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Exclusive: Ron Wheeler plans his next chapter after Sembler

Margie Manning

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Ron Wheeler

As CEO of The Sembler Co., Ron Wheeler has guided the St. Petersburg-based development firm to new heights.

Now, he wants to share the knowledge he’s learned over three decades in business, 22 of those years at Sembler and seven years as its CEO.

He’s stepping down as Sembler CEO at the end of the year and plans to teach, coach and mentor other executives, with a focus on how employee fulfillment makes for stronger companies.

“I’m not retiring,” Wheeler, 54, told the St. Pete Catalyst. “I’m stepping away from my current role as CEO of the Sembler Co., the day to day operating role. I’ll still be a partner on some of their deals and do some consulting with them, but I’m going to move on to a variety of other interests.”

Greg Sembler will succeed Wheeler as CEO. Sembler, chairman of the board of directors, was CEO before Wheeler was named to the job in 2012. Greg Sembler is the son of Mel Sembler, who founded the company in 1962.

Since then, the company has grown into an institution in the industry—developing more than 325 projects totaling more than 27 million square feet and leasing and managing a portfolio of nearly 10 million square feet throughout the southeastern U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Positive impact

Wheeler’s primary focus going forward will be sharing lessons learned about operating a business in a way that leads to the most fulfillment for its employees and produces the best results.

He wants to work with business leaders to help them better connect with their workers in order to build better and stronger teams.

“I talk to a lot of leaders who could use some help in that area. I think I have some value to add there, because I’ve been in business for 33 years and I’ve run a company, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned a lot. I’d like to put together a practice where I can help folks have more fulfilling careers and better operating companies,” he said.

One way to do that is help employees understand that by doing their jobs well, they improve the quality of life for others.

“I want them to see value in their work. I want them to understand that what they are doing is impacting other people in a positive way,” Wheeler said. “I think most businesses can find that positive impact and value.”

Sembler buys shopping centers, many of them adjacent to low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, and fixes them up — bringing in better tenants, and making them safer, cleaner and more attractive.

“When we build a shopping center, not only are we creating hundreds of short-term jobs for the people who build that center, but we’re creating hundreds of long-term jobs for people so that they can have a fulfilling life themselves,” he said. “We bring that meaning to every employee, to see how they add to the whole picture of what we do.”

Once a year, Sembler Co. takes its entire team to tour one of its shopping centers.

“We let everyone talk about their role at that center and it brings meaning to their work. It brings us together as a team, and we can say collectively, ‘Look at what we’ve done for the center, for the neighborhood and for ourselves,’ ” Wheeler said.

That creates a bottom-line impact.

“Studies have shown that and books have talked about it, but you can see it in practice. If you’ve got happy, fulfilled people, they want to work hard for you, they want to succeed and that definitely leads to bottom-line success for the company,” he said.

‘Right thing to do’

As CEO, Wheeler said his job is to give employees the resources they need and then step back and allow them to work collaboratively in teams to do their jobs.

That process has served the company well amid the major changes in real estate development over the past decade, as e-commerce has replaced many traditional brick-and-mortar stores.

Many of the Sembler developments are anchored by grocery stores, and 90 percent of groceries are still purchased in brick-and-mortar locations. But other stores in the shopping centers have changed in nature. There are more stores focused on health, wellness, beauty and fitness as well as restaurants. All offer activities that can’t be done online.

“Our industry has shifted and our focus has been on those types of tenants,” he said. “In the past, you had people going into a store, buying something and taking it out. Now, they’re going there for a service or an experience.”

In some respects, Wheeler’s approach is the same as one advocated by the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives at the nation’s best-known companies. That organization last month discarded the concept of “shareholder primacy,” or the idea that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders, and now says the purpose of a corporation is to benefit all stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

“Responsibility to shareholders is important but it can also be an excuse not to do what you know in your heart and soul is the right thing to do,” Wheeler said. “If [shareholder return] is your sole goal, ultimately you are doing a disservice to your clients and associates and in the long run it will make you a less successful, less profitable business. By consistently trying to do what is right, not just what is good for the short term benefit of a shareholder, you will create a long-term sustainable business that has great relationships and is one people want to do business with.”

In addition to stepping down as CEO, Wheeler also will leave the Sembler board of directors.

While Greg Sembler will be CEO, Wheeler also expects a lot of people in the organization to step up and do various parts of the job he currently holds.

“Because we’ve created this culture, and have such a great team with people who’ve been there a long time, they’re going to do great,” Wheeler said. “That’s one reason why I felt it was the right time to step back. I know I’ve got a great team in place and they’re going to continue to be successful, whether I’m there or not.”

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