Relocating a business and a family from Memphis, Tenn., to St. Petersburg, Fla., is a short distance in miles, but for The Sembler Co., which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the journey has been much longer.
“We have developed 350 projects, including 125 or 130 shopping centers,” said Mel Sembler, recently named chairman emeritus. “It’s been an interesting career.”
Mel came to the retail business through his in-laws, who were related to the owners of Shainberg’s women’s clothing stores in Memphis. Persuading his father-in-law to relocate stores to the growing suburbs, he formed The Sembler Co. in 1962. In 1965, the company opened its first center, Green Village Shopping Center in Dyersburg, Tenn., around a Shainberg’s store. Two more centers followed, but by 1968 it was clear that real growth was farther south, and Sembler relocated to St. Petersburg.
The move was prescient, said son Greg Sembler, recently promoted to Sembler Co. chairman.
“There were 5 million people in Florida then,” Greg said. “There are 19 million now.”
Years of development ensued. After building a portfolio of shopping centers with some of the dominant tenants in the Southeast, such as Publix, Walgreens and Target, the company expanded into Puerto Rico in 1996, bringing retailers such as Home Depot and Costco to the island.
Mel also pursued other interests, launching a controversial drug treatment program and becoming involved in politics. He eventually served as the finance chairman for the Republican Party, supporting such candidates as Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The results were stints as the U.S. Ambassador to Australia under the senior Bush and Ambassador to Italy under the younger President.
Meanwhile, brothers Greg and Brent Sembler (a third son, Steve, split off from the family firm to become a housing developer) kept growing the company.
“My sons had to step in, and Craig Sher [now executive chairman] did an outstanding job,” Mel said. “Thank God I have very talented sons.”
Through several cycles, The Sembler Co. remained, and remains, resolutely a private, family-held business, even as other firms became REITs.
“We have looked at going public,” Greg acknowledged. “But we like the flexibility of being private.”
The company even experimented with mixed-use development, only to pull back during the recession.
“We’re very, very focused on management,” as well as redevelopment and bringing the Wawa convenience stores to Florida, Greg said.
Challenges continue in the industry, noted Mel, a past chairman of the International Council of Shopping Centers. Yet it remains fun. “I’m sure the industry will continue to change,” he said. “Where else can you look at empty dirt and from sweat, intellect and contacts create something that will be so good for the community?”
Fifty years later, The Sembler Co. remains active in the business, and Mel Sembler remains active in both politics and the company he founded — when his sons need him, he said. “I still have an office and still consult,” Mel said. “I still have contacts that are helpful to the company. The boys have been very generous.”
Eventually, the plan is to have the next generation (now in college) at the company, Greg said. For now, he and Brent are continuing the family’s legacy into its next 50 years. “It’s a passion. It’s my father’s passion, and my brother Brent’s and my passion,” Greg said. “We love to come to work every day.”