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Joe P. Ruthven came to Lakeland from South Carolina in 1957 with his bride, the daughter of a prominent local family whose brother would someday be governor of Florida, and opened an OK Tires store on Memorial Boulevard with a partner.
When OK Tires & Rubber’s corporate office determined Lakeland would be a good Central Florida distribution hub, he set about to find the 10,000-square-foot warehouse it wanted.
Joe Ruthven didn’t just find OK Tires & Rubber a warehouse; he built it, borrowing to buy land and erecting a 20,000-square-foot structure, leasing half to his parent company and 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 that blueprint of Lakeland as a distribution mecca like you have today,” said Brandon Clark, new president of The Ruthvens. “Hands down — he started the model of speculative buying in Lakeland and then he did it again and kept doing it. We’re still doing it every day.”
Like Joe Ruthven, Clark came to Lakeland from the Carolinas — North Carolina in Clark’s case — with his bride, the daughter of a prominent local family that produced, over three generations, a mayor, a governor, U.S. senators, Ph.Ds, pilots and a Navy SEAL team commander and who remain tight-knit despite many now living across the country, in Switzerland and The Netherlands.
Unlike Joe Ruthven, who arrived in 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 her grandfather founded with one warehouse and that her father, Greg Ruthven, grew over 38 years to 90 buildings with 4 million square feet leased to 335 tenants.
“It’s an amazing family, amazing things they are doing all over the world. The company means a lot to them, a way to remember and honor their grandfather,” Clark said before joking, ”I’m here because I’m not doing much with my life.”
In December, Clark, 36, a native of Raleigh, N.C., was named president of The Ruthvens, succeeding his father-in-law.. He has a degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina and 11 years of corporate banking experience for SunTrust Bank in Atlanta and JPMorgan in Winter Park.
Greg Ruthven, 64, will stay on as chairman and CEO but will spend more time at his Longboat Key house, traveling, fishing, “with the grandkids” and not worrying about the future of his family’s business.
“Brandon was just the guy we needed,” he said, noting Clark managed 30 corporate portfolios of $1 billion or more and 65 analysts at JPMorgan. “He is the right choice. Everybody is in agreement with that. I don’t gamble, but I am betting on him.”
Location, location, location
“It’s all about proximity to I-4 and the (Polk) Parkway,” Clark said, noting Lakeland Linder Airport’s expanding air cargo capacity and the “Florida Poly connection” are among drivers spurring demand for warehousing and manufacturing space.
“Amazon coming here was a stamp of approval” for Lakeland as a logistics center that “has broadened the last decade into more of a statewide distribution hub,” he said. “There’s not a lot of risk to choosing Lakeland at this point.”
Florida Polytechnic University, the state’s 12th and newest public university dedicated to STEM education and high-tech development between Lakeland and Winter Haven, is “starting to take off” with high-tech firms “needing more square footage for product development.”
The Ruthvens last year added 430,000 square feet of warehouse space, boosting capacity to 4 million square feet. It began 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 smaller companies.
This year, the company will build a 104,000-square-foot warehouse and JPRI Holdings’ proposed 109,000-square-foot marijuana grow plant within Gateland Drive industrial park off of County Line Road.
All 90 properties are within 25 miles of The Ruthvens’ downtown office on Lake Morton, the former Lakeshore Hotel. But spiking demand for increasingly more expensive land could extend that radius in coming years, Clark said.
“A lot of land is being bought up,” he said. “The land available now has a lot of hair on it. (Parcels) that wouldn’t get looked at before” are now drawing buyers, including reclaimed phosphate mines and wetlands.
“We’re looking at sites outside Lakeland. There are good dynamics in adjacent areas,” Clark said, noting The Ruthvens has no plans to expand beyond Central Florida.
Space: The flexible frontier
Once upon a time, warehouses were steel frame and concrete block “shells” where businesses stored things. Not so anymore.
High-dock and ground-level warehouses The Ruthvens “build-to-suit” can also accommodate manufacturing, processing, office space and retail within planned, integrated industrial/business parks.
“Every new building has something different in it,” Clark said, noting local manufacturing growth is creating new requirements for warehouse utility and wastewater infrastructure.
Among diverse manufacturers leasing The Ruthvens warehouses is Skim Lite, which fabricates telescoping pool poles in an 11,000-square-feet warehouse and Key West-based Pilar Rum, which distills spirits in a warehouse leased from The Ruthvens
Tenants now want “racking for forklift equipment,” Clark said, with 30-foot clearance now standard. “Those same-sized buildings 20 years were normally 24-foot clearance.”
For decades, The Ruthvens 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 now is not mega-warehouses but relatively small spaces between 30,000-60,000 square feet and even smaller than that,” Clark said.
Partners in growth
Smaller spaces “lend itself to mom-and-pop businesses” with a higher turnover, not necessarily because companies fail, he said, but because they grow.
For instance, The Ruthven’s oldest tenant is Omnia, which makes cotton balls for Publix and dentists’ offices. Omnia “has leased four, five different warehouses as the company grew” over the last 35 years, he said.
“We work with tenants as their needs change. When those situations come up, it doesn’t matter where they are in their lease. We tear it up,” Clark said. ”Someone comes in and wants more space, we can provide that flexibility. We let our customers move around. The company motto: ‘Success is finding the right customer and keeping them.’”
That credo has been in the company’s DNA since Joe Ruthven built his first warehouse nearly 65 years ago.
Greg Ruthven recalls after he went to work for his father in 1983, The Ruthvens had 350,000 square feet of warehouse space with investments in apartments, shopping centers and mobile home lots.
“It was a different ballgame. Polk County was all citrus and phosphate back then,” he said. “I sat down at with my dad and said we need to pick one thing to focus on — warehousing. Lakeland’s location between Tampa and Orlando was putting 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 pretty young back then, a little cocky and he was a Southern gentleman,” Ruthven said. “He said, ‘Where the tenant went, we went also. Let the tenant win, let the customer win, and we win on the back-end.’ ”
These partnerships have paid off, Clark said, recalling how Olé Mexican Foods “got their start selling into Publix” because Greg Ruthven convinced former Publix Super Markets President Mark Hollis to look into its products during a Rotary meeting.
Clark conveys the same code, developed not in a family business environment but while 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-oriented.”
“He can juggle a lot of balls,” Ruthven said. “He knows all the buildings and all the customers.”
Yet every new tenant and every new building brings excitement, Clark said.
“It’s really a cool part of the job, all the different types of companies that we work with coming into Lakeland,” he said. “When you see the building before anything goes in, you get a real feeling of what the possibilities are.”
The chose one
Joe Ruthven passed away in December 2019 at the age of 91. But he knew Clark would lead the family business even before Clark did.
“We have these family meetings at my father’s house on Scott Lake, all the family and the attorneys,” Ruthven said, recalling such a meeting in 2016.
“My Dad put a legal pad before us and asked, ‘Who is going to succeed Greg in five, six years?” he said. “We could have picked anybody from the family. Every person at that table picked Brandon.”
But Ruthven met unexpected resistance in closing 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 1/2-years to get her aboard.”
“I’m a Tar Heel — made my way south, first to Atlanta at SunTrust and then to Winter Park with JPMorgan,” Clark said. “Now, I’m home.”
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