Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Top Entrepreneur

Syd Kitson: The dreamer behind solar-powered community Babcock Ranch

"As a developer, you have impacts. It's our responsibility to mitigate those impacts and do it in a sustainable way." –Syd Kitson, Kitson & Partners

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 5:00 a.m. May 9, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, which is developing Babcock Ranch began thinking about building a fully sustainable community while in college.x
Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, which is developing Babcock Ranch began thinking about building a fully sustainable community while in college.x
Photo by Steffania Pifferi
  • Charlotte–Lee–Collier
  • Share


There’s no easy way to define Syd Kitson. He’s a former professional football player. He’s an environmentalist. He’s a developer. He’s an entrepreneur.

But here’s the thing: Trying to find a term that will explain who he is the wrong way to think about the 65-year-old businessman.

That’s because each and every one of those terms is coupled with an attribute and it’s those attributes that have got Kitson to where he is today — the work ethic to make it to the National Football League; the optimism and dedication required to be an environmentalist; the creativity a developer needs to imagine a community where other see an empty lot; and the gumption required of an entrepreneur to build a business.

Kitson has them all. And he’s needed them.

He's chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, the Florida-based real estate company developing Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre fully solar community that straddles Charlotte and Lee counties. When complete, it will have about 19,500 residences and all the accouterments required to run a city — schools, shopping, water plant, hundreds of acres of solar panels.

An outdoorsman who used to camp for weeks at a time and knows how fragile ecosystems can be, Kitson started dreaming in college of building a fully sustainable community. And that’s what he is doing, developing what he sees as a full-fledged city in rural Southwest Florida that both preserves nature and serves residents.

“People ask me, ‘Gee, if you're an environmentalist, how can you be a developer?’” he says.

“I think it’s the perfect combination. Because we have to build homes. We have to build places for people to live, particularly here in Florida. And you know, as a developer you have impacts, it's our responsibility to mitigate those impacts and do it in a sustainable way.”


Babcock Ranch sold 958 homes last year, ranking No. 7 on RCLCO Real Estate Consulting's list of the Top 50 Master-Planned Communities in sales. It sold 934 homes in 2022, RCLCO reports. 

Sales are not only meaningful to Kitson for the revenue and growth, but sales is also his answer when asked what job he would do if he could switch with anyone at the company. "I love working with people and I love telling them the story, the vision, right for me directly. I love to watch their eyes light up. It's wonderful to see."

Early challenges

Kitson says one of the tests you face when you are innovative comes in the beginning, when many of the difficulties you face stem from it being so new, and that there are no rules in place to help move things along. 

“I'll give you an example,” he says. “When I said, ‘I want to build a new city,’ there was no ordinance, there was no zoning that said, ‘new city, check this box.’ You literally had to create all of that. And to do it right.”

One of the difficulties in doing that is the long history — locally and statewide — of developers showing up with promise and failing to fulfil them.

To overcome that “reputational risk that so many people created in the past,” Kitson had to not only sell the idea of Babcock Ranch but to convince those in leadership positions he could deliver.

“I always would say to people, don't necessarily go by what I say but please judge me by what I do,” Kitson says. “And I think that's been a big part of our success.

“But getting this started was incredibly challenging. When you do anything big, innovative, it's going to be challenging.”

Biggest mistake

An early mistakes almost finished Kitson off before his entrepreneurial career really got going. 

It was 1986. He was in his twenties and had stepped away from the NFL with plans to get into the real estate business despite having little experience.

“Everything was just accelerating at an incredible rate,” he says.

“Everybody's making money in real estate. People were flipping homes left and right. Developers were just making incredible gains on anything they did. It was almost like it was impossible not. ”

In his first year in the real estate business he did extremely well. “This is my first time in the business world, you think it's never going to end.

“Big mistake.”

On October 19,1987 the stock market crashed. And so did the economy, in what became a crushing recession. 

“My world imploded,” Kitson says. “I did not file bankruptcy. I fought my way through it, I paid everybody back. It took me many, many years to pay back, but I did.”

He remembers the massive downturn: the Savings & Loans industry collapse; learning what a nonperforming loan was; seeing people in business for many years file for bankruptcy. 

“It was an incredible learning experience because I didn't understand the dynamics and how bad things could get,” Kitson says. “And they got really, really bad for a lot of people back in those days.”

The lesson learned? You have to be prepared for all eventualities. You can’t sit around and think everything is going to be the same, that growth is going continue unabated. You need to be aware what could happen and be ready to weather it.

Since then, he’s gone through other recessions, including the housing crash of 2008. “From 1987 until 2008, I think I spent that entire time preparing for 2008,” Kitson says.

Tipping point

At Babcock Ranch, the company is building all the roads, the utilities and the commercial buildings. It’s that creativity Kitson says that makes the work more meaningful than just developing a property.

Ford's new F150 Lightning powered Pulte Home's 3,654-square-foot Oakview innovation home in Babcock Ranch.
Courtesy image

But it took time to get to that point. What helped change his direction was that he discovered — or maybe rediscovered is a better word — that what he wanted was more than about business. 

Kitson says it took about 10 years to bounce back from the downturn of 1987, but sometime around 1993 “the sun started to shine.

“I realized that not only could I could be successful, but there are things I can do to make a real difference in people's lives in a very positive way,” he says.

“For me, it was much more than just being a developer. It always has been. It wasn't 'just about the money.'" I'm quite the opposite. I really wanted to make a difference in the world. And real estate was my way to do that.”

Best advice 

Kitson’s No. 1 words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs are traits developed from his parents and later from playing football: perseverance and passion.

In athletics, he says, you can outwork people if you want to be good. But you have to make the sacrifices and put in the work over years to make that happen. It’s the grueling practices in high school and college, it’s overcoming years of injuries and competing against the best in the world.

And that approach, Kitson says, is what you need to do well in business, too. 

You’ve got to have that passion, that drive,” he says. “And you have to be able to overcome those obstacles that everybody's put in front of you. You just have to, or it just won't happen.”



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the deputy managing editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

Latest News


Special Offer: Only $1 Per Week For 1 Year!

Your free article limit has been reached this month.
Subscribe now for unlimited digital access to our award-winning business news.
Join thousands of executives who rely on us for insights spanning Tampa Bay to Naples.