EMILE HADDAD JETTED INTO RENO for a day of business this past Feb. 16, but as the afternoon ticked away, Haddad's mind was somewhere else. There were weighty company issues to deal with that day in Nevada, but Haddad could hardly stop looking at his watch. At 3 p.m., something big—something epic—would go down. But not in Reno. The venerable Lennar California regional president carried on with his meeting, though somewhat distracted.

You could say Haddad had good reason to be on edge. He'd led Lennar in a take-no-prisoners battle to snag a mammoth 3,718-acre chunk of land in Orange County, Calif., one of the nation's most land-constrained markets. This coveted jewel was former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine, Calif. But to triumph, Lennar would have to outbid—or outwit—other formidable builders in an online auction conducted by the U.S. Department of the Navy.

Lennar was in the lead, but, for Haddad and his team, to lead and not achieve total success was unconscionable. The previous Wednesday, the nation's third-largest builder scooped up two of the tract's four parcels. Lennar's dibs on the balance of the acreage appeared to be no contest until Standard Pacific Homes and an unnamed builder dubbing itself “OCHOPE” suddenly emerged as serious contenders for the two remaining, mostly residential parcels of land on the former military base. For a week, the builders exchanged blows in a vigorous series of posturing, bids, and counters, aggressively trying to out-trump the other.

"We realized that when you invest that much money, you need to make sure you're in control of the movement of all four parcels." -- Emile Haddad, California regional president, Lennar Photo: COMPOA At stake for Lennar were two monumental issues: one of tactics and the other of strategy. If its bid for the final two parcels didn't fall into place, Lennar's business model for its successful acquisition of the first two El Toro divisions would be compromised, rife with risks. Perhaps even more importantly, predominance in acquiring decommissioned military sites has been an avowed anchor of Lennar's overarching land-position strategy. Coming up short at 3 p.m. on Feb. 16 would amount to a classic lose-lose proposition for Lennar.

But Haddad's gut told him not to worry too much. A tinge of nervousness, but confident at the same time, he knew Lennar had a good chance at being the last man standing. But, after all, it was an impossible outcome to predict with certainty.

“You never know who's going to surface at 3 p.m.,” Haddad says. “You just don't get that much sleep during that period because you're in the middle of it.”

Three o'clock—the deadline for the last entry in the auction—ticked past. If someone placed a new competing bid before 3 p.m., the auction would automatically trigger another day's wait for resolution.

Inside of five minutes, Haddad gets summoned to the phone. It's the head office in Aliso Viejo, Calif. Graham Jones, a vice president at Lennar, delivers the news Haddad's been waiting for. Haddad admits he was “still sweating” until he got word. Jones, who was monitoring the online auction while Haddad was in Reno, told Haddad that the auction had officially closed and Lennar was the final—and highest—bidder.

Finally, two years of hard work, weekly meetings, and extensive research—$2 million worth—paid off. As the auction closed, Lennar was now able to put its stake down on all four parcels offered at the former El Toro Marine base. It was an unprecedented victory for the builder. El Toro marked the largest decommissioned military base the builder has ever acquired.

“It's the greatest infill opportunity we'll see in decades,” says John Burns, president of Irvine-based John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.