Courtesy Newland Communities

Bob McLeod’s gracious, gentle side is no act. The think-before-you-speak deference is 100% real.

Still, people who’ve spent years working alongside McLeod report flashes of an alter-ego. McLeod, who founded and over the past three-and-a-half decades built one of the most powerful, expansive, and meaningful brand names in American residential real estate--Newland, has known precisely when and how to turn loose a fierce, uncompromising warrior.

On getting to know Bob, you’d find that trait, a passion bordering on ferocity, to be just as authentic as his diffident humility—two sides of the same coin. Over time, you just learn when to expect the fighter, and why it works--yin to the yang—in McLeod’s legend in the making.

“You’d see it in charettes when we’d set the level of ambition for what we needed to do to make a new community the kind of place it could be,” says an executive close to McLeod and the development “secret sauce” that have become Newland’s hallmark since its founding in 1985, as the juggernaut of baby boom adults and their young families moved the dial on fledgling master-planned communities around the nation.

“Then, finance and operations folks would start poking at the amenity, or clamoring for more density to monetize the parcel, or claiming that the ethos of the place was overrated, always looking to chip away at costs, or increase profits. I remember him slamming his fist on the table and saying, ‘No! We’ve got to prove that this place is real if we expect people to feel drawn to it over the next 10 or 15 years!’ The devil was always in the details, and no detail was too trivial for Bob to ignore. He’d look at a native tree and its canopy in a particular spot on an undeveloped tract, and he’d see something there, something magical few of us had seen. Perhaps, under that tree, a young couple might experience their first kiss.”

That’s a master at master-planning. McLeod's career achievement as a legend in the community will get the spotlight during FuturePlace's Master Plan Hall of Fame proceedings, on Oct. 21-22, at the Miami Beach Edition.

Whenever the business came to decisions, choices, intention, and, ultimately, investment that relates to making a place for people—people living the way they want to live in connection to their own household, their neighbors, and the natural habitat around them—Bob’s unwavering, insistent, iron-willed self could be counted on to rear up, reflexively and repentantly.

“Each Newland community is different,” says Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, a nationally-known residential community strategist who served under McLeod for 11 years as head of marketing at Newland. “Each starts with foundational questions. ‘Who will live here? How will they want to live? What’s it like to live here?’ Everything we did was on purpose. Over the years, people came to see that there was a Newland way of doing things. That was because of Bob.”

For McLeod, who shifts his role this month after just shy of 35 years at Newland’s helm to a new, more consultative and advisory role as the enterprise’s executive chairman, master planning involves mastery of a never-ending, fanatically mindful pursuit. It’s both what he loses sleep over and awakens others to by the force of his own yin and yang nature, a harmonious fluid and evolving equilibrium between people’s most profound needs to flourish at home, and a parcel of land’s most basic requirement for regeneration and vitality.

“Who’s always the most important person for a business?” says McLeod one Friday afternoon as he reflects back on the company, and the industry, and the community-making practice he played a big role in cultivating and growing during an enormously influential half-century career trajectory. “It’s the customer, right? Well, the other thing we discovered was how to recognize who customers were going to be, what they value, what changes, what stays the same as it always was.”

This mindset—a real estate and construction business and operations model that started by asking what a customer wants and how they want to live—was new, once upon a time. Nowadays, we call this customer-centricity. This paradigm—of fusing the natural geography, geology, and lore of a very particular location to its future social and economic and community fabric—was also new, once upon a time. This paradigm--which will get you more than 4 million links if you Google it right now--we call placemaking. Placemaking intertwines, in helical beauty—human prosperity in all its connective forms and nature’s regenerative bounty. It’s the DNA of people and place in molecular balance, growing inseparably.

It’s for this that McLeod found occasion to pound his fist, to insist, to recognize that places for people—done right—stand together with their past and borrow promise from the future.

These ideas, notions, practices—now regarded as almost obvious, cardinal principles of doing land development and master-planning—were largely untried, unapplied, and, to a great extent, unnecessary when McLeod put them into a community development playbook almost 40 years ago as he was putting together a blueprint for Newland.

Backstory: Learning By Listening
McLeod was born in Cleveland, and migrated west to college, graduating with a degree in business administration from University of California at Berkeley in 1965. In the late '60s, McLeod was working his way up the food chain as in business management at Chrysler Corp. southern California dealerships, which was boosting cars where “even the kids are quieter,” and a new model Plymouth Road Runner that “tells it like it is.”

“We were working with the dealerships, helping them better understand their market, and how to match the product, whether it be new car sales, service, resales, financing, etc., with their local market area,” recalls McLeod of his Chrysler days. “We showed them how to make money by looking at marketing reports, competitive data, marketplace characteristics and segmentation insights, and all of this was kind of new to these guys. We got a reputation for doing well at that and it led to a district business manager job in the Los Angeles market.”

His success up the ladder at Chrysler drew attention outside the car company, and he joined the mechanical contracting firm, University Industries, as vice president in 1969. In 1972, he joined Mondex, a diversified real estate company as vice president of land planning and development. Eight years later, he returned to University Industries as vice president of the residential developing business until 1982, when he became president and CEO of Genstar Southwest, a subsidiary of Genstar U.S.

At one point, as he got his feet wet in real estate working with civil engineer, land planning, and construction maven Zev Cohen in Florida, in the early 1970s, Cohen set McLeod to work bringing his first parcels of land online for development. “’You have to get entitlements to develop these pieces of property,’ Cohen told me,” recalls McLeod. “I said to him, ‘what’s an entitlement?’”

He would learn. And, in time, as his position and responsibilities spiraled upward back on the west coast at Genstar, he would discover where his original forte—understanding the science of what motivates customers—converged with this late-acquired skill-set, the art and alchemy of bringing raw land across multiple processes and workflows to where people would be motivated to live their lives there.

This confluence, where what is timeless whirlpools with dynamic change and where people and places find a way to reach a regenerative accord, is at the end of the day, core to Newland’s resilience and massive growth—through the convulsions of The Great Recession—in the past 15 years or so. As he mastered fluency at this juncture of consumer insight and real estate “visioning,” McLeod added a third leg to his career-signature stool as well: Timely capital partnerships.

From his Genstar perch, McLeod formed The Newland Group as Houston-based American General partnered with him to buy Genstar’s U.S. property portfolio in 1987, gaining access to a capital runway that could be patient into and coming out of economic stresses.

The American General partnership dissolved in 1994, and as it did, McLeod--along with other principals of the former Newland Group, including COO Derek Thomas and president LaDonna Monsees–recast Newland and began managing new residential project opportunities. At that time, thanks to a relationship with teamed up with CPA Kenneth Leventhal, the company received impetus from an initial allocation of $60 million from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), which is widely vested in real estate. The name was changed to Newland Communities in 1999, and a year later, the company, in partnership with Institutional Housing Partners, purchased Genstar Land Co. from a subsidiary of British American Tobacco for $223 million. The assets of Genstar Land consisted of 27 land development projects in seven states. By the end of 2002, CalPERS' investment commitment to Newland had grown to more than $500 million, and venture partner Dallas-based Hunt Realty Investments, helped accelerate the national footprint. A year later—the epic partnering doubled-down, adding AIG and Northwestern Mutual—Newland acquired 21 mostly Southeastern community projects from Terrabrook, the land development arm of Westbrook Partners.

“The CalPERS relationship was a great partnership for 17 years, and in those early 1990s days, it was all about helping the builders reboot coming out of a downturn,” says McLeod. “We teamed up around new ideas that it would be more sustainable for everybody if we expanded the land parcels, and in one large community offered seven different price points in different neighborhoods, with different builders—national and regional—doing their best product in each price point.”

Rainier's Shadow The first homesites in Cascadia, a 4,000-acre Seattle-area development, were in place when Newland bought the picturesque project with its partner North America Sekisui.
Courtesy Newland Communities Rainier's Shadow The first homesites in Cascadia, a 4,000-acre Seattle-area development, were in place when Newland bought the picturesque project with its partner North America Sekisui.

In 2010, no sooner had CalPERS investment strategists pivoted toward exiting the residential development asset class after a beating during the Great Recession, than the world’s No. 1 home builder, Japan-based Sekisui House began its foray into North America. That year, Newland and North America Sekisui House acquired a 492-acre addition to highly successful, Houston-area MPC Cinco Ranch. Newland and NASH would go on to buy CalPERS’ 28-master-planned communities, and co-venture on the 4,240-acre Tehaleh community near Tacoma, WA.

The Newland-NASH partnership added Texas, Carolinas, Virginia, and Florida projects to the portfolio. As distinct and different as are the business cultures and pedigree, Newland and North America Sekisui House align on two non-negotiable approaches to their community work together: placing customers at the very center of their goals, and insisting on enduring, sustainable, constantly improving quality in their work.

“We’ve been focused here on sustainability and being green for a while,” says McLeod. “But compared to what our partners at Sekisui House and others are doing over in Japan, we’re at the Model T stage.”

Masters of Messaging
Among the influences McLeod counts as most critical to the art, science, and alchemy of placemaking so closely associated with his career, he’ll name branding and land planning doyenne Toni Alexander. Alexander and McLeod together rewrote the rules for how to gather experts in architecture, history, geology, fauna and flora, and local lore and weave them into clear, instructive narratives that have become the soul of Newland developments.

On one of the firm’s smaller projects, a sliver of land along Bend, OR’s Deschutes River noted by local naturalists as an Elk migration path, Newland was approved for 800 units. When, after opening the community, no elk were to be found anywhere near the new neighborhood. So, after a fist-slamming moment in a meeting room, McLeod brought in an expert, who told them what needed to happen. A pond was restored to its original form, native grasses got free rein to grow around the pond, and lo and behold, about two years in, elk began to reappear at the pond’s edge on their restored migration path.

The Post, the visitor center for Newland Communities' new Tehaleh community in Washington State, has been a gathering spot since before the community opened.
Copyright 2012 Darren Edwards Photographs The Post, the visitor center for Newland Communities' new Tehaleh community in Washington State, has been a gathering spot since before the community opened.

“You can go to dozens of Newland communities,” says McLeod, “and two things will always be true. One is that each of them is different, and I have my presidents in each division to thank for how much I’ve learned from them about how to make a place true to its location. The other is that you’ll always know it, apart from other masterplans, as a Newland community.”

Today, the Newland numbers speak for themselves. Thirteen states, 31 active communities, 143 mixed-use projects, 115 projects completed, and still McLeod believes the art, science, and alchemy of communities are still in their early-learning curve days.

“We have all of this sophisticated data now that can tell us who a consumer is and what makes them tick,” McLeod says. “But in this business, all of that is always changing, and now it’s changing faster than ever, so that the biggest challenge continues to be, ‘who will that consumer be in five or eight or 10 years from now, and what how will they want to live their lives. One thing I believe is that they’ll want community, even more so than they’re going to want this house or that house. The connection—to each other inside and outside their homes, and to nature, and to resources—is what MPCs do well.”

Merriam-Webster defines a legend with circular logic. If he or she or it is a legend, that person or thing—by nature—inspires a legend, which is a story that comes down to us from the past.

When the name Bob McLeod comes up among those who’ve been around for a minute in the world of residential real estate, the boxes check. Anyone who is a placemaker owes something, at least in part, to the work and legacy of Bob McLeod. Anyone who wants to be one has a name like a beacon in mind to emulate, to aspire to, and, from time to time, slam one’s fist on the table to become.