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The new top dog

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  • | 11:00 a.m. March 4, 2016
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  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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Eshenbaugh Land Co. has instituted a plan for a new top dog to take over the Tampa-based land brokerage firm.

Ryan Sampson, who has been with the company for more than a decade, has been named its principal. In time, it's expected he'll take the helm from Bill Eshenbaugh, aka “The Dirt Dog,” who founded the brokerage in 1992 following a stint at the Resolution Trust Corp. and remains its managing broker.

“We're simply expanding Bill's vision for the company,” says Sampson, 33, who joined Eshenbaugh in 2005 a week after graduating from Florida State University with a degree in real estate.

“Technological systems we're putting in place to evaluate properties will help us gain efficiencies,” Sampson added. “But it's still very much Bill's company. I am not filling his shoes.”
And by shoes, Sampson means cowboy boots. Eshenbaugh's five agents all wear them to work, and most drive pick-up trucks, eschewing the Lexus and Mercedes-Benz brands most
successful real estate brokers gravitate toward. Sampson pilots a Ford F-250.

“The risk in this business is, something happens to the company principal, and the company falls apart,” says Eshenbaugh, 73. “Or, the principal stays on too long, and everyone else leaves. So we thought now would be a good opportunity to look at a couple of alternatives.”

One alternative that was not considered was selling out.

Eshenbaugh says he regularly gets approached by larger companies that want to absorb his agents' land expertise and listings, but he's adamant that the company should remain independent. It's a feeling Sampson shares.

Sampson grew up in a commercial real estate household — his father and brother are agents with brokerage firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, in Tampa — but he was always drawn to the land side of the business.

“I knew from a young age I wanted to do something with land,” Sampson says. “To be able to drive by and see something coming out of the ground and to know I was involved, that's what I wanted.”

So before he even graduated from FSU, he asked Eshenbaugh if he could shadow him for a day.

The Dirt Dog — a nickname Eshenbaugh adopted for himself and his firm following a conversation with a fellow broker — said no.

“It was a frenzied period,” Eshenbaugh says. “I didn't want to train anybody. But I knew Ryan's father, so I relented. I told Ryan, I have a breakfast meeting at 7:30 a.m. Monday morning if you want to come along.”

By 10:30 that night, following a dinner meeting at a restaurant, Eshenbaugh asked the college student if he wanted to join him and broker land deals.

“I thought, 'I really like this guy,” Eshenbaugh recalls. “He was well spoken, and I was impressed that he knew what he wanted to do at age 22. I sure didn't. And I like to think that I'm a pretty good judge of whether someone has integrity and ambition, and whether they're honest.”

When the recession took hold in 2008, the company's sales volume plummeted — from $150 million in 2006 to $6 million in 2008. Sampson admits he thought briefly about leaving the firm to get his M.B.A., but decided against it. Eshenbaugh, meanwhile, focused the firm on doing deals for lenders that were forced to take back land.

Within a year or so, Eshenbaugh's sales volume had rebounded, and Sampson had established himself as a solid broker in his own right.

“They're very knowledgeable about the market,” says Todd Fabbri, president of the Richman Group of Florida Inc., an affiliate of one of the nation's largest apartment owners.

“I deal with a lot of brokers, and some will tell you what they think you want to hear, and some will tell you what the facts are. Ryan has always been upfront and forthright, which is why we've gone back to him and Eshenbaugh over the years.”

Betty Valenti, whose family's nearly 2,000-acre Myakka City ranchland Eshenbaugh sold earlier this year, tells how Sampson would start out from Tampa before sunrise for 7 a.m. showings.

“Eshenbaugh's folks always treated me with a lot of concern,” she says. “They gave me constant reports on what was happening, and went above and beyond.”

After Valenti's land was sold to It Works! founder Mark Pentecost, Sampson presented her with four photographs of her property taken from the air, one for her and each of her children, in rich, wood frames.

Two years ago, Eshenbaugh's resurgence caught the eye of a pair of influential industry groups, and the firm was named “Brokerage of the Year” by a local chapter of the National Association of Office and Industrial Parks and the Florida Gulf Coast Commercial Association of Realtors. Last September, Eshenbaugh made Sampson a partner.

But while Sampson's status has changed, some fundamental aspects of Eshenbaugh's company haven't, and won't.

The company will remain focused on the Tampa Bay area, Sampson says — and on treating clients right.

“Bill tells us often, be ethical and you'll do well,” Sampson says. “Let your reputation and the firm's do its job.”

Sampson, meanwhile, says he remains optimistic about the market for 2016 and beyond.

“For us, we think 2016 will be a phenomenal year,” he says. “We're in a good situation here. We're getting calls from developers in Texas, Alabama and elsewhere, who want to be here. So we're encouraged.”

Sampson is encouraged, too, by the firm's numbers. Eshenbaugh has roughly $165 million worth of land under contract of sale at present, and listings that could fetch as much as $350 million.

But perhaps his main source of optimism stems from the idea that Eshenbaugh will still be the firm's guiding light for years to come.

“I want the heritage of our firm to live on, and the security of our people is important to create a positive working environment,” Eshenbaugh says. “For clients, it gives them a sense of continuity, and it allows me to focus less on the business side and more on deals.

“I've told Ryan, my father and grandfather both lived well into their nineties, so we could end up retiring on the same day.”

- K.L. McQuaid


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