As a young attorney, Rex Jensen was first exposed to the real estate industry through a property acquisition case that involved entitlements. He was hooked.
“I just really liked all of it—the activity, the negotiating, the planning, the thinking ahead, the trying to make all these disparate pieces fit together and make them actually work,” Jensen says.
Sold on development and land planning, Jensen left the law world in 1982 to pursue his newfound passion working in planning, entitlement, infrastructure development, and more before eventually joining Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR) in 1990 as its vice president of planning.
He found himself in the position as Interstate 75’s final stretch was being constructed next to SMR’s 33,000-acre property, which at the time was largely being used as a working ranch. “With the advent of I-75, the [Uihlein] family began to think in terms of future value and began an exercise of trying to develop a vision for this massive piece of property,” Jensen says.
At 50 square miles, the enormous undertaking needed to make economic sense, and that’s where Jensen arrived. “My predecessor cast out to try to find someone to help them bring a sense of economic reality into the planning process, and that unfortunately is when they found me,” he says.
With humor, but also gratitude, Jensen is thankful for the position he now holds as president and CEO of SMR and the firsthand effort he has made in developing Lakewood Ranch, the more than 27,000-home master plan, started in 1994.
“It’s been gratifying to look back at the results,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re in the heat of it, when you’re wondering if you are going to be allowed to continue developing or when you hit a large economic downturn as we did in 2007—which was an economic quagmire or ‘great extinction’ where 90% of our industry died—those were not particularly enjoyable experiences, but, you know, we have come through them, and, overall, it’s been a tremendous ride.”
Above all, Jensen is enthusiastic that his plan and continued plans are working. At a public hearing last year, a planning commissioner remarked that he had never been in a traffic jam in Lakewood Ranch. “Others said they respected the fact that we kept our promises and that we’ve done things right,” he says. “It’s one thing to drink your own whiskey and believe your own story, but when you see it validated from an independent third party, that really is a good endorsement.”
Lakewood Ranch’s success began with its firm foundation and vision that Jensen has helped advance over the last three decades. Zooming out, Lakewood Ranch includes 39 residential villages or neighborhoods; five business parks; three town centers; a wealth of educational institutions, including eight public schools, six private schools, 15 preschools, and nine higher education campuses; medical facilities and senior care facilities; 150 miles of trails and parks with a parks and recreation program; a sports campus; Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club; and Sarasota Polo Club.
“Rex has played a crucial role in ensuring Lakewood Ranch stays innovative and up to date with the latest design, development, styles, trends, and business models—reflecting his dedication to delivering high-quality, modern, and desirable communities,” says John Cannon, president of John Cannon Homes, which has been building custom homes in Lakewood Ranch since its inception. “In addition to his forward-thinking, he is in tune with enhancing the human experience by understanding the importance of intertwining green spaces, a variety of recreational areas, and modern conveniences within the community. By including these elements in the planning and development of Lakewood Ranch, he has made it the successful master-planned community it is today.”
Speaking on Jensen’s partnership with builders, Jim Borris, CEO of Zilber Ltd., says the company’s Homes by Towne brand “is one of just eight founding builders on the Ranch. Starting in 1994, we have been there throughout every phase of this incredible master plan development. Working with Rex for the many years that we have has been a tremendous honor.
“Rex is not only knowledgeable and fair, but also a man of great integrity. It’s ‘what you see is what you get’ leadership. You never need to guess as to Rex’s position. That creates credibility, respect, trust, and relationship, all precisely descriptive of Rex, and so key to the Ranch’s success.”
In its beginnings, Jensen knew that the master plan would need to cater to multiple generations starting with a place for young families who could drive the economy. “You don’t do economic development if you don’t have a workforce in the area, so one of the things that we actually started with was a family-oriented village called Summerfield, where the homes started at $80,000 and went up to $130,000,” Jensen says. “And it turned out that a broad mix of people bought in that community. It wasn’t all young families. It was active adults, empty nesters, some retirees.”
Jensen found that people wanted a multigenerational community rather than a homogeneous one, and he’s built on that ever since. Today, that holds true with an average age of 49 across its more than 66,000 residents.
With an original footing in multigenerational living, Jensen has seen family members follow each other into the community, whether that’s siblings, a parent following grandchildren, or an adult child following an aging parent. In fact, as a Michigan native, Jensen’s own parents followed him to the area.
“When you get one member of a family to locate in the community and they like it, then word gets around to the cousins, the aunts, the uncles, the parents,” Jensen says. “We have to have a place for all of these separate market demographics that are maybe in the same community, but they’re separate people with separate needs. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Last year, Lakewood Ranch’s multigenerational product continued to thrive with 41% of its sales—the most active segment out of family move-up, active-adult, luxury, and entry-level. In addition to for-sale residences, Lakewood Ranch offers apartment and build-to-rent communities.
Jensen says the offering meets the needs of those who relocate to the area and don’t have time to wait for a home to be built. “This kind of a product has been created by the current economic need,” he says. “The product came because of a larger economic trend, but we’re the perfect community for it to land in because of the high level of incoming activity. It gives people a landing place where they can experience the community and determine where it is that they want to go permanently.”
SMR board chairman Mason Ross says, “In charting our course and in making day-to-day decisions, Rex Jensen continually focuses on the long-term impact on the community. Creation, maintenance, and enhancement of our brand are utmost in his mind.”
To keep growing—even after filling the original boundaries to the brim—Jensen and his team have managed to increase Lakewood Ranch’s borders by more than 4,000 acres. Yet, the question Jensen couldn’t seem to answer was, “Will it or when does it stop?”
Jokingly, Jensen says he’s ancient and keeps waiting for an answer on when to slow down himself, but he says he can’t speak for SMR. “You know, the company is a lot longer term than I am,” he says. “It may be that the shareholders wish to continue the process, but, for now, 4,000 acres are enough to keep the organization off the streets for a while.”
He makes sure to note that Lakewood Ranch would not be Lakewood Ranch without the involvement of many others. “This whole thing is not my creation, it’s the creation of a team and is a big team effort. Yes, I’ve played a part, but it’s a part—it’s not the whole thing,” Jensen says.
However, there’s one individual who may have played the biggest part of all in Lakewood Ranch—Jensen’s wife. Back in 1990 after originally being offered the job, Jensen told SMR he wasn’t interested, but when he got home to tell his wife she disagreed with his decision.
“She told me I would be good at it so I turned around and wrote a six- or seven-page letter saying, ‘Look, I know I turned it down, but if you still think I should seek it, here’s what I would suggest we could do together.’ Things have gone downhill ever since,” he chuckles, but, humbly and seriously, Jensen says his wife is responsible for him being in his chair rather than anyone else.
And there’s a host of people who appreciate that the father of four has guided Lakewood Ranch’s growth ever since. “In the 37 years I have known him, Rex Jensen has always lived his vision, ideals, and principles. He has an unwavering commitment to the quality, lifestyle, and offerings of Lakewood Ranch, his team, and implementing the long-term vision of the Uihlein family, who have owned this land since 1914,” says Pat Neal, founder of Neal Communities.
Borris agrees, “Rex and his team believed that if you build it (with great care, design, and thought), they will come. Decisions were not made based on the immediacy of the economics. Decisions were made based on the virtues of the land, balancing development with nature, creating the best possible lifestyle, and ensuring that Lakewood Ranch would be THE place people would want to live, work, and play.”