Who starts a company specializing in condo construction in Naples during the most painful days of the real estate collapse in 2009?
Meet Paul Benson, a former executive with Disney Imagineering who helped rebuild Tomorrowland. A California construction engineer by training, Benson moved to Naples in 1998 after stints at Disney World in Orlando drew him to Florida.
Pretty soon, Benson was doing what every other construction engineer seemed to be doing at the time in Florida: building condos, first with Bovis Construction and then with Kraft Construction in Naples. Both firms were powerhouses in the condo boom of the last decade.
But by the time the real estate crash hit Florida, Benson was working for West Bay Club Development Corp. in Estero, owned by Lehman Brothers. We all know what happened in the financial crisis of 2008, so pretty soon Benson was fixing “distressed” condos for Lehman.
Benson quickly earned a reputation for his skill at turning around some spectacular projects, such as Canyon Ranch in Miami. “We've done over 300 units at Canyon Ranch and never failed to meet a closing,” Benson says. Condo prices there have risen from $500 per square foot during the downturn to $1,000 today.
As Benson's reputation grew, he formed EBL Construction with business partner Michael Hawkins, also an alumnus of West Bay Club. In many cases, EBL is hired as the construction manager on a project. “Your project is our office,” Benson says.
Benson faced stiff competition because new-construction projects were getting scarce. “Everybody was getting onto that bandwagon,” says Benson.
But through Lehman he developed a reputation with Wall Street as a busted-condo fixer. “It's a small world,” he says. “We pride ourselves on being their go-to people.” Because of his construction connections, subcontractors were reassured when they came to work on properties in financial distress. “People were scared to come on the job because they worried they wouldn't get paid,” Benson says.
As they built out and sold distressed condos, Benson and Hawkins decided to expand their firm and buy a Naples interior-design firm that specialized in luxury European building products that they renamed EBL Interiors.
The timing was good because new condos are rising in the top-tier markets such as New York City and Atlanta. “Miami's on fire with all the condos they're building,” Benson says. “The distressed side of the business is kind of gone.”
EBL, named after the first initials of Benson's three children, recently opened a showroom and office in Naples in May and the firm has 15 employees and two consultants. “We wanted to showcase what we could do,” Benson says. “I'm bidding on jobs over here.”
Benson says EBL's annual revenues should remain stable at about $9 million this year, roughly the same as last year. “We had such exponential growth that I'm building infrastructure now,” he says. The firm has no debt. “The only thing we lease is our copy machine,” he laughs.
Now that the recovery is firmly taking hold in Southwest Florida, Benson says he recently formed EBL Holdings and acquired a one-acre parcel in the historic district of Bonita Springs. “We're looking at doing some kind of mixed-use project,” he says, reluctant to discuss plans in detail.
“This is like our homecoming,” Benson says.