Brandon Clark named third Ruthvens leader in 64 years

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Brandon Clark, President of the Ruthvens

Joe P. Ruthven came to Lakeland from South Carolina in 1957 with his wife, the daughter of a prominent local family whose brother would one day be Governor of Florida, and opened an OK Tires store on Memorial Boulevard with a partner .

When OK Tires & Rubber headquarters determined that Lakeland would be a good distribution center in Central Florida, they set out to find the 10,000 square foot warehouse they wanted.

Joe Ruthven didn’t just find a warehouse at OK Tires & Rubber; he built it, borrowing to buy land and erecting a 20,000 square foot structure, renting half to his parent company and the other half to another tenant.

In doing so, he may have changed the trajectory of Lakeland’s development over the next seven decades.

“When you think back to Joe in the late ’50s, there was no I-4, no Disney World. It wasn’t like you had this plan for Lakeland as a distribution mecca. as you have today,” said brandon clarknew president of The Ruthvens. “Hands down – he started the speculative buy model at Lakeland, then he did it again and kept doing it. We still do it every day.

Like Joe Ruthven, Clark came to Lakeland from the Carolinas – North Carolina in Clark’s case – with his wife, the daughter of a prominent local family that has produced, over three generations, a mayor, a governor, US senators, doctors, pilots. and a Navy SEAL team commander and who stick together despite many now living across the country in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Unlike Joe Ruthven, who came to Lakeland with his wife, Jeanette Chiles, to start a business, Clark came to Lakeland with his wife, Lauren Ruthven, in 2018 to join the business his grandfather founded with a warehouse and that his father, Greg Ruthven, grew in 38 years to 90 buildings with 4 million square feet leased to 335 tenants.

Brandon Clark at Ruthven Headquarters
Brandon Clark at the Ruthven headquarters on Lake Morton.

“It’s an amazing family, amazing things they do all over the world. The business means a lot to them, a way to remember and honor their grandfather,” Clark said before joking, “I’m here because I don’t do much with my life.”

In December, Clark, 36, from Raleigh, North Carolina, was named president of The Ruthvens, succeeding his father-in-law. He holds a degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina and 11 years of experience in corporate banking. for SunTrust Bank in Atlanta and JPMorgan in Winter Park.

Greg Ruthven, 64, will remain chairman and chief executive but will spend more time at his Longboat Key home, traveling, fishing, “with the grandkids” and not worrying about the future of the family business .

“Brandon was exactly the person we needed,” he said, noting that Clark managed 30 portfolios of companies worth billions or more and 65 analysts at JPMorgan. “He’s the right choice. Everyone agrees with that. I don’t play, but I bet on him.

Location, location, location

“It’s about proximity to I-4 and the (Polk) Parkway,” Clark said, noting Lakeland Linder Airport’s growing air cargo capacity and the “Florida Poly connection” are among drivers driving demand for warehousing and manufacturing space.

“Amazon coming here was a stamp of approval” for Lakeland as a logistics center that “has expanded over the past decade to become more of a statewide fulfillment center,” he said. -he declares. “There’s not a lot of risk in choosing Lakeland at this point.”

Florida Polytechnic University, the 12th and newest public university in the state dedicated to STEM education and high-tech development between Lakeland and Winter Haven, is “beginning to take off” with high-tech companies “needing more square meters for product development”.

Last year, the Ruthvens added 430,000 square feet of warehouse space, bringing capacity to 4 million square feet. It started the year with 99% occupancy, including new 197,600 and 129,480 square foot warehouses on North Combee Road leased by Walmart, Southeast Pet and small businesses.

This year, the company will build a 104,000 square foot warehouse and JPRI Holdings’ proposed 109,000 square foot marijuana grow facility in the Gateland Drive Industrial Park off County Line Road.

All 90 properties are within 40 kilometers of The Ruthvens town center office on Lake Morton, the former Lakeshore Hotel. But growing demand for increasingly expensive land could expand that radius in coming years, Clark said.

“A lot of land is bought up,” he said. “The land available now has a lot of hair on it. (Parcels) that would not be looked at before” are now attracting buyers, including reclaimed phosphate mines and wetlands.

“We are looking for sites outside of Lakeland. There’s good momentum in adjacent areas,” Clark said, noting The Ruthvens has no plans to expand beyond central Florida.

Space: the flexible border

Once upon a time, warehouses were steel framed and concrete block “hulls” where companies stored things. This is no longer the case.

High-rise and ground-level warehouses Ruthvens ‘build to measure’ can also accommodate manufacturing, processing, office and retail in planned and integrated industrial/business parks.

“Every new building has something different,” Clark said, noting that the growth of local manufacturing creates new demands on warehouse and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Among the various manufacturers that lease warehouses from The Ruthvens are Skim Lite, which manufactures telescoping pool poles in an 11,000 square foot warehouse and Key West-based Pilar Rum, which distills spirits in a warehouse leased from The Ruthvens. .

Tenants now want “shelving for forklift equipment,” Clark said, with 30-foot clearance now standard. “These same-sized 20-year-old buildings normally had a 24-foot clearance.”

For decades, The Ruthvens has focused on building spaces between 5,000 and 100,000 square feet. Its largest warehouse is 200,000 square feet, he said.

The company was ahead of the curve. “The (industry) trend is no longer for mega-warehouses but for relatively small spaces between 30,000 and 60,000 square feet and even smaller than that,” Clark said.

Growth Partners

Smaller spaces “lend themselves to family businesses” with higher turnover, not necessarily because businesses fail, he said, but because they grow.

For example, The Ruthven’s longest-serving tenant is Omnia, which makes cotton balls for Publix and dentist offices. Omnia “has leased four or five different warehouses as the business has grown” over the past 35 years, he said.

“We work with tenants as their needs change. When these situations arise, it doesn’t matter where they are in their lease. We rip it,” Clark said. “Someone comes along and wants more space, we can provide that flexibility. We let our customers roam. The company motto: “Success is finding the right customer and keeping them there.”

This credo has been in the company’s DNA since Joe Ruthven built his first warehouse nearly 65 years ago.

Greg Ruthven recalls that after he went to work for his father in 1983, the Ruthvens had 350,000 square feet of warehouse space with investments in apartments, strip malls and mobile home land.

“It was a different ball game. Polk County was all citrus and phosphate back then,” he said. “I sat down with my dad and said we had to pick one thing to focus on – storage. Lakeland’s location between Tampa and Orlando put us on the map.

Joe Ruthven agreed, but said the company would not change its ethics.

“I give a lot of credit to my father. I was quite young then, a little cocky and he was a Southern gentleman,” Ruthven said. “He said, ‘Where the tenant went, we went too. Let the tenant win, let the customer win, and we win on the back end. ”

Those partnerships paid off, Clark said, recalling how Olé Mexican Foods “started selling in Publix” because Greg Ruthven convinced former Publix Super Markets president Mark Hollis to review his products during a a Rotary meeting.

Clark passes on the same code, developed not in a family business environment but by working with corporate clients.

“There are a lot of similarities,” he said. “I was a development manager working on deals and helping companies solve problems. It was very relationship-driven.

“He can juggle a lot of balls,” Ruthven said. “He knows all the buildings and all the customers.”

Still, every new tenant and every new building brings excitement, Clark said.

“It’s a really interesting part of the job, all the different types of companies we work with that come to Lakeland,” he said. “When you see the building before anything enters it, you get a real sense of the possibilities.”

The chosen one

Joe Ruthven died in December 2019 at the age of 91. But he knew Clark would be running the family business even before Clark did.

“We have these family reunions at my dad’s house in Scott Lake, the whole family and the attorneys,” Ruthven said, recalling one such reunion in 2016.

“My dad put a notepad in front of us and said, ‘Who’s going to take over from Greg in five, six years? he said. “We could have chosen anyone in the family. Every person at this table chose Brandon.

But Ruthven met unexpected resistance as he made the deal with his son-in-law.

Lauren “loved Winter Park. He was ready to come, but she wasn’t,” he said. “It took me about 2 and a half years to get her on board.”

“I’m a Tar Heel – I made my way south, first to Atlanta at SunTrust, then to Winter Park with JPMorgan,” Clark said. “Now I’m at home.”

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