legendary fundraiser, forming the United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades' Alexis de Tocqueville Society for those who contribute more than $10,000 each, raising $17 million so far. Friends say it's hard to say no when Lucas presents them with “an opportunity to give.”

But business and charitable giving aren't necessarily linked. “I don't consciously connect the two,” he says. “If it ends up helping the business, so much the better.”

Lucas cites the example of giving money to the City of Fort Myers so it could buy land for a community park in a depressed area of the city. “I thought it needed to be done,” he says.

A few years later, the city asked Bonita Bay Group to build affordable housing in that same neighborhood. “It's like tithing to your church,” Lucas explains. “You don't tithe to get blessed. It just happens.”

Besides the United Way, Lucas says economic development organizations such as the Horizon Council and local banks are good ways to make the right connections in Lee County. “I'd line them up with a bank like Finemark,” he says. (Lucas is chairman of Finemark National Bank and Trust.)

Although it may seem strange because of the development company's frequent interactions with government, Lucas says he stays out of the political arena. “I don't like politics,” he says. “It's a weakness, I know.”

Lucas says he doesn't have friends in politics and only gives money to candidates on someone else's advice. At the Bonita Bay Group, Lucas delegates that task. “My approach is to have someone in the company who can work through the process,” he says. “I'm not the one leading the charge.”

Despite battling a slow progression of Parkinson's disease, Lucas continues to put in long hours at Bonita Bay and maintaining a regular schedule of exercise that includes Pilates, lifting weights and riding an elliptical trainer.

Son Brian Lucas, 37, is the CEO of the company. “I'm not ready to retire,” he says. “I have plenty to keep me busy.”


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