Tom Sittema & Steve Mauldin of CNL

The always quotable Warren Buffett once said, “I look for three things in a leader: integrity, competence and passion.” Then he added, “If you get the first one wrong, the other two will kill you.” According to Tom Sittema, CEO of CNL, a major private investment management firm focused on global real estate and alternative investment opportunities, these qualities are what drew him to Steve Mauldin whom he recruited to serve as president of CNL’s Financial Group.

Tom Sittema & Steve Mauldin of CNL

Tom Sittema & Steve Mauldin of CNL

Together, Tom Sittema and Steven Mauldin of CNL have not only focused this trifecta of traits on continuing to make CNL one of Orlando’s most celebrated success stories, but they are leveraging their considerable leadership assets to advance two of the region’s most influential organizations. Sittema serves as chair of the Orlando Economic Development Commission (EDC), which is the economic development organization for the city of Orlando as well as Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake Counties, during the rollout of the “Orlando. You Don’t Know the Half of It.” campaign.

At the same time, Mauldin is chair of the Central Florida Partnership (CFP). Its goal is to convene thought leaders to tackle key issues in the seven-county region of Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole  and Volusia counties to, as CFP says, “Move Ideas to Results.”    

Cultivating a Common Culture

Explaining the significance of Buffett’s statement, Sittema said, “Our business is complex and you need people who are very astute and have the ability to communicate well. They of course have to be passionate about what they do, but what the world is longing for is authentic leaders, which is how I define integrity. Authenticity and transparency create a culture of trust in an organization and, at CNL, we spend a lot of time talking about culture.”

When one thinks about focusing on an achievable vision that addresses Central Florida’s opportunities and challenges, nurturing certain shared cultural values can be as strategic as developing a regional transportation or talent retention plan. Collaboration and partnership are the essential ingredients for building the type of future everyone can celebrate, and certain essential values form that cohesive bond. For instance, most don’t associate “humility” with your standard profile of C-suite executives, but clearly it is one of the core values Sittema and Mauldin share.  

“I played a lot of sports growing up,” Mauldin said. “Then I got traded from the baseball business to the banking business. What we do at CNL, and really any successful business or business alliance, is the ultimate team sport in my mind. And to be a good teammate, wherever you are in the lineup, you have to be humble. Because ultimately, the goal is the success of the team and individual success is only success if it helps the team win. The best teams I have been a part of, in both worlds, are made up of a group of folks that care about each other.”  

The Journey to Influence

Both Sittema and Mauldin followed a career path that led them into investment banking and ultimately to the real estate side of that field. It was a profession that utilized the full inventory of their skills and for both of them, it provided a platform for work that was truly transformational.

“When I was in Dallas, early in my career, I was querying someone on real estate as a profession, versus energy or some other sector,” Sittema recalled. “They told me, ‘If you look at most great cities in America, the civic leaders in the community will always be made up of a significant number of real estate people.’ I asked, why? ‘Because they are strong on vision, they are usually very entrepreneurial and they tend to be ‘get it done’ type of people; they are problem solvers.’ Dallas was loaded with real estate executives. In Orlando, we have Jim Seneff (chairman of CNL) who is a real estate guy, and Jim Pugh, who helped lead the Dr. Phillips Center project, who is also a real estate executive.”  

Explaining his career choice Sittema said, “Both real estate and investment banking

i-4 Ultimate Project

I-4 Ultimate Project

are ways to showcase an entrepreneurial spirit. I need to do something that is varied, that’s relational and driven by vision, with the opportunity to network and pull people in and say, ‘Let’s solve this; let’s create this.’ My kids and my wife say, ‘No’ never means no to Dad.’  Sometimes it isn’t complimentary (laughing). I tend to be the one asking the ‘Why not?’ question. It is about picturing what’s possible. There are plenty of jobs that are routine and a lot of people like that predictability, but that isn’t me.”

It was that same combination of skills that attracted Mauldin to real estate investment and to CNL. The company provides a portfolio of alternative investment vehicles primarily in real estate to round out people’s investment strategy. These products are available to qualified investors through traditional financial investment brokerages like Amerprise Financial or LPL Financial, etc. CNL also has credit funds, in another one of its divisions, which buys and extends lines of credit to companies where going to a traditional bank isn’t attractive. In total, CNL manages over $9 billion in assets.  

A Regional Vision

“My wife says I’m a closet architect,” Mauldin conceded. “I like understanding how things are built. That is one of the things that attracted me initially to the Central Florida Transportation Task Force CFP’s. Transportation is one of those issues that affects everyone and really knows few traditional borders.”  

Speaking of the collaborative spirit in the area, Mauldin said, “I can’t explain it, because it was something I inherited, but when you can get a project, like the magnitude of SunRail, to be unanimously approved by some four counties, that isn’t typical. The Secretary of Transportation was down here awhile back and said, ‘I’m here to tell you this hasn’t happened anywhere else.’” 

Continuing, he added, “In most places, there’s a kind of parochial fist fight that follows state, county or city lines, but this region has figured out how to think collaboratively. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jacob Stuart and Rick Weddle and various organizations like the EDC and Groundwater, transportation or an asset like Port Canaveral aren’t county issues or county opportunities – they are regional.”

Drilling down to the source, Mauldin said, “Central Florida has been incredibly blessed by growth and prosperity, from theme parks to technology. It is a dynamic environment, but what struck me about this area, when I came in 2011, was its openness. There is a welcoming attitude that goes well beyond our hospitality industry, so you can be as involved in this region as you want to be. If you aren’t involved, it is because you choose not to be.”

Proposed CNL III, to be built next to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

Proposed CNL III, to be built next to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

To both Sittema and Mauldin, regionalism is seen as the future, and we will not be successful unless it shapes our collective perspective.  

The Responsibility

“At the Partnership we say, ‘We have the power and responsibility to make change happen.’ For me, that says it all,” Mauldin shared. “When you can get seven counties talking to each other, let alone collaborating and trying to pull in the same direction, that is unique. I’ve never seen that anywhere I have lived.” 

That sense of responsibility is something that drives Sittema as well. He added, “Businessmen and women need to engage and use the gifts and abilities they are blessed with to solve these issues. They are gifted with vision, strategic alliances, resources and a drive for results. If you marry the business community with the public and independent nonprofit sector, that is how you can make a dent in a community’s most complex issues and challenges.” 

In the book The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton wrote that if you can get 100 leaders in a metropolitan area together, singing from the same song sheet, transformational job creation is possible. Sittema concluded, “Personally, I think it can happen with as few as 25 leaders, when they have the stature of [UCF President] John Hitt. This collaborative process started long before I chaired the EDC and Steve the CFP. We want to drive an ongoing alignment effort to make sure business leaders understand and support the regional priorities and regional momentum that has been created.”

This article appears in the July 2015 issue of SpaceCoast Business.
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