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NEAL COMMUNITIES: 40 years and nearly 8,000 homes

MANATEE — By Pat Neal’s reckoning, he’s at 7,890 and counting.

That’s how many houses, townhouses and condominium units his companies have developed and/or built in Manatee and Sarasota counties since 1970.

Neal is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Neal Communities and expects to build his 8,000th home later this year. And the company, like its owner, has no plans of slowing down any time soon.

“I’m 61, in excellent health,” Neal said. “God willing, I’ll be in the business for another 20 or 30 years.”

Not bad for someone who didn’t plan on going into homebuilding in the first place.

In 1970, Neal was fresh out of college with a finance degree and a $5,800-a-year job offer from an Iowa bank.

But his father, Paul Neal Jr., had other plans: He offered his son a guaranteed $5,600 a year — plus a brand-new Chevrolet pickup truck — to join his fledging development and real estate business in Manatee. Pat Neal jumped at the opportunity.

“I think his idea was, ‘If I get Patrick to do all the work, I could take it easy,’” Neal said of his father, a retired lawyer. “Dad did the thinking, and I would do the execution. It was marvelous, it really was.”

The first residence Neal built was a 960-square-foot unit in the Whitney Beach condominium complex on northern Longboat Key. Neal was hands-on in the construction, doing everything from grading the site to pouring concrete to installing the seawall and landscaping.

“I learned the business from the ground up,” Neal said. “I learned a lot of little things that are valuable today.”

To advertise the unit, Neal fashioned a sign on two sheets of plywood he bought at a Bradenton hardware store. Although crude, it worked: The unit sold for $18,750, about $5,000 more than nearby condo units also for sale.

Neal took over the business from his father upon his second retirement in 1974. But with the housing market in a slump because of recession, Neal ran for state representative and won.

He would serve 12 years in the state House and Senate, and his involvement in Neal Communities diminished as his legislative demands grew. His business partners, Howard Adams and Frank Buskirk, largely ran the company during those years.

Neal focused attention on the company full time after leaving the Legislature in 1986.

Four years later, the problematic Perico Bay Club project nearly led to Neal Communities’ demise. Instead, the company split, with Neal taking the residential portion.

At about the same time, Neal and late partner Rolf Pasold began building University Park Country Club, perhaps the best-known development out of the roughly 50 Neal has been involved in.

Others include Wildewood Springs, Azalea Park, Peridia, Wild Oak Bay, River Landings, Hawthorn Park and Players Club. More recent projects include Harborage on Braden River, River Sound and Forest Creek. Neal also is beginning to develop the Central Park project in Lakewood Ranch, where the company has built numerous homes in the master-planned community’s country club section.

Today, Neal has diversified his homebuilding interests. Neal Communities focuses on the smaller, more-affordable home market, while Neal Signature Homes — formed by Neal, his wife Charlene, son John and longtime Neal executive Mark Sochar — builds country club-style homes.

There’s also John Neal Homes, which his son formed to build high-end, luxury homes in University Park; a pool division in Neal Communities; and an interior design studio.

Neal said diversification, plus carrying a low debt load, helped his companies weather the recent housing slump better than most. Now, with an inventory of roughly 9,000 approved or planned lots, he has set his sights on growth.

“The Neal family will be in business for a long time,” said Neal, noting his son is the fourth generation to be in land development.