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John Ryan wants to buy your lots

John Ryan's Metro Development Group recently bought 8,300 lots from Lennar, bringing its total to a whopping 30,000 lots in Florida - and counting.

By James Thorner, Times Staff Writer
Published December 23, 2007


Metro Development Group CEO John Ryan: "If the recovery goes to 2011 or 2012, guess what? We made a bad bet."
photo
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
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John Ryan recalls the frenzied days of the last housing boom when a Pasco County chicken farmer had merely to snap his fingers and Ryan was aloft in his helicopter with a land-purchase contract in hand.

One site on the leading edge of suburban New Tampa absorbed an inordinate amount of his attention: 900 acres belonging to the Zephyr Egg Co. off Morris Bridge Road.

"I must have put 40 offers on that land," the 46-year-old Canadian-born developer says.

The days of dueling with land speculators and getting squeezed by orange growers, are mostly past. John Ryan is at a place he can call home.

The housing market is sputtering into a tailspin. And Ryan's sitting in the cockpit with the bailout plan.

He wants to buy your lots - tens of thousands of them.

"You planned to be a land baron but ended up with just barren land," reads the Web home page of Ryan's Metro Development Group. "We won't leave you with barren pockets."

Lennar, the Miami builder limping along with the rest of the industry, sold Metro 8,300 lots in central Florida three weeks ago.

The Lennar deal brought Metro's lot total to 30,000, a huge number for a 4-year-old company working in the worst housing slump in decades. But Ryan's hunger is unabated. Expect him to go bargain shopping and close on other lot purchases with cash-depleted builders by the end of the year.

Ryan's calculation is that home builders will churn out new homes again in 2010. He's got the charts and graphs to buttress his position: Tampa's home market oscillates up and down but the trend line always heads north.

Former Ryan associates, including Pinellas County real estate veteran Bobby Byrd, rates the purchase as audacious.

"That's the reason there's chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Everyone has a different opinion about the market," Byrd says. "Obviously that's an aggressive stance."

Ryan came by his aggressiveness the easy way and the hard way: easy because he comes from a well-to-do Canadian development family. His father, known as "The Chief," began as an architect and built a company that ultimately did 200 projects worth about $2-billion. Hard because Canada's housing slump in the early 1990s bankrupted his father and propelled Ryan and his brother south of the border.

An engineering graduate of Ontario's Queen's University, John Ryan set up shop in Tampa, eventually forming joint ventures with Byrd. They developed such projects as the Chapel Pines subdivision in Pasco County and Tampa's GrandView condo tower on Harbour Island.

When the first of his three children reached school age in the late 1990s, he and his wife moved full time to a $2-million waterfront home in Belleair.

Ryan's younger brother, Michael, built a resort in Costa Rica and recently opened a Ritz Carlton hotel in the Cayman Islands. Sibling rivalry colors the relationship. Ryan calls himself reserved while his brother is a buy-a-round-of-drinks sort of fellow. When Hurricane Katrina raked the Caymans in 2005, Michael Ryan chartered a Boeing 727 in Miami to shuttle supplies to hotel employees. A pilot, John Ryan flew in bottled water aboard his 8-seat private jet.

Today scores of houses in the Caymans own new blue roofs, courtesy of the Ryans. "Those we put on gratis from the Ritz," John Ryan says.

In 2003, Byrd and Ryan parted. Byrd says he disagreed with Ryan's grand growth plans that included new offices in Orlando and Jacksonville.

"They did the old King Solomon thing and put all the assets in two columns and split them," said Tampa land broker Bill "Dirt Dog" Eshenbaugh, who has worked with both men.

Ryan's view of the parting is more complex. Byrd wanted to bring his two sons more directly into the business, Ryan says. Suddenly the Byrd nest was too small for three 40ish go-getters.

"They came in as receptionist and wanted to be president," he says of the younger Byrds.

Ryan grew Metro Development from $12-million in sales in 2003 to $200-million in 2006. It hasn't always been smooth. As the market soured last year, Metro sued Zephyr Egg to recover a $6-million deposit on the 900 acres in Pasco.

The sides settled when egg company owner Terry Linville agreed to return $3-million of Metro's money. Linville suggested such fickleness is typical of Metro's style.

"They have tied up a tremendous amount of property," Linville said. "But how many parcels has he tied up that he's walked away from? They promise to close, but don't close. Put down deposits, but decide it's not worth it."

Ryan vouches for his performance with a simple fact: The private equity funds financing most of his lot purchases trust him with their cash.

"That money is looking for an operator," he says. "And I've got the experience."

He operates from a sleek black granite desk in an airy fishbowl of an office with a 10th-floor view of Tampa Bay. The office advertises his priorities. On one wall are maps of Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. On another are framed crayon art from his children.

As befits a prep school guy familiar with money, Ryan enjoys sport fishing, flies a private jet and takes helicopters to mountains in search of virgin powder for skiing.

Neither Ryan nor Lennar would disclose the sale amount on the 8,300-lot deal, but Ryan said developers like himself like to pay between $9,000 and $13,000 per Florida lot.

Others say Metro got a steal of a deal, something closer to $6,000 per home site. In central Pasco, where Ryan scooped up 3,900 Lennar lots at the Epperson Ranch, undeveloped lots once fetched about $30,000.

Ryan's investment deals rest on the assumption he can start construction in late 2009 and deliver lots to builders in 2010. Not all analysts are that bullish. Some don't foresee a full recovery until 2011 at the earliest.

"If the recovery goes to 2011 or 2012," says Ryan, "guess what? We made a bad bet."

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com or 813 226-3313. Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4613.

About Metro

FOUNDED: 2003 in Tampa

CEO: John M. Ryan

2006 Sales: $200-million

EMPLOYEES: About 31

Metro's Lennar purchases in:

Pasco: Epperson Ranch, 3,905 homesites, 1,700 acres

Hillsborough: Waterleaf, 530 homesites, 140 acres

Lee: Stoneybrook North, 1,275 homesites, 741 acres

DeSoto: Stoneybrook Oaks, 1,249 homesites, 641 acres

Brevard: Chaparral, 850 homesites, 246 acres

Polk: Leomas Landing, 393 homesites, 94 acres

Sarasota: Hidden Palms, 98 homesites, 41 acres

Signs of turbulence

Some events that signal turmoil in the area home construction industry:

Lennar sells 8,300 mostly unfinished central Florida home lots to Metro

St. Joe, a Jacksonville company that's the state's largest private landowner, announces it's getting out of the home building business

Levitt & Sons of Levittown, N.Y., fame files for bankruptcy and ceases building in Hernando County among other places.

TOUSA Inc., parent company of what used to be Transeastern Homes, said it faces insolvency. Transeastern is best known for New Tampa's Live Oak Preserve.

[Last modified December 21, 2007, 20:48:39]


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