The long view of business
For James Seneff and his billion-dollar real estate powerhouse, the social sciences offer as much strategic guidance as hard economics.
Looking out a floor-to-ceiling window in his eighth-floor executive meeting room, CNL Financial Group’s executive chairman, James Seneff, points his right hand in the direction of the construction site of Orlando’s performing arts center across the street. The city’s newest venue has taken shape in recent months, and Seneff has a top-down view of the $500-million project on the south end of downtown. He has had to wait a few years longer to watch the arts center go up, as the recession put a chokehold on the facility’s funding not long after the company’s charitable foundation donated $10 million to it. But construction cranes have returned to downtown’s skyline, a promising sign for Seneff, whose company’s influence extends far beyond the city limits.
In his meeting room, Seneff is surrounded by furnishings both decorative and symbolic — a limestone sculpture of Noah’s Ark, for example, and a shiny brass telescope suggesting the long view he has taken as an early leader in the real estate investment trust (REIT) market. Starting in 1973 with a $5,000 loan from his father, Seneff has formed or acquired companies with more than $26 billion in assets, primarily through real estate investment trusts. CNL also operates an investment management company and a commercial real estate services firm.
As he explains CNL’s strategy, the 66-year-old Seneff draws on insights gleaned from a variety of influential figures, including Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, T.S. Eliot and Isaiah Berlin along with traditional business gurus like Peter Drucker. He has a library of 8,000 books and spends up to four hours a day reading, soaking up five books at a time.
“The innovative process involves four people,” he says, describing how his firm classifies its employees’ personalities to take advantage of their strengths. “The explorer, who gathers the information; the artist, who makes it beautiful; the judge, who says it’s good or bad; and the warrior, who makes it work.”
He’s strictly an explorer, he says: “When you’re an explorer, you’re out in front and people don’t see where you’re going.” He says it’s his job, as well as a corporate principle, to look ahead, anticipate where the “puck” is headed and lead CNL, its partners and clients to it.
Yes, “puck,” as in hockey. Like the late Steve Jobs, Seneff is fond of hockey icon Wayne Gretzky’s adage about anticipating opportunity on the ice. “Gretzky said: ‘Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been,’ ” Seneff says.
In addition to using his own explorer instincts, Seneff has also figured out where CNL should skate by creating an in-house idea spa of sorts, the CNL da Vinci Center, just down the hall from his command post in CNL Tower II. The room brings together teams that synthesize data and brainstorm new strategic approaches to investments [“An In-House Think Tank”].
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