The Wisdom Of Solomon

From the Business Observer

Anthony Solomon stands in front of Naples Square, one of the company’s best-known residential projects. Although it specializes in luxury high-rises, Solomon’s Ronto Group has also developed large, single-family communities such as TwinEagles and Heritage Greens, both in Collier County.
Anthony Solomon stands in front of Naples Square, one of the company’s best-known residential projects. Although it specializes in luxury high-rises, Solomon’s Ronto Group has also developed large, single-family communities such as TwinEagles and Heritage Greens, both in Collier County.

Ronto Group President Anthony Solomon is very clear on what his company’s mission is, and should be.

“We’re opportunistic,” says Solomon, 42, whose father, A. Jack Solomon, founded the company in 1967 in Toronto. “We don’t live by growth goals, and we don’t do deals for the sake of doing deals.”

Nevertheless, Ronto Group these days is flush with the kind of upscale residential projects for which the company has come to be known.

There’s Seaglass at Bonita Bay, a 120-unit, 26-story condo tower in Bonita Springs that is under construction and slated for completion later this year. To date, more than 60% of its units — all priced at $1 million and above — have been sold.

There’s 624 Palm, an 18-story condo tower in downtown Sarasota that is also under construction and scheduled to be completed this summer. The $20 million-plus project, where the 17 residences cost in excess of $2 million each, is sold out.

There’s Naples Square, a 300-unit, phased residential development in the heart of Naples’ downtown with more than 150,000 square feet of commercial space that is scheduled to be completed by 2019. At present, Ronto is nearly sold out of the project’s second phase.

“We’re finding there’s great demand for high-end units, especially in Naples, Bonita Springs and Sarasota,” Solomon says. “And partly, that’s because we think we understand what it takes to get customers who are willing and able to spend $2 million, $3 million and up. There has to be a level of trust there. Customers want to know that you’re going to be able to deliver on the dream they are banking on, and we do that. It’s what our reputation is based upon.”

But Ronto Group has also excelled at single-family communities, often those with golf course amenities, such as its TwinEagles project in North Naples, which it acquired as part of a lender workout in 2010.

In the years since, Ronto has redesigned a golf course to complement the Jack Nicklaus-designed, award-winning Talon links, added amenities like a resort-style swimming pool and fitness center, and enhanced walking paths and neighborhood parks.

Ronto also decided to provide a golf membership to everyone who bought a newly constructed home in the community by Lennar Corp., Minto Homes, Arthur Rutenberg Homes, Stock Signature Homes and Divco Custom Homes.

The strategy worked. In 2015, sales topped $135.6 million, prompting the developer to introduce three new neighborhoods. Today, five of TwinEagles neighborhoods are sold out.

“Their success stems in part because they were very early to the table in securing unique properties and opportunities before the market showed clear improvement a few years back,” says Randy Thibaut, founder and CEO of Land Solutions Inc., a Southwest Florida commercial real estate brokerage firm that has worked with Ronto Group.

“They take big, but educated, risks and they’ve paid off, and their relationships and access to capital has been integral in their ability to get deals closed.”

The company also developed Lindsford, in Fort Myers, a gated, step-up community where D.R. Horton is building, and Orange Blossom, a 1,600-home, similarly priced Lennar project in Naples.

“We don’t want to be relegated to extremely high-end developments,” Solomon says. “I don’t want us to be pigeonholed. If the right opportunity for an entry-level or move-up project surfaces, and it’s the right opportunity, we would certainly do it.

“But we’re very cautious by nature, and we look for the right opportunity and the right price and the right timing,” he says.

Such a triangulation occurred earlier this year, when Ronto and Wheelock Street Capital, of New England, paid $15.1 million to acquire a nine-acre site at 1075 Central Ave., in Naples.

Solomon says Ronto is designing a project that will likely contain more than 200 residential units and a smattering of retail space. Sales could begin next year.

The site, where the Naples Daily News operated until 2009, attracted Solomon because it reminded him of Naples Square.

“The units may be a little smaller, and less expensive, but the site is very walkable to Fifth Avenue, and you’re not going to find nine acres come available very often in the heart of Naples,” he says.

After developing more than 10,000 condos and 2,000 single-family home sites, Ronto Group knows what it doesn’t want to be and where it doesn’t want to build, as well.

It refuses, for instance, to engage in bidding wars even for prime properties.

“We’d rather have an opportunity to properly study a market and sit down with someone and work out a deal,” Solomon says.

The company’s boundaries also extend to geography.

“I have no desire to develop in the Caribbean, for instance,” Solomon says. “Sure, it sounds sexy, but one mess, one disaster and it takes your whole bandwidth to fix — you end up getting pulled away from other projects, other opportunities,” Solomon says. “I’ve seen it happen to a lot of really smart people.”

He’s also content to remain focused on coastal Florida in places like Naples, Bonita Springs, Sarasota, Boca Raton and Palm Beach — though he would entertain a deal in Tampa or St. Petersburg if it was right, too.

“I don’t have any visions to go, say, to Denver,” Solomon says. “You hear a lot of Florida developers say they want to go out West to places like that. But the way I see it, they already have developers out there. They’re on top of it, and things here need constant minding.”

To maintain focus, Ronto Group maintains a staff of 13 employees, some of whom have worked for the company for decades, though it also relies heavily on consultants who Solomon says are “like family.”

Looking ahead, Solomon doesn’t foresee the kind of turbulence that derailed the real estate growth cycle in 2008. He believes buyers are self-regulating, and banks are being appropriately more reserved about to whom they lend money.

“Buyers are being more cautious; they remember the last go round,” he says. “That’s been good for us, because people know our reputation. And banks aren’t lending to anyone, especially for high-end residential, that doesn’t have experience.

“Prices, meanwhile, at the high end, have leveled off, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “I think as a result we’ll see a steady few years ahead.”