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Top St. Pete developer, former ambassador dead at 93

Business giant Mel Sembler was a top donor to the Bushes and conservative causes.

  • By Jim Stinson
  • | 5:00 p.m. November 2, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Melvin Sembler, founder of Sembler Co.
Melvin Sembler, founder of Sembler Co.
Courtesy image
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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St. Petersburg businessman Melvin "Mel" Sembler has died at the age of 93.

Sembler founded Sembler Co., a development firm, in 1962. It is a company that now specializes in grocery-anchored retail development. By 2020, after Sembler had passed leadership off to his son, Greg, the firm had developed more than 350 projects, encompassing 29 million square feet.

In 2020, it managed about 10 million square feet of leased and managed space.

"Sembler’s business savvy built one of the most accomplished full-service real estate firms in the industry – and his heart for service remains at the core of the company's day-to-day operations," the company says.

Sembler was also a top Republican donor with a passion for policy, and he served stints as ambassador to Australia and Italy. His passing brought a tribute from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on "defending human dignity, expanding human potential and building a freer and safer world."

"Mel joined AEI's Board of Trustees in 2006 and was still calling into trustee meetings as an emeritus trustee into this year," says AEI President Robert Doar, in a blog post paying tribute to Sembler. "Mel did all the things great trustees do: He served on committees, introduced us to new friends — both scholars and supporters — helped select two AEI presidents, and attended all meetings and gatherings, often accompanied by his wonderful wife Betty."

Sembler was particularly close to the Bush family, supporting George H.W. Bush for president in 1980 over Ronald Reagan. In 1989, after founding a drug-treatment foundation with his wife, he was drafted by then-President George H.W. Bush to be U.S. ambassador to Australia and Nauru.

He came before the U.S. Senate and told a secret to his success. Sembler said that he read as a young man a magazine article by writer Joseph French Johnson of the Hamilton Institute. It was titled "The Price of Success."

"Success comes if you cheerfully pay the price," Sembler told the Senate, quoting the piece. "And the price is to use all your courage; to concentrate on the problem at hand; to have high and sustained determination; and to refuse to believe that there are any circumstances sufficiently strong to defeat you."

It was a price he always paid, he told the Senate.

In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Sembler as U.S. ambassador to Italy, and he served from 2001 to 2005.

Sembler was a strong GOP fundraiser, holding the role of finance chair for the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000. He was elected Florida's national committeeman to the Republican National Committee, serving from 1994 until 2000.

Sembler, according to his obituary, held a number of leadership roles within the real estate development industry, including as the international leader and spokesman for the shopping center industry from 1986 to 1987, as chairman of the International Council of Shopping Centers. He also served on the boards of the International Council of Shopping Centers; the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation; the Republican Jewish Coalition; and the Moffitt Cancer Center.

Born in 1930 in St. Joseph, Missouri, Sembler graduated from Northwestern University in 1952. He later served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

He married Betty, who preceded him in death in 2022, his obituary states. They had three sons, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, according to Sembler Co.'s website.



Jim Stinson

Jim Stinson is the Business Observer's Tampa Bay business reporter and editor, having previously written about business and policy in Washington, D.C.; Rochester, New York; Gary, Indiana; and Daytona Beach. He attended Boston University for business and Indiana University for journalism.

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