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Development executive's mantra: don’t be afraid to ‘get messy’

Ron Wheeler has been with Sembler Co. since 1997.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:00 a.m. October 25, 2019
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Mark Wemple. Ron Wheeler is stepping down from St. Petersburg retail developer Sembler Co., where he has held executive positions since 1997.
Mark Wemple. Ron Wheeler is stepping down from St. Petersburg retail developer Sembler Co., where he has held executive positions since 1997.
  • Commercial Real Estate
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After two decades and millions of square feet of leases and deals, Ron Wheeler recalls dark days when citing his proudest moment at the helm of one of the region’s most prominent developers.

“My biggest accomplishment is not any of the deals I have done,” Wheeler says of his tenure with St. Petersburg-based Sembler Co. Founded in 1962, the firm handles development, redevelopment, acquisitions, leasing and property management and often works on retail plazas with grocery giant Publix. “It’s being able to guide this company through ’08, ’09 and ’10, when we were in the worst recession.”

Wheeler is leaving Sembler at the end of year — but it’s not a retirement. Among his next adventures, the list includes writing books, both fiction and non-fiction, and being a guest lecturer for business ethics classes at the University of Florida. “What I look forward to most is being able to engage my more creative side as I step away from a day to day operational role,” Wheeler says. “I’m 54. I have a lot more things I can do.”

Sembler Co., meanwhile, will make do without Wheeler for the first time 1997, when the then commercial real estate finance executive joined the company.  Wheeler started as vice president of investments and worked his up to COO, then CEO. “I’ve had really great roles at this company,” Wheeler says. “I’ve seen all types and all kinds of economies and situations.”

The company appointed Board Chairman Greg Sembler — son of the founder, Mel Sembler — to the CEO post, effective Jan. 1. The 58-year-old Greg Sembler, who began listening to his father do deals in grade school, joined the company in 1983 and developed his first center in 1984, according to a statement. He will remain chairman.

‘I’m 54. I have a lot more things I can do.’ Ron Wheeler, Sembler

Wheeler’s Sembler tenure could be divided into in three categories: guiding the business through weak and strong economies, building and maintaining an entrepreneurial culture, and finding varied ways to lead community charitable endeavors. Lessons learned and reflections on his Sembler career include:

• Find offbeat opportunities: “It’s never been about buying facilities that are all neat and nice and clean,” he says. “We like to look for places where we can add value. We like to go in there and get our hands messy.”

• Count the right metrics: Sembler has about 45 employees and nine or 10 ongoing deals or projects, which make it a lean operation — by design. “Our success is not driven by the number of deals we do, like some publicly traded companies,” Wheeler says, “but by the amount of profitable deals we do.”
• Lead a top-performing team: First, Wheeler says, find dedicated experts in your field. Then make traits like integrity and transparency a top priority. Next? Work collaboratively to create a strategy that everyone buys into and is passionate about — and back it up with resources. “Finally, a great leader will then give their team the freedom to execute on that strategy,” Wheeler says. “They won’t micromanage, they won’t be intolerant of mistakes, and they will encourage innovation and decisiveness.”

• Build a coveted corporate culture: Wheeler says no matter the age or generation of the employee, people want the same things. That list includes feeling valued and seeing meaning in their work, working in a creative environment that allows them to express their ideas, and being challenged and having opportunities to learn and grow. “I also believe most people want to have balance in their lives and to be fulfilled both at work and at home,” he adds. “If you can create a culture that does some of these things well, you will see the results for your company.”


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