Like many developers who think on a grand scale, Bobby Ginn has had a roller-coaster career.
The early days building homes in South Carolina with his father. The rapid growth that took them into three states and commercial construction. His move into golf course communities and resort condominiums. Projects from Tennessee to Florida.
Then his business dealings with the infamous Butcher brothers, Jake and C.H., landed him in hot water with federal regulators after the brothers' Tennessee banking empire collapsed in the early 1980s.
A few years later, he cut a deal to acquire the two oldest and biggest developers in Hilton Head, S.C., only to see the venture collapse under a pile of debt amid the nation's savings-and-loan meltdown. By 1988, he was bankrupt with $3,500 to his name, though by the time he emerged from bankruptcy court six years later, he was already doing land deals again.
Now, almost a decade later, Ginn's career has him back in Florida, but in a big, big way.
His company, based just south of Orlando, owns or has under contract about 15,000 acres across the state -- much of it in Central Florida. And this time around, the baby boomer from southeastern South Carolina is going after other baby boomers seeking Florida sunshine in which to play, live or retire.
Ginn thinks he has the formula for attracting boomers intent on staying active as they age: Develop all-inclusive resorts, with everything from golf to shopping, and build them in good locations. Do that, he says, and they'll both invest in the project and retire there. The business side of the equation is just as straightforward: Make money first off the sale of the real estate, then off the continuing resort operations.
The first example of Ginn's vision in Central Florida, Reunion Resort & Club, is under way in northwest Osceola County. The 2,300-acre resort has the Ginn mix: golf, tennis and lots of other recreational choices surrounded by homes, apartments, time shares and hotels.
He is also developing Tesoro, a 1,400-acre resort in Port St. Lucie, on Florida's Treasure Coast.
Meanwhile, Ginn Co. employees are planning resorts and other projects in Lake County, near Orlando International Airport and elsewhere across Florida, from Palm Coast to Naples.
Ginn moved his headquarters to Celebration last year to be more centrally located for these statewide operations. Yet he keeps expanding his horizons, having just joined a venture to develop as much as 7,000 acres, with miles of beachfront, on Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas.
Personable, easygoing and often casually dressed in a golf shirt, Ginn can be quite intense and fervent when the subject involves his business plan and goals.
His "vision and infectious passion" were part of the reason he was chosen as a partner in the Bahamas project, said Graham Torode, president and chief executive officer of Grand Bahama Island Development Co. Torode's company is a partnership of the Grand Bahama Port Authority and Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd., a Hong Kong-based conglomerate whose worldwide holdings include about 70,000 acres on Grand Bahama Island.
Torode said he met Ginn about a year ago, while touring resorts in search of an American partner for his project. He quickly decided Ginn was the person to help the potentially huge Grand Bahama development target U.S. baby boomers.
Ginn's career as a developer began on a much smaller scale. Born in 1949, the South Carolina native joined his father's Hampton County home-building business in 1969, erecting houses financed through the Farmer's Home Administration in rural areas.
Early on, the company had done only four or five houses a year. But the operation soon grew to 700 homes a year in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. And it diversified into commercial real estate -- warehouses, shopping centers, apartments.
In 1971, Ginn launched his first golf course development, Pleasant Point, between Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. By 1975, he was building condominiums on nearby Hilton Head Island, a South Carolina resort community viewed by some as an oceanfront paradise poised for rapid development.
Ginn accelerated his deal making, venturing into Florida with condominiums in the Panhandle and other projects in Jacksonville and South Florida.
Along the way, he connected with two young, aggressive Tennessee bankers considered up and comers in the world of finance and politics: Jake Butcher and his younger brother, C.H. Butcher Jr.
Ginn said he probably did 15 deals with the Butchers, most of them with C.H. "All I knew was they were well-known bankers," he recalled recently.
When the Butcher banking empire started to collapse, Ginn said, he learned about it from the news on his car radio. "I had no idea," he said. The brothers ultimately were convicted of fraud and each sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Ginn said he made an effort to work with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to unwind some of his deals with the Butchers. He had borrowed heavily from the Butchers' banks, sometimes in joint ventures that included C.H. Butcher. But Ginn said he found the bank agency difficult to work with, and his relationship with regulators deteriorated to the point that the FDIC accused him of fraud in a civil lawsuit.
Ginn says he did nothing wrong. "The problem was bureaucrats who didn't understand business," he said. The suit was eventually settled and the case closed, he added.
IT ALL FALLS APART
But his biggest move, and biggest flop, was just around the corner.
In 1985, Hilton Head Co. and Sea Pines Co. -- the original developers of Hilton Head Island and the largest owners of undeveloped land there -- were both in play. Ginn, who had been developing condominiums on the island for some years already, assembled a deal to buy both companies.
He put together a group that included two South Florida savings-and-loan associations as well as partners who could buy land to help cover the acquisition costs. The two thrifts, Southern FloridaBanc and InterCapital Savings and Loan Association, were among many nationwide that had plunged into commercial lending after Congress deregulated the S&L; industry.
The resulting company, Hilton Head Holdings, quickly began to unravel, however. Some say it was too leveraged with debt. Bumper stickers started showing up on Hilton Head Island cars: "Honk If Bobby Owes You Money."
Janet Smith, now managing editor of The Island Packet, a Hilton Head newspaper, was a reporter at the time covering Ginn's big move. "Bobby Ginn got in way over his head," she said recently. "And the banks aided and abetted him all the way."
Ginn says the problem with his Hilton Head deal was "dysfunctional partners in a bad market." By 1986, he had sold his interest in the company, taking an IOU that proved worthless when Hilton Head Holdings later filed bankruptcy.
"I lost a tremendous amount of money," he said. Area lawyers had record years as everyone involved sued everyone else.
By 1988, Ginn was facing every developer's nightmare: With a mountain of debt that he couldn't support with a shrinking income, he filed personal bankruptcy to liquidate his holdings for his creditors. He said he sold land, homes, cars, boats, planes -- everything. He moved his family from a luxurious life on Hilton Head Island to a small, rented house in Charleston.
He said he had $3,500 left to his name. Ever the optimist, he noted that it "was more than I had when I started."
Ginn also realized he still had experience, friends and business relationships. So he began rebuilding, even as his bankruptcy case progressed.
Al Jones grew up with Ginn in Hampton County; his wife went to high school with Ginn. Jones was working for the Grand Bahama Port Authority when Ginn called about a year ago and asked him to help with the big Bahamian resort venture and two other projects.
Jones, who now works for the Ginn Co., says Ginn gained "a tremendous amount of respect" after the Hilton Head Holdings debacle "for gutting it out the way he did. He took the lumps and didn't blame anyone."
Ed McMullen Sr., president of E.H. McMullen and Associates, first did business with Ginn at Hilton Head Island in 1977, years before the problems with Hilton Head Holdings. Ginn developed condominiums that McMullen -- whose time-share consulting-and-development company is based in Orlando -- turned into a time-share resort.
Today, more than a quarter century later, McMullen is partnering with Ginn in a high-end time-share project within Reunion Resort & Club.
He says he had no hesitation about the latest deal. "I've never done business with anyone more reputable," McMullen said.
When Ginn emerged from bankruptcy in 1994, he contracted to buy land in Palm Coast, the huge development in Flagler County on Florida's East Coast. He later moved there as he developed land, golf courses and condominiums -- and refined his vision of building Florida resorts with baby-boomer appeal.
His first foray into the Orlando area wasn't until three years ago, when he bought land south of Celebration -- a giant parcel known as the Magnolia Ranch -- on which he's now developing Reunion Resort
He has spent freely on the project, hiring three golf legends -- Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus -- to design the resort's three golf courses.
"Bobby Ginn is one of the few developers who truly understands the game of golf," Nicklaus said through a spokesman last week while preparing for the Masters golf tournament. "He understands the importance and the value of what the golf facility brings to the overall development."
Looking back, Ginn says the Hilton Head Holdings experience taught him to be extra careful about the partners he selects. He's tight-lipped about the equity partners with stakes in his current projects, though he will say that the biggest among them is Lubert-Adler Partners, a Philadelphia-based company that creates and manages investment funds involved in a wide range of real estate.
Just as quickly as he has assembled a stable of Florida projects, Ginn has established himself within the state's political circles as well. He ranked among the top 10 donors last year to Florida's Republican Party. At a fund-raiser in Orlando last June, he contributed a $100,000 check.
He says he returns to his South Carolina roots frequently. His mother lives in Varnville, the next town over from Hampton, the county seat. And a brother, Barry, is in the resort-rental business on Hilton Head Island.
Ginn said he probably visits his old stomping grounds once a month. But it's clear his business focus is now here.
"Baby boomers are coming to Florida," he said. "We see our future here."