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Southern spell

Suzy Bibko is editor of Families in Business.

Howard Coffin had a vision – Sea Island was the perfect location to build the most luxurious resort in the country. He didn't live to realise his dream, but fourth generation member Bill Jones III carries the mantle. It's a hard job but someone has to do it... discovers Suzy Bibko

A friend of mine recently moved 750 miles south from New York City to coastal Georgia. The move was more than physical, however, as many people claim the South has a completely different state of mind, not to mention climate, than the North. My friend is a born and bred uptight northerner, who treats punctuality and directness as if they were part of the Ten Commandments. I just couldn't see her fitting in "Down South", where the drawls are as long as summer days in July and daily life operates at a much slower, refined pace than "Up North". What a surprise, then, when I recently spoke to her and found a completely relaxed woman, who was describing her precocious, youngest child as being full of "spit and vinegar" and was praising the glories of the South as if she was Scarlett O'Hara. She had definitely fallen under the spell of coastal Georgia.

No one knows better how the spell of coastal Georgia can affect people than Bill Jones III, chairman and CEO of Sea Island Company (Sea Island). Sea Island is a hospitality company that owns and operates luxury properties in coastal Georgia. The properties include two hotels, a resort community, a sporting facility, two private golf clubs, several residential developments, as well as the actual island of Sea Island (on which several of the aforementioned are located). The story of Sea Island goes back to 1908, when Howard Coffin, an older cousin of Jones's grandfather and founder of the Hudson Motor Car Company, had the opportunity to visit Savannah, Georgia to watch his cars race in the Great Savannah Road Race. Coffin fell under the spell of coastal Georgia and ended up purchasing Sapelo Island, where he built a home for vacationing and entertaining. At that same time, Jones's grandfather developed tuberculosis and his doctor encouraged him to move south to a warmer climate. Coffin welcomed him to Sapelo Island and soon Jones's grandfather was running Coffin's household and various other interests in the area.

By the early 1920s, the US government was developing its new interstate highway system. Coffin, being in the car business, recognised that commercial and residential development was soon going to follow the roadways. Despite the fact that the state described the area as "swampy, mosquito-ridden and of little economic value", Coffin figured that if he had fallen under the spell of coastal Georgia, others could, too. So, Coffin asked Jones's grandfather to form a company with him (which eventually became Sea Island), and they began buying land in the area. They purchased the island of Sea Island, land on neighbouring St Simon's Island and property in nearby Camden County. However, they soon realised that if people were going to be arriving to view the properties, they would need a place to stay while they were there. As a result, they decided to build the Cloister Hotel. The original plan called for a grand hotel, something on the scale of The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida; they even hired noted Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner to draw up the plans. However, at the last minute, Coffin and Jones's grandfather got cold feet and decided they should test the market first, and built a small, temporary inn instead of the luxury hotel first envisioned. Then, if the Cloister was successful, they'd tear it down and build a bigger, better hotel further down the beach.
 
The Cloister opened in October 1928 and had one successful year before the Depression hit. Coffin died shortly after, never realising his grand plans, and left everything – primarily debt – to Jones's grandfather. Somehow, Jones's grandfather was able to hang on to everything and the company finally turned a profit for the first time in 1945. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Jones's grandfather and father worked to establish the Cloister as one of the leading resorts in the country.

Always a playground for the rich and famous (former President Calvin Coolidge visited in the late 1920s; playwright Eugene O'Neill built a cottage on Sea Island; Winston Churchill's daughter married there in the 1940s; and the 2004 G8 Summit was held at Sea Island), Sea Island today is known for its wealth of premier properties and amenities. Under Jones's leadership for the past 11 years, Sea Island has grown beyond even Coffin's grand vision. "In 1995 we opened Ocean Forest Golf Club and that really set a new standard for us", explains Jones. "We'd had golf in the past, but with Ocean Forest we were determined to build the finest golf course, the finest club experience anywhere. We had the right property to achieve this, bordered by the ocean and rivers and heavily forested. It opened to great reviews in 1995. At that time, we also codified our vision to be known as the finest resort and resort community in the world. Although we were always mindful of excellence, this was the first time we had put it on paper and were serious that everything we undertook was to match that vision."

Indeed, Sea Island is synonymous with luxury and unrivalled attention to detail. They hire the best architects, best golf course designers and pay particular consideration to the minor details. As a result, Sea Island sets itself apart from the numerous resort communities in America, and particularly those in coastal Georgia and the south-east. Of course, being the best comes with a hefty price tag: rooms at the Cloister average $700 per night and a Sea Island 'cottage' (single family home) will set you back a cool $3 million – minimum.
 
But you're not just paying for bricks and mortar, you're also buying a way of life. "Sea Island is definitely a lifestyle brand", says Jones. "As we codified our vision, we came to recognise that more and more. The lifestyle brand is not limited to a hotel experience or residential experience, but it's all about the quality of lifestyle we provide." That lifestyle presently includes a clothing company, Peter Millar, so people can have the Sea Island 'look' (besides selling Ralph Lauren and other upscale brands, it also sells apparel exclusively designed for Sea Island). "Peter Millar is a natural extension of our brand", explains Jones. "In the future it could include products like furniture or anything relating to a high-end lifestyle." Jones says the company will continue to look at other opportunities to expand the brand, from a hospitality and real estate perspective. This could include expanding beyond the Georgia coastline into other areas within the US.

And how will Sea Island compete outside its Southern comfort zone, attracting those wealthy clients who may decide the Hamptons or Palm Beach are better playgrounds for them? With the same tactics and vision it presently holds. "It's all about lifestyle and a family environment", emphasises Jones. "Sea Island is a wonderful environment. We're blessed with a great climate year-round. We have the most complete and best package of amenities anywhere. The Hamptons is more of a general area, as is Palm Beach, where you can access various components of that lifestyle, but you don't have it all under one umbrella. I think that's what really sets us apart."

The family emphasis is one that isn't taken lightly, as Sea Island has been in the Jones family for 80 years and is a company that understands the value of family. "Family is something that sets Sea Island apart", reveals Jones. "We hear over and over again that it's the one place people can come and all generations – grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren – can find something they love about Sea Island. It's an opportunity for these families to spend quality time together."

Jones obviously knows this first-hand, as he was raised on Sea Island. However, he didn't always know he'd be a part of the company. "There was never any family pressure to join the company", recalls Jones. "In fact, when I was in high school, I thought the ideal job would have been a hunting guide. However, my father convinced me that I should find a job that would earn me enough money to hunt when I wanted to hunt, not because I had to hunt. But my parents really didn't encourage me to work in the business when I was growing up. I think they recognised that the resort business is not really the real world. So, as a result, I did shift work at a paper mill, and a few construction jobs. I was experiencing what hard work and the real world were like." Despite, or perhaps in spite of, these eye-opening opportunities, Jones decided to give the family line of business a chance and joined a management training programme at the Boca Raton Hotel in Florida. "That was really an opportunity for me to not only learn the business, but also decide if that was the business I wanted to be in", says Jones.

The programme was just what Jones needed and he says it was the turning point for him in deciding to join the family firm: "I found I loved the people and the business." So, after spending some time with another hotel, he went back to Sea Island to work with his father. There was no formal entry into the business, but his father had firm ideas that Jones should start at the bottom and work his way up. "I did a little bit of everything," recalls Jones. "I painted rooms, I cleaned out the grease trap in the kitchen, I mowed the grass. There wasn't any corner office for a long time."

Jones hopes the company stays in family hands, as it has worked well for them for the past 80 years. He is the sole family member working in the firm and he has no offspring, but that doesn't dash his hopes for family involvement. "Our family is very pleased with the direction of the company and certainly the ownership of the company," says Jones. "If the family continues to feel that way, I think it would be a great thing, but I don't know what the future holds. If any family members are interested in and capable of joining the company and of assuming leadership positions, that's fine. If not, then as a family we'll decide to do something different." But presently, the family is working to make sure the next generation fully understands their responsibilities as shareholders and possibly future business leaders. The family has partnered with Synovus, a multi-family office, and together "we've developed programmes to bring the next generation along with regard to stewardship of what they have and understanding what they have and understanding what the company does," reveals Jones. "I think it's been a great partnership and great opportunity for the next generation to understand the company, what we do, their responsibility, their stewardship."

Being only 48, passing the torch isn't a pressing concern for Jones. Rather, the company's direction and newly renovated Cloister Hotel are foremost on his mind. The latter was a huge undertaking, taking three years and costing $200 million. "We completely rebuilt [the Cloister]," explains Jones. "We took down the original building, which was built in 1928, but we were able to save the most significant room in the building, the Spanish Lounge. We took it apart piece by piece and recreated it in the new building." Jones is justifiably proud of the results: "I really don't believe there's anybody in the hospitality world building to the level of detail and quality that we have at the Cloister." The next project is a 65,000 sq ft spa facility at the hotel, which is due to open in October this year. After that, it's a beach club due for completion in 2007. It's the realisation of a long-term plan for Jones to build the best resort possible. "[The long-term outlook] is something a family business can do," explains Jones. "If we were a public business, we'd be focussed on next quarter's results. But we have the luxury, like all family businesses, of taking the long view and building value over the long-term. It also gives us the opportunity to focus on what's right, and what we believe in as a company."
 
If Howard Coffin hadn't fallen under the spell of coastal Georgia, Sea Island may never have been. While Jones and his ancestors have worked hard to build a successful, world-class resort unrivalled by others, I have a strong suspicion Bill Jones III still believes in a little bit of magic.

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