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Photo by Maggie FitzRoy
Jax Daily Record Friday, Dec. 16, 201612:00 PM EST

A career of vision, patience and timing

Veteran developer Hawley Smith has decades of success
by: Maggie FitzRoy Contributing Writer

By Maggie FitzRoy, Contributing Writer

As a young man in the spring of 1973, Hawley Smith experienced a huge shock on the first day of his first job in the real estate industry.

He had just moved from Georgia to Jacksonville to work at a development firm. But the man who hired him resigned without warning, taking about 30 key employees with him.

Smith, who majored in chemical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was a complete novice to real estate.

But the crisis in which he found himself soon proved to be an outstanding opportunity.

“I went from not knowing anything about real estate to being vice president because I was one of the very few people left,” Smith said.

That, he said, meant “at someone else’s financial risk, I learned a lot about what has been a very lucrative business for me.”

That kind of luck, timing and the willingness to recognize opportunity and grab onto it has served Smith well during his 43-year career as developer of neighborhoods throughout Northeast Florida.

A quick jump to his own firm

After three valuable years of on-the-job training, he left to start his own company, H Smith Inc., in 1976.

Huntington Forest, off St. Augustine Road in Mandarin, was the first community he developed.

His most recent is River Story, a gated-community on the St. Johns River, also in Mandarin. Smith had purchased the land during the economic downturn in 2008 for a very good price and held onto it until the economy improved.

The first families are now moving into the cozy enclave, where every home sits on an acre lot, surrounded by 100-year-old Spanish moss-draped live oaks.

“In my business, you make your money the day you buy the piece of land, not the day you sell it,” Smith said. “If not overly leveraged and if you are conservative and careful, you have set yourself up to make money.”

Smith started his company with $1,000 of his own money and a $265,000 loan from Jacksonville National Bank.

He sold his first lot in Huntington Forest for $3,600. Two years later, he was selling smaller ones in the same neighborhood for about $23,000, because inflation was rampant at that time.

“Those were nerve-racking days with many sleepless nights,” he said.

But his business continued to grow.

Having patience to buy low, sell high

He has literally lost count of how many communities he has developed over the years, but one of his most notable is Palencia, a golf course community in St. Johns County that overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway.

He bought the land in 1980, at a time when it was considered the “boondocks,” and held onto it until the late-1990s, when it wasn’t.

He paid $3,000 an acre for the one-and-a-half-mile frontage on the Intracoastal Waterway, in what was then considered the middle of nowhere. Smith said he envisioned what the 1,500 acres of live oak canopy could someday look like as a community.

Homes started going up in the late 1990s.

“With the right piece of land for the right price at the right time,” Smith said, “you are going to make money. The rest is mechanical.”

He said he applied the same kind of vision and savvy around 2000 to North Jacksonville, buying up land there “when everybody thought I was crazy.”

At that time, Mandarin was hot, with lots selling for up to $30,000 an acre.

He looked at the Northside and saw beautiful farm land going for $5,000 to $6,000 an acre. Most people at the time saw no development value.

But Smith thought otherwise. Marsh Winds was his first community there.

Shortly after that, he developed Victoria Lakes off Yellow Bluff Road, purchasing the land for $10,000 an acre and selling it within three years for up to $70,000 an acre.

Victoria Lakes was named after Smith’s grandniece, Victoria “Toria” Hale, who now works for him.

She is the granddaughter of his sister, Mary Louise Dungey, who joined him early in his business, and who he says was his “best friend” as well as his partner.

The first female president of the Northeast Florida Builders Association, Dungey was an artistically creative woman, Smith said, who came up with the names for many of their communities, including River Story.

That neighborhood’s grand red brick entry way was Dungey’s vision, Smith said. She died in 2008, he said, “but I think of her every day.”

Family business supports charities

Smith, who grew up in the small town of LaGrange, Ga., has purposely kept his business a small family one.

His daughter, Taylor Day, and her husband, Nathan Day, work with him.

His other two children are not in the business, although he is proud of their career paths. Daughter Ashley Smith-Juarez is Duval County School Board vice chair and son, Hawley III, is a Christian pastor in Virginia.

Smith’s wife, Emily, serves on the board of Seamark Ranch, a community in Clay County where children in Florida’s foster care system are provided homes with loving families.

Smith and developer Chester Stokes, a longtime friend and former college fraternity brother, donated the land for Seamark. Together they had purchased 16,000 acres south of Middleburg, with the intention of holding onto them until the right time to develop.

When Smith heard the founder of Seamark give a speech, “I heard the Lord speak to me,” he said.

Stokes immediately agreed to their joint donation of 500 acres.

Charitable giving is important to Smith, who also supports Young Lives, a ministry for unwed teenage mothers and their children, and helps orphaned children in Nicaragua.

“I feel called to it,” he said. “We have been blessed beyond imagination, so I feel a strong need to give back and help those less fortunate.”

Hale said she feels fortunate to be working for her Uncle Hawley, as he has been a great mentor.

A recent college graduate, she loves the business.

“There are so many different parts to development,” she said. “You learn the government side, the builder side, the marketing side and the tax side. You end up learning a lot about everything. And I’m fortunate because I get to learn from my family.”

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