There are many who ride the crest of an area’s growth and development. Then there are those rare individuals who actually help create the waves.
These outliers usually follow a specific pattern. They prepare for opportunities, engage in rigorous due diligence and then take the risks inherent in moving something from potential to reality.
This is a description of Fred Sutton, who, for almost 50 years, has helped shape south Brevard into a diverse and leading-edge economy. His properties like Leonardo/DRS, a 270,000-square-foot manufacturing /office/warehouse complex, and the 55,000-square-foot ALSTOM (formerly Thales/LiveTV) office building, both in Melbourne, and the 220,000-square-foot Renaissance Place project in Palm Bay are examples of the mark he has made on the area. Not to mention, he is also one of the county’s most generous philanthropists.
Like many entrepreneurs, the inclination to see and seize opportunities came early in life. Sutton turned a passion for numismatics (coin collecting) into a highly profitable venture, which financed his college education. “I had my father take me to the bank where I would buy bags of pennies. Then I would sift through them, identifying collectables, which I, in turn, sold. A roll of 50 pennies went for up to $500,” he recalled. It sounded a little like an innovative take on panning for gold.
Preparing for Opportunity
“I was a native Floridian, and with advances I observed in mosquito control and the use of air conditioning, I knew the state was poised to grow and development captured my interests,” Sutton said.
His education included an undergraduate degree from David Lipscomb University in Tennessee and an MBA in finance from the University of Georgia, where he also taught. But it was his time at the largest architectural, engineering and planning firm in the southeast, Reynolds, Smith & Hills, that solidified his developmental skills and direction.
“I had the opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant people in the industry, including Roy Disney,” he said. Sutton worked on the original attendance projections for Walt Disney World. After studying Disneyland in Anaheim, they did visitor estimates for the Florida park to determine the type and number of hotel rooms needed on site. “It was a very successful relationship that led to a number of projects with Disney,” he said.
With the same analytical skills he used on projects for Disney and the ITT/Levitt community of Palm Coast, he began evaluating the potential of south Brevard. In 1972, he launched Sutton Properties. At the time, land was inexpensive and Harris Corporation was growing; six years later they would move their headquarters to Melbourne.
“I will say now, what I learned then: you don’t have to have money; there are people who have the money who are looking for those with the experience and expertise to invest it.” – Fred Sutton
Risk and Reward
Starting with money he borrowed from friends and family, Sutton began what today has grown into more than 1 million square feet of commercial real estate holdings. “When we started, we had no money, but I will say now, what I learned then: you don’t have to have money; there are people who have the money who are looking for those with the experience and expertise to invest it,” he shared.
With an aversion to management by committee, Sutton is that rare combination of bold risk taker and detailed risk analyzer. “Today we only do longer term leases, 10 years or more, with companies that are credit tenants,” he said. However, when he first worked with DRS, they were relatively small. Now they have been acquired by Leonardo, the Italian aerospace firm that is as large as L3 Harris Technologies.
Having weathered the savings and loan crisis, the Great Recession and more than one venture that didn’t go as planned, Sutton has some sage advice for a new generation of aspiring developers. “First, I would recommend studying at a university that has a good real estate department, like UF or FSU, with an emphasis on finance. Second, get experience with a large development company and, finally,
don’t let money be a limiting factor — you need knowledge.”