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August 17, 2019

Money Man

David Villano | 5/1/1997
It's late Friday afternoon. Mel Sembler is standing behind his desk, waiting for a voice to emerge from his speakerphone. His hands are clasped by his waist and his head is bowed, as if in prayer. "You there Mel? It's Ted." The caller is Ted Welch of Nashville. Welch, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, is helping Sembler recruit so-called "Team 100" members: donors who give $100,000 up-front plus $25,000 a year each of the following three years. "How ya doing, chief?"

"Ted, it's good to be back in Florida," says Sembler, without pausing - as is his habit - before jumping from formalities to the business at hand. "I'll tell you, I feel great, just great, so did you know that fellow I had called you about?" Welch mumbles no; never heard of him until the other day.

"You mean there's a hundred-thousand-dollar donor in Tennessee and you didn't know him? That's hard to believe!" Sembler says with a smile. "So what'd you find out? Where's he from?"

"Ooltewah."

"Ooltewah!" Sembler shouts, contorting his face. "Where in the hell is that?" "East of Chattanooga," Welch answers in his soft, Southern drawl. "I think he's at 100,000 over four years. He has the paper work, and we'll follow through on it." "That's good, that's good," says Sembler, still standing, rubbing his hands with excitement. "So what else you got for me?"

Welcome to the front lines of big-money political fund raising. Here, in a spacious second-floor office overlooking Central Avenue on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Mel Sembler is shaping the future of Republican Party politics. As the newly appointed finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, Sembler is the point man for the party's $50 million fund-raising campaign this year. Next year that figure will be much larger, he says. But don't expect to hear about the $25 checks from the Ma and Pa America.

Sembler targets the really big bucks - the money, as he says, that really makes a difference. At a time when political fund raising by both parties is under a growing cloud, Sembler sees the problem as a Democratic one and presses on with business as usual. "You gotta have money," Sembler insists without a hint of apology. "Without money you can't get your message out to the people. And that's what this is really all about."

A self-made millionaire, anti-drug crusader, community benefactor and self-avowed family man, Sembler personifies the conservative, successful image that Republicans hold dear. He earned a fortune building suburban shopping centers and rode those riches to the highest levels of party politics. He raised millions to support conservative candidates and causes and was duly rewarded by President Bush with the ultimate in political spoils: a key ambassadorship posting to Australia.

An energetic 67-year-old, Sembler shows no inclination to slow down. His attention to dress and grooming at once catches the eye: European-cut suit, silk handkerchief peering from breast pocket. His thinning gray hair is pressed to one side, and his newly manicured fingernails gleam with clear polish.

Sembler picks up a photo and speaks quickly, as if to himself, in a kind of stream-of-conscious monologue. "Here's me and Reagan, and there's us with the Quayles, and of course that's Jesse (Helms)." He pulls out a photo album and plops himself on a sofa. His gold cuff links reveal the presidential seal (a gift from Bush). "Now here we are with Bush at the first fund-raiser we ever held. That was in 19...79." The compulsive name-dropping continues. "Oh, look here. This is me and Bush in the Oval Office. Notice the rug. This is before we redecorated." We? "Some friends and I raised some money. Took care of it. Clinton's using the same stuff today. See, here we are again," pointing to a different photo. "Same Oval Office, new rug."

While Sembler is visibly proud of his involvement in such White House intimacies, the act of picking out a new rug for the Oval Office may work best as a metaphor for the motivations of this unabashed political visionary. "If we can get our people in office," he insists, matter-of-factly, "we can change America; change the way this country is governed." Simple as that: get those darned Democrats out of office and redecorate the place, top to bottom. Money, he's not afraid to add, is the undeniable means to that end. And Mel Sembler, a St. Pete business and community leader for nearly 30 years, is very good at asking for it.

Like many big league political fund-raisers, Sembler learned the value of money by scratching out his first million the hard way. His father, a Russian immigrant who settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, sold newspapers on street corners and, at times, worked as a prize-fighter. Sembler talks little of those years, often marking ground-zero of his personal life with his enrollment in Northwestern University in 1948. Here, he met his future wife, Betty Schlesinger of Memphis, and got his first taste of politics, when he ran for senior class president. Betty campaigned for Mel.

He won.

After graduation, Sembler enlisted in the Army and was assigned to a desk job at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. He married Betty while in the Army, where he served two years. Sembler then worked 18 months as an account executive for a Kansas City ad agency before he went to work at his father-in-law's women's apparel shop in the tiny West Tennessee town of Dyersburg. But Sembler grew restless. "I needed to sell bigger things," he says.

In 1962, Sembler pitched a revolutionary idea to a group of retail tenants: relocate their businesses from the crowded urban core of downtown Dyersburg to a modern facility, with plenty of parking, on the fringe of town. The retailers loved it.

Three years later, with all 85,000-square-feet of space fully leased, the Sembler Company's Green Village Shopping Center opened its doors. And the Sembler concept was born. Two more West Tennessee centers quickly followed.

John T. Riordan, president of the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers, says suburban shopping centers were nothing new to major suburbs in the early 1960s, but were unheard of in small town America. Sembler changed that. How did he succeed? Simplicity and attention to detail, according to Riordan. "Shopping centers can be a risky proposition," he says, "but he kept the risk low and the quality high."

Keeping things small

Sembler moved his family and business to St. Petersburg in 1968. He says he was "running out of West Tennessee towns" in which to build shopping centers, and central Florida appeared to offer long-term growth opportunities for his young company. His first project was in Fort Pierce; his second in Port St. Lucie. The centers rarely varied: a modest amount of retail space anchored by a drug store and supermarket. "If anything, our philosophy has always been to underbuild," explains Craig Sher, who as president and CEO now runs the company's day-to-day affairs. "Keeping things small helps us manage the risk."

Sembler soon earned a reputation in Florida for high quality construction and his ability to meet deadlines. Over the years, the company has built stores for Publix, Eckerd, Winn-Dixie, Home Depot, Pantry Pride, Wal-Mart, Sears, Target and other regional and national retailers. Under a typical contract, the Sembler Company identifies a suitable location for an anchor tenant, purchases the site, oversees construction and, in most cases, owns and manages the property. Sher attributes much of the company's success to Sembler's early days as a women's apparel salesman. "Mel taught us all to think like retailers," explains Sher. "By understanding the wants and needs of our tenants, we can offer a lot more than other developers."

Although Sembler Co. refuses to disclose its performance figures, Sher allows that it does "between $50 million and $100 million a year."

Most of the company's 65 employees work out of the St. Pete headquarters. A small office is maintained in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in 1992 the company followed its primary tenant, Publix, into Atlanta. Charlie Jenkins Jr., executive committee chairman of Lakeland-based Publix Supermarkets, says his company's decision to enter the Atlanta market hinged partially on Sembler's willingness to go with them. "It's no secret that real estate development can be a challenging business," he says. "But the Sembler Company, for as long as we've known them, has produced effective centers and delivered them on time. That's not an easy thing to say."

Sembler immodestly agrees. He says all developers make promises, but few are serious about keeping them. "If we say we're going to deliver, we find a way to deliver," says Sembler. As an example, he recalls a strip mall he was building near Stuart in the early 1980s when interest rates suddenly soared over 20%. Many developers abandoned their projects but Sembler felt an obligation to his tenants. Confident the crisis would end, he convinced lenders to reduce his rates, accrue the discounted interest, and then add that amount each month to the principal. The center opened on time and has been profitable ever since.

Nancy Reagan & Adolfo

The speakerphone crackles with an incoming call, and Sembler scurries toward his desk. "Been waiting for this one all day," he apologizes. The caller, a businessman from Palm Beach, is hoping that Publix has chosen his property as the site for a Sembler-built strip mall. Sembler is quick and blunt. "Good afternoon, sir," says Sembler, whose hushed tone reveals the bad news. "I had the president of our company, himself, talk with Publix about your site, but they say they're not ready.

There's just not enough people there yet." The caller thanks him for trying and leaves it at that. "But on a political matter," Sembler interjects with newfound enthusiasm, "I had breakfast the other day with (Pennsylvania senator) Arlen Specter, and I suggested he give you a call. I apologize for sicking him on you, but I thought he was your kind of Republican."

The caller laughs and agrees to help, but Sembler is not finished. "Oh and one more thing. The governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, is going to be down your way next week for a Republican governors' function. Wonderful guy. Thought you might know of someone or two who could get together with him. Maybe some people from Pennsylvania. Gotta get 'em activated." The caller again agrees to help.

Still standing, Sembler signs a few papers placed on his desk. "This is what we do around here," he says hurriedly, but to no one, as if giving himself a pep talk at halftime. "Get people activated, get people activated. It doesn't happen unless you go out and do it."

Sembler returns to the sofa. Flipping through the photo album, he points to a shot of him and Betty, hand-in-hand with Nancy Reagan. "In 1980 Nancy Reagan was known for Adolfo clothes and the dishes she bought for the White House," he says, rapid fire. "So Betty and I advised her to take on the drug crusade. Everyone thought we were crazy. But the next thing we know, she comes out with the demand-reduction program, you know the ?Just Say No' thing. That came from us."

Braggadocio it is not. The drug cause, in fact, was Sembler's entree to national politics. In 1973 Mel and Betty Sembler awoke to the realization that one of their sons was smoking pot. "Mel and I were completely shocked," recalls Betty Sembler.

"We saw this as a fundamental breakdown of everything we believed in: family, education, law and order, responsibility to the community. Drugs represented the very antithesis of these values - pure selfishness."

Their son (they won't say which one of the three) received counseling and kicked the habit. But other young people from the community, Mel and Betty realized, were not so fortunate. At once, the Semblers pledged support and money to local drug prevention and treatment causes. And in 1976, after the closing of St. Petersburg's only juvenile drug treatment center, Mel Sembler founded a privately funded, nonprofit drug rehabilitation program called Straight. For 17 years, Sembler served as Straight's board chairman and principal benefactor. Affiliate centers opened around the country. He gave generously to fund the operations and asked others to do the same. Out of necessity, he learned the art of fund raising.

Dinner for George Bush

In 1979, Sembler's sister called from Houston, asking a favor: host a fund-raising dinner for a George Bush, who had launched his first bid for the presidency. (Sembler, a life-long Democrat, had soured on President Carter's drug control efforts and recently switched parties.) While Sembler was drawn to Bush's tough talk on drugs, few others in St. Pete knew anything about the former Texas congressman and one-time diplomat to China. At the eleventh hour, with Bush on his way to their modest ranch-style home on Treasure Island along the Gulf, the Semblers invited extra family and friends and paid the $100-per-guest donation themselves. Bush never knew. So began Sembler's passion for political fund raising and his extremely close relationship with Bush as evidenced by the warm correspondence between the two that continues to this day.

In 1986, Sembler took a sabbatical from the Sembler Co. to travel the world as president of the 33,000-member International Council of Shopping Centers. Among other things, he used his position to stress the need for local campaigns - within the shopping centers - to raise kids' awareness of drugs. Upon his return, finding his company well-run in the hands of sons Steve, Greg and Brent and newly appointed president Sher, Sembler dove headfirst into politics. (Steve has since left the company to form his own business, while Greg and Brent hold the position of vice chairmen.)

Sembler joined the Bush campaign as a member of the National Finance and Steering Committee. He kicked in $100,000 of his own money to the party and raised millions more (he says he can't even estimate the amount) by soliciting other wealthy donors.

After the Bush victory, he served as co-chair on the committee that raised $25 million for the lavish presidential inauguration. His secret to raising money? "There's no big secret," he explains. "I just ask. I'm willing to make the calls when other people aren't."

Developer Fred Bullard, chairman of the Bullard Company of Clearwater, is one whom Sembler asked. (Bullard recently teamed with Sembler and Tampa Bay Devil Ray's owner Vince Naimoli in a plan to redevelop the long-stricken Bay Plaza property in downtown St. Pete. Local officials are pleased, saying Sembler brings instant stability and credibility to the project). Years ago, after hearing Sembler's standard pitch for building a new America, Bullard forked over enough to join the Republican Party's Team 100. He's still a regular contributor. "Mel is motivated solely by his love for country, and that sincerely comes through," says Bullard. "He's not pushy, but he's very persuasive."

Above the toilet

No doubt those skills of persuasion were put to the test when Sembler was tapped by President Bush for the U.S. ambassador's post in Australia. For months, debate raged in Washington over the growing practice of rewarding wealthy party fund-raisers with cushy overseas ambassadorships. Sembler's confirmation stalled in the Senate.

Critics noted his State Department application: Under "languages spoken," Sembler listed "English (fluent)." At the height of the controversy, Sembler was the target of a biting Doonesbury comic strip that depicted him bidding at black-tie auction for the Australia post. The framed strip hangs above the toilet in Sembler's office bathroom. (Today, with Australia just a memory, he still enjoys being introduced to strangers as Ambassador Sembler.)

Sembler weathered the storm and in late 1989 shipped off to Canberra. Today, he recalls the confirmation dispute with fading resentment. He is neither bitter nor entirely unforgiving. "It was embarrassing to me," he says somberly. "All I could say to anyone was that I am a person of good moral character, and if President Bush wants me on his team then I'm prepared to do that." He calls the spoils system of politics an inherent part of the democratic process. Why shouldn't the workers, he asks, get the rewards? He also defends the practice of politicians bending an ear to big-money donors. He says he tries to influence politicians all the time, by promoting his anti-drug message. He says others do the same with their pet causes.

"How 'bout the guy out there growing sugar?" he suggests. "If he gets a chance to talk to a politician, he's going to say ?now listen, I've got a problem.' But that's democracy, and I don't see a problem with democracy."

Of course, not everyone agrees. In 1993, after returning from Australia, Sembler was accused of pressuring Florida state officials and lawmakers to overrule the recommendations of auditors from the state's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and renew the operating license of his Straight drug treatment center.

Responding to years of complaints from former patients, auditors cited evidence of excessive use of force, sleep deprivation, and the withholding of food and medication. Sembler denies any wrongdoing and continues to defend the program's methods, particularly against the criticisms of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. "People thought we were taking away children's rights. But we saw it just the opposite - giving them back their rights by helping them get off drugs." In 1993, with the allegations surfacing and the program losing about $500,000 a year, Sembler closed Straight.

Betty Sembler, herself a veteran activist in many anti-drug causes, labels the center's detractors as misguided. Anyone who fully understands the dangers of drugs, she says, will agree that drastic measures are sometimes needed. Betty recently founded an organization to oppose state-level proposals to decriminalize marijuana, such as California's Proposition 215.

By some accounts, the backlash to Straight's treatment philosophy only fueled Sembler's enthusiasm for conservative causes. Indeed, he speaks proudly of an ACLU lawsuit filed against Straight's Atlanta affiliate some years ago. "It just shows that we must have been doing things right," he says with a grin. And Sembler freely admits to leveraging his reputation within Republican Party circles to air his drug policy concerns. The story he likes to tell is of being contacted by five presidential candidates within 48 hours after Dick Cheney - the former Defense Secretary whom Sembler had urged to run - withdrew from the 1996 race. The winning suitor was former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, who knew that Sembler would back the candidate with the toughest stance on drugs. "Mel's passion is the drug curse in America," says Alexander, who is weighing his chances for another run at the White House. "He's very good at raising money, and every campaign needs people like him, but the reason he does it is simply to make a difference in his crusade against drugs."

To be sure, Sembler enjoys playing the role of kingmaker. As one of only a handful of big-league political fund-raisers, his support can make or break a candidate. The only reason Lamar Alexander was in the race at all was because he had the strongest finance team in place, Sembler boasts. And after Alexander bowed out, Sembler finally fell in line behind Dole. Sembler's delayed, lukewarm support is believed to have contributed to Dole's defeat in Florida during the general election. In fact, Sembler never officially joined the Dole campaign. In the late stages of the primary race, he raised money for the Republican National Committee's presidential trust - which finances the Republican nominee - but never for Dole himself. Some political observers say Sembler never forgave Dole for challenging Bush in the 1992 Republican primary. Whatever the case, Sembler has few kind words for Dole: "Senators never get elected president," he says, "because all they know how to do is compromise."

Lunch with Colin

Last January, Sembler was appointed RNC finance chairman, just in time for the latest round of cries for campaign finance reform. "We don't need reform," he says. "We just need for people to follow the laws. We need people who understand that you can't sell the White House! President Clinton - I don't want to demean the presidency - but this man has no moral compass."

It is nearly 6:00 p.m. and Sembler is already late for a cocktail reception on the other side of town. The phone rings. Sembler hesitates, but then rushes back to his desk to take the call. It is Marlene Malek, chairwoman for the Republican Party's May 13 gala at the Washington Hilton. The event is the party's largest fund-raising event of the year. Twenty-five hundred people are expected, each paying upwards of $1,000 to attend. Malek is worried that the gala has no big-name attractions. "Do you think we should have entertainment?" Malek asks.

Sembler nods his head. "Personally, I like the idea of top entertainment, but it's got to be ... WOW!"

"Wow?" Malek wonders.

"That's right, WOW! People are coming here from Des Moines, they're putting on their tuxedos and their fancy dresses, and they want WOW!"

Malek agrees and is momentary satisfied, but then questions the drawing power of the event's keynote speakers.

"We have Newt and Trent lined up," Mel says.

Malek is not impressed with the Republican speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. "Well, you know what?" she says, hesitantly, "that's just not going to do it. We need someone else, someone who can bring people in."

Sembler rubs his chin. "Well, I just had lunch with Colin" (Colin Powell, the retired four-star general and GOP darling).

Malek seems to be savoring the moment with silence. ... "Mel," she finally says, "that really would be great. He would be a great draw."

Sembler, too, is excited. "He has an important message for our party. It's easy to hear from (Christian Coalition executive director) Ralph Reed, but you don't hear from Colin that much. He's talking about the things of the future, and those are the things we can't ignore."

The call complete, Sembler rushes toward the door. He says that last phone call was worth $12 million - the party's fund-raising goal for the gala. "People wonder what I do," he says in place of a formal good-bye. "Well this is it. We just get people working, raise some money and get our message out to the people."

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