Dean Saunders | Florida's Conservation Blueprint

February 16, 2022   |   Conservation Easements

Dean Saunders, Founder of SVN | SRD sits down to discuss his love for Florida real estate and how that contributed to the future of conservation easements within the state.

Dean Saunders is the founder, managing director, and one of the senior advisors at SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler. He is an 8th generation Floridan and loves real estate. In this episode, Dean discusses these topics and how he contributed to the future of conservation easements within the Sunshine State.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.

How did your career begin? I always anticipated that I would probably either be in sales or citrus management. When I graduated, the agricultural economy nationwide was in a little bit of a slump and they really weren't hiring. So, I went to work for Golden Gem Citrus Growers in Umatilla, Florida.

I came home from work one day and my father said, “Dean, some guy called you, Charles Kennedy. He was from Senator Chiles's office. He said he’ll call you in the morning.” Sure enough, at six o'clock in the morning, I'm in my office and he calls. He said, “My name is Charles Kennedy. I'm administrative assistant to US Senator Chiles. The senator is looking for somebody to be an agricultural liaison with a background in agriculture and Citrus. Would you be interested?” Two weeks later, I was working for US Senator Lawton Chiles.

Then I had a stent in the middle of that where I worked for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation. They hired me to do national affairs and some state lobbying in Tallahassee. In 1986, Lawton called me and said, “I'd like for you to move to Washington. We want you to work with the budget committee and do our agricultural policy issues.” I just said, “Senator, I love working for you, but don't want to move to Washington. I don't want any of my opportunities to be in Washington. I want them to be in Florida.” So he said, “Stay in Lakeland, just fly to Washington when I need you.”

How did you get into real estate? I worked for a while and then I got my real estate license when I was a senior in college. I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever and thought I might sell an orange grove here or there.

Lawton Chiles was retiring, I thought, “Well, I got this real estate license and the real estate market is pretty active. The citrus market particularly is active because of the freezes of the 1980s. Let me see if I can try my hand at this real estate thing.” Then, I closed on a property that replaced half of the salary that I gave up.

I became an agent with the prominent citrus broker in the state. I was selling orange groves in high demand. Then Lawton Chiles decided in April of 1990, that he's going to run for governor.

You don’t seem very “salesy”. A lot of people have a perception of sales. I really look at it as just trying to help people. You always think that the highest price that's going to get the deal, but that's not necessarily true. It's really where two parties have their needs met is where you make a deal. This generally involves the highest price for the seller. But he or she may have other needs along with the buyer's needs and desires. Our job is to understand what those needs are. If we can put those people together and matchmake, we can make a deal. That's a little bit of what I do. Just understanding what people were looking for and trying to help them get there.

Why would somebody need to hire a broker? I am a great believer in the marketplace. One of the things that we as brokers do is try to expose properties to as large an audience as we can. Sometimes even that's not what a person wants because they may want a tailored audience.

So it all depends, you customize things. Throughout my career, I have met a lot of people, and I've been on a lot of properties. Sometimes somebody will say, “Well, I'm looking for such and such.” I may not have it on the market at the time, but I may know where it is. I might be able to find somebody that's interested in selling or buying. The main thing we do is expose properties to the marketplace. The broader pool of interested prospects, the more likely it is I'm going to find somebody that's going to meet that client's needs.

The key to a lot of what I've done here is not just people I know and what I've done, but the team of people that we have here. It's about the people. Find the talent, you’ll find the job. I want to be with good people. I have great salespeople who are connected in their own right. My partners are also very involved and very connected as well. Gary [Ralston] has been a CCIM instructor for about 38 years and well connected people know him all across the country.

Todd [Dantzler] used to be president of the Florida Association of Realtors. He was also a county commissioner so he's well known. Really amongst the three of us, there's not many people in the real estate world that we’re not going to know.

What was your involvement in Florida’s conservation easements? It was sometime around 1984 and I was on Highway 50. I said to my wife, “It’s a shame, but this will all be houses one day. I wonder if there's a way we could pay them not to develop it?” Ten years later, I'm in the legislature, and the voters had just passed the Preservation 2000. They're gonna spend $300 million a year to buy conservation land throughout the state. I said, “I wonder if we can take some of that money and use it to buy development rights”. That's one of my other claims to fame. I wrote the first legislation that got the state to start buying conservation easements.

I'm a “private property rights guy”. This country was founded on private property rights and I feel like people have the right to do whatever they want with their property, within some constraints. But it would be nice if we could protect some of it from not being developed. I've had the privilege of working and helping people for the last 25 years. Literally the day I got out of the legislature, a local rancher called me and said, “Dean, I thought you were crazy with your conservation stuff, but I think that's something that would help me and I want to hire you."

Listen and subscribe to In Our Expert Opinion


Dean Saunders
Throughout his career, Dean has carried a deep passion for Florida land and conservation easements. During his time in the US Senate as Agricultural Liaison, Special Assistant, and Director of External Affairs, he fought for private property rights in tandem with the conservation of the Flor...