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Florida's new land baron
On July 19 of last year, a land-use attorney from Tallahassee appeared before commissioners in Taylor County, a rural north Florida county about 50 miles southeast of the state capital. The attorney was representing a year-old company called Four Rivers Land & Timber, which had recently purchased property in the area and wanted to amend land-planning documents to reflect the new owner’s name.
It was no ordinary property. The land Four Rivers had bought — a 500,000-plus-acre tract of timberland spreading across five counties — is believed to be the largest contiguous piece of undeveloped property in private hands east of the Mississippi River. It includes more than half of all the land in Taylor County, where the previous owner, Foley Timber & Land, had spent years negotiating a long-term development blueprint for the property. The entitlements were already locked in (“Ahead of the Curve,” FloridaTrend.com, September 2015).
Local leaders were understandably eager to learn more about the new owner.
“I have a question,” Commissioner Malcolm Page, a retired math teacher and part-time farmer, said to the attorney. “A number of citizens would like to know the name of the owners of Four Rivers. Any possible way you could share that? Or could you at least tell us when we’ll know? Our community has got to know who we’re dealing with.”
“I understand, Commissioner Page,” the attorney responded. “I don’t know myself.”
The investor behind Four Rivers remained a mystery in north Flori- AROUND THE ST ATE By Jason Garcia email@example.com da for a year after the company paid at least $710 million in December 2015 to buy Foley’s land and timber business. “Who Owns Four Rivers?” wondered a headline in the local paper. Asked what names had been rumored, Bruce Ratliff, the Taylor County property appraiser, laughed. “Lord, everybody from Donald Trump to God-only-knows.”
Florida’s newest land baron is, in fact, a billionaire who happens to live in Palm Beach just a few minutes south of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Thomas Peterffy is the founder, chairman and CEO of Greenwich, Conn.-based Interactive Brokers Corp., a $1.1-billion-a-year electronic broker and market maker. He is the 32nd wealthiest person in the United States — and the richest in Florida — according to the most recent Forbes 400 list, with an estimated net worth of $12.6 billion.
Peterffy, 72, escaped communist rule in Hungary in 1965, arriving in New York City with no money, unable to speak English. He got a job as a draftsman at a surveying business and taught himself how to program computers. He devised trading models and became one of the first people to buy and sell stocks electronically. He purchased a seat on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1977 and founded Interactive Brokers 16 years later.
Friends and acquaintances describe Peterffy, who speaks with a thick Hungarian accent, as an intensely private person. Senior executives at Foley — most of whom were retained and continue to work in their same jobs for Four Rivers — were required to sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding them from revealing anything about the sale. Employees without formal nondisclosures also say they have been ordered not to discuss the owners.
Peterffy, divorced with three children, keeps a low profile in Palm Beach, where he lives on “Billionaire’s Row” — a stretch of oceanfront estates where his neighbors include Netscape founder Jim Clark and hedge fund magnate Paul Tudor Jones. Peterffy’s $38-million property, spread over six acres, features a mansion with five bedrooms, seven bathrooms and two half-baths.
Through an attorney, Peterffy declined an interview request from Florida Trend.
There is one arena in which Peterffy has not been shy: Politics. A Republican, Peterffy in 2012 self-financed a series of television ads — he told the Wall Street Journal that he would spend between $5 million and $10 million on the campaign — warning that United States was sliding toward socialism under President Obama and urging support for Republican candidates.
This fall, he emerged as a prominent supporter and defender of Trump in his campaign against Hillary Clinton. “It appears to me that Mrs. Clinton’s plan is going to have a dampening effect on the economy, while Trump’s will boost the economy,” Peterffy told CNBC in October. “As Democrats often forget, new jobs can only be created by private enterprise and not government. All government can do is create an environment for private enterprise to prosper and grow and therefore hire more people.”
In 2015, Peterffy famously put his 80-acre estate in Greenwich, Conn., on the market for $65 million and said he was relocating to Florida, a move that Republican lawmakers in Connecticut blamed on the state’s onerous income taxes and said contributed to a budget shortfall in the state. Peterffy still owns the Greenwich property and does not currently claim a homestead exemption on his Palm Beach home.
Peterffy apparently learned about the Taylor County acreage, which was pieced together more than 50 years ago by Procter & Gamble, via a personal friendship with Howard Leach, a former chairman of Hunter Fan and U.S. ambassador to France. Leach was president of Foley and one of its lead investors. Peterffy didn’t buy all of the Foley land; Foley retained about 22,600 acres in Taylor County where it operates three limestone mines.
Peterffy has continued Foley’s timber operation, which harvests and replants more than 1 million tons of pine trees annually. Documents filed with the county say he will abide by the terms of the development plan that Foley negotiated with local leaders — including, for instance, a promise to set aside land for a future coastal bypass road.
Auley Rowell, a former Procter & Gamble forester active in Taylor County’s business community, says the new owners seem less interested in selling off smaller parcels for development.
While the north Florida property is by far the largest, Peterffy has also recently acquired some other chunks of Florida land. In 2014, for instance, he bought 32,000 acres of cattle pasture in southern Highlands County. The property represented about half of Blue Head Ranch, a 62,000-acre property once owned by heirs of citrus giant Ben Hill Griffin Jr.
Like the Foley property, the Highlands County land is remote and rural but has potential longterm development appeal — state transportation planners have in the past discussed eventually building a toll road through the area.