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Tales of Hoffman



Alfred Hoffman Jr., the dignified CEO of WCI Communities, keeps a laminated clipping in his wallet that asks him daily if he's willing to pay the price of success-constant determination, pain and perseverance.

It's hard to imagine that Hoffman, a powerful, self-made multimillionaire, needs to be reminded of this, especially when he's sitting in the den of his mansion on the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers-a home that looks a bit like an old Moorish stone castle filled with dark, heavy antiques, velvet sofas and master paintings.

But Hoffman does indeed live by that clipping's principles, which have helped propel his community development and home building company into the largest home builder in the state and the 18th largest in the country. With more than 40 communities stretching from Jacksonville Beach on the east coast to Marco Island on the Gulf, Bonita Springs-based WCI recorded $1.4 billion in revenue last year and employed more than 3,000 people.

Two-and-a-half years ago, in a gutsy move, Hoffman decided to take his company public during a period when most entrepreneurs and investors were viewing the stock market with apprehension. The extra capital he raised enabled him to expand into new areas of Florida-including Sarasota and Manatee counties. Last May, he extended his reach to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the Washington, D.C., area with the acquisition of Northeast builder Spectrum Commu-nities. In 2004, WCI was named "America's Best Builder" for homes over $500,000 by the National Associa-tion of Homebuilders and Builder Magazine-one of the most prestigious awards a home builder can receive.

But that's not the only place Hoffman has excelled. For the last 10 years, Hoffman has risen in the cutthroat world of politics, first as Gov. Jeb Bush's campaign chair in 1994 and now as the influential campaign finance chair for the Republican National Committee. He's also one of President George Bush's Rangers, the elite supporters who have each brought more than $200,000 into campaign coffers. President Bush has been to his house twice for fund-raisers. "I just wanted to make a difference," he says. "I've been blessed in business, and I have the freedom to promote my values."

Sarasota banker Tramm Hudson, the chair of Sarasota's Republican Party, laughs when he hears Hoffman's name. "The most feared words you'll hear are, 'Al Hoffman's on hold.' It's always going to cost you money," he says.

Charles Githler, co-owner of Hyatt Sarasota, says Hoffman's appeal for money is a moral one. "He tells me, 'God, family and country, Charlie, in that order.'"

Hoffman, a self-confessed "political junkie," burns for politics with the same passion he feels for the exquisite polo ponies he's spent years buying, training and competing with; friends say to watch him work a crowd is riveting. Only half-joking, Hoffman says, "I tell them if they don't get off their duffs and join the cause, the world's going to go to hell in a hand basket." Hoffman's access to powerful figures is immediate; at his surprise 70th birthday party at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples this past year, he was feted by Jeb and Columba Bush, Attorney General Charlie Crist, Florida's Chief Finance Officer Tom Gallagher, former Gov. Bob Martinez and master of ceremonies, comedian Rich Little.

Along the way, he has angered some, mainly Florida environmentalists, who-despite his recent recognition as one of Florida's best "green" builders and his many Audubon-endorsed golf courses-are opposed to his large master-planned developments, many of them on the waterfront or environmentally sensitive land. His quotes in newspaper stories can seem impulsive and insensitive, as when he complained to the Washington Post last year that government regulators "think the world will end if they can't protect that little tree."

And last year, Hoffman, who's known to be a generous supporter of the arts-he was a founding member of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Pinellas County and has donated $1 million to the hall-raised the ire of civil libertarians and artists when he removed an upside-down U.S. flag that was part of an anti-war exhibit in a Fort Myers art show he had helped sponsor. Hoffman found the piece offensive and tore the flag from the display during the show. A flurry of letters to the News-Press protested his action. "Al Hoffman's statement to the press that the display amounted to incitement and 'disturbing the peace' couldn't be more silly," wrote one peeved resident.

Raised on the south side of Chicago, Hoffman was the youngest of seven children, and the only son of a Jewish Austrian immigrant who made his way to the United States in 1906 when he was 16. His mother, a Baptist, was a first-generation Scottish-American, whose family eked out a living in the backwoods of Kentucky. (His mother and father, who met as workers in a sanitarium, converted to Christian Science when Hoffman was a child, a faith Hoffman still holds.)

Hoffman's father worked on a farm and sold live poultry to steel workers from the back of a truck. Eventually, his father saved enough money to open a small store that sold poultry. When he was a schoolboy, Hoffman killed and dressed the chickens and worked the cash register. "One thing I learned in the store was I didn't want to be a laborer," he says.

But the family had little money, and Hoffman realized early he would need scholarships to attend college. He considered going to art school, but in high school read an article in National Geographic about the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, "the hardest college in the country," according to the article, and decided to apply for one of 10 competitive spots available to honor graduates from ROTC high schools. Back then, he says, most cadets were appointments given to senators and congressmen to dole out, but that didn't stop the obscure young man from applying.

"My mother told me I could do anything I wanted to," he says. "It had a great effect." He remembers the summer night when he was eating dinner with his parents and Western Union knocked on the door with a telegram, telling him to report for duty on July 1, 1952. "We all cried," he says.

When he graduated four years later, he entered the Air Force, flying F100s over Germany for two years, making the rank of captain. He considered a military career, but his first wife (now deceased) didn't like the military life or the dangers of flying jets. "So I went to Harvard Business School," he says. "I'd always thought about going into business, but I could not have told you what the word marketing meant, the difference between a debit and a credit, a financial analysis or discount rates."

Harvard MBAs usually went into investment banking, retail and the manufacturing sectors, he says, but in 1962, near the end of his studies, "I started looking at companies that were in the building business. I remembered flying over Arizona and Nevada, and I was thinking to myself as I was passing over, that 'These are huge, sprawling subdivisions,' and I could do real estate because it was something I could understand."

Real estate was an interest sparked by his father, who loved taking Sunday drives to look at big, beautiful homes and properties out of his reach, pointing out to his young son which properties would be smart investments.

Hoffman talked his way into a position at KB Homes, a developer and home building company based out of Detroit. The company, which had just moved its headquarters to Phoenix, hired Hoffman for $7,500 a year. Home builders were spinning off thousands of suburban homes for the parents of baby boomers, and Hoffman prospered along with the industry. He eventually became an executive vice president, specializing in marketing and identifying new areas of expansion from California to Detroit.

In 1967, Hoffman started his own company, Tekton Corp., and began developing residential projects, including one in Florida. Tekton was purchased by another company in 1970, which kept Hoffman on as president; eventually Tekton was liquidated, and in 1975 Hoffman once again was developing on his own. He started Florida Design Communities and began buying properties cheaply from struggling owners, including large corporations whose forays into real estate had foundered. For example, he bought the community Walden Lake in Plant City from Beatrice Foods. His company also bought and developed Sun City Center in Tampa and Keys Gate in Homestead.

In 1995, Hoffman and his old friend, financier Don Ackerman, who had also gone to West Point and had been investing in communities with Hoffman, heard that Westinghouse Electric Company, which owned tens of thousands of Florida acres and had built thousands of homes and condos around golf courses and waterways under the name WCI, wanted to sell. At the time, WCI's profits were more than $60 million, and big suitors were making bids. Hoffman was a small player; and he recalls that at first, no one at Westinghouse would return his calls. Then, through an acquaintance who was a director on the board of Westinghouse, he got an interview with CEO Michael H. Jordan. He and Ackerman showed Jordan a $250,000 check and a letter of intent. The check was Jordan's to keep if Jordan would agree to take the property off the market for 30 days while Hoffman and Ackerman lined up potential investors. Jordan and the other company officials left the room. When they came back, Hoffman was shocked to find he had a deal, with the caveat that he had to have financing in place in 85 days. "It was like a dream, a nightmare," Hoffman remembers, as he and Ackerman ultimately raised the $550 million they needed by deadline.

Hoffman and his investors were betting that retiring baby boomers would be heading to Florida in droves, and that their unprecedented wealth, much of it inherited from their successful and frugal parents, would be invested in upscale homes on golf courses and the water. That bet paid off. Today, WCI markets to an affluent clientele in homes that soar to $10 million. His communities offer lavish country clubs, golf courses, marinas and, lately, homes that are built according to environmentally friendly standards. The Venetian Golf & River Club in Venice is green-certified by the Florida Green Building Coalition, and that certification is one reason, says Hoffman, that he received the builder of the year award. He credits his daughter, Melissa Hoffman, an environmentalist who lives in Vermont and works in the field of sustainable development, with educating him about the importance of green construction. (Hoffman has four other children, a son in Tampa who owns and operates an ice cream distribution business, a daughter in Maine who works in international conflict resolution, and two daughters-Sophie, 6, and Ava, 2-that he and his second wife, Dawn, adopted from a Russian orphanage.)

Still, Hoffman's green initiatives do not mean that he believes growth should be regulated or that Florida is being overbuilt. "Relatively speaking, there aren't that many people in Florida," he asserts, "just about the same as the metro area of New York." Hoffman thinks there's lots of room left for development away from the coast or in older communities through infill. But he's not taking any chances. When he bought Spectrum Homes, which specializes in the high-end buyer in the Northeast, it was to capture the retiring baby boomer who won't be moving to Florida. "There's been a change in the affluent baby boomer staying where they are and moving to urban areas," he says. Many of these Northeast projects will be condominium high-rises, a specialty of WCI. Currently he's concentrating on projects overlooking the Hudson River in New York, a large infill parcel in Connecticut, a seniors' community on Long Island and a project in New Jersey.

Hoffman is also aggressively pursuing projects in West Central Florida, which includes both Sarasota and Manatee. In 1999 he developed Waterlefe off S.R. 64 in Bradenton; in 2001 he built The Towers Residences next to the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota; and in 2002, he developed Venice's Venetian Golf & River Club, a community of 1,360 green homes and a golf course certified by Audubon International. WCI is also in the planning stages of Mangrove Point along the Manatee River and has been mentioned as the residential tower developer for Patrick Kelly's project at the Quay. Hoffman would only say about any new projects in the region: "We're always looking."

He has no plans to retire. "You're only as young as your newest project," he says. But he does pause to reflect on what his father would feel if he were alive. "Last year, I had the privilege of introducing Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City. I thought about my dad coming through Ellis Island as a poor, and certainly confused, 16-year-old. Little would he have imagined that his son would one day be introducing the mayor and governor of New York." Hoffman smiles a bit wistfully, as he sits back in his chair in his wood-paneled office. "If they could see me now."

THE HOFFMAN WAY
In markets, you have to be a contrarian. Sell when it's high and buy when it's low.
You have to believe in a vision even if you don't have the resources.
No business will thrive and grow unless you're willing to take a risk.
Enlightened self-interest is the foundation of democracy. Capitalism is pursuing self-interest in a way that's compatible with society.
I want candidates who are pro-business and understand the steps they have to take to create a friendly business environment.
There's no such thing as perfect knowledge. You evaluate, do risk assessment and execute a plan with acceptable levels of risk.
Ensured continuance of the health of the American economy is tort reform.
Less government and lower taxes is not a bad thing. 

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