Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Arizona Storyteller: Robson builds career providing Ariz. homes

Ed Robson began his career as an Arizona developer in the mid-1960s by enticing people to drive to Bullhead City and look at mobile-home lots for a free tank of gas and an inexpensive camera.

The marketing ploy worked. Robson and his partners sold hundreds of lots in the then-tiny town next to the Colorado River. They handed out 2,500 Kodak Instamatic cameras to people who made the drive.

The group bought so many Kodaks that the camera company sent a salesman to Bullhead City to figure out what they were doing.

Robson talked the Kodak salesman into buying a lot in the development.

Robson learned about being a salesman from one of the best. He had just left Phoenix-based Del E. Webb Corp., where he learned to negotiate deals and plan for large developments from one of the top developers of the time.

Del Webb, then-owner of the New York Yankees, would become synonymous with his Sun City retirement developments.

A decade later, Robson opened Sun Lakes south of then-far-flung Chandler with two other former Webb executives. The project would directly compete with their former boss' popular Sun City in the far-northwest Valley.

Webb died in 1974, before sales at Sun Lakes soared. Still, he will always be an important influence for Robson.

"I can't say Webb was like a mentor to me, but I learned a heck of a lot from him," said Robson, who at 80 still works full time and makes the commute almost daily from his Biltmore-area Phoenix home to his office in Sun Lakes. "He was a tough, smart businessman. I am not that smart, but I can be pretty tough."

Robson left Webb twice. The first time, Webb's recommendation helped. Robson recounts the story: Game-show host Art Linkletter was starting a real-estate enterprise. Webb told Linkletter the man who could sell land for him: Robson was "the best salesman he ever met," Webb said. Robson went to work for Linkletter. When the venture failed, Robson went back to Webb. During his second spell, he helped find a new stadium site for the Anaheim Angels baseball team of Southern California.

The second time Robson left Webb, he ended up selling trailers in Bullhead City. Since college, Robson had wanted to be an entrepreneur running his own company. With the money from the mobile homes and lots sold to new Instamatic camera owners, Robson and his partners went on to redevelop a failed golf-course community outside Flagstaff.

They opened Sun Lakes in 1972 after spending a year negotiating to buy most of the land from the Hanna family. The patriarch of the Hanna family had been an accountant for the Rockefeller family and made trips through Arizona on his way to California to monitor Standard Oil's operations.

Robson's Sun Lakes didn't begin as auspiciously as his predecessor's development.

The first weekend that Sun City opened in 1960, buyers purchased more than 270 homes.

Robson and his partners started by selling mobile homes or "double wides" in Sun Lakes because they were less expensive. They didn't sell 270 homes in their entire first year. And things didn't get any easier.

In the mid-1970s, the nation's energy crisis had reached the gas stations. Fuel prices soared, shortages led to long lines at the gas pump and the country fell into a recession.

"No one in Phoenix wanted to spend a tank of gas on a drive out to Chandler in the mid-1970s," Robson remembers. "My partners and I were about to sign the bankruptcy papers, but I still felt like there was a way to save Sun Lakes."

But no bank would give Robson a loan. Even a good friend who was president of an oil company couldn't help him. Finally, he found financial help from an unexpected source. One of his former contractors said his ex-wife might be able to lend Robson money. She had cash on hand, and Robson talked her into a $100,000 loan.

Robson bought out his partners for a paltry sum and the promise of a cut on future home sales. The money was enough to make payroll so he could keep selling homes. It was the start of Robson Communities Inc.

More than 10,000 homes were built in the 3,500-acre community, with the last one selling in 2005. Robson is proud that he still knows many of the residents, including several who moved in during the 1970s and are now 90 or older.

Robson credits his good luck for surviving the 1970s recession. A 2006 book that Robson wrote about his life is called "Outrageous Good Fortune." However, the many Arizona real-estate developers, brokers and investors who know Robson credit his success to being a great salesman.

Robson has built and sold more than 30,000 homes in his Arizona communities, including PebbleCreek in Goodyear and SaddleBrooke near Tucson. His only foray developing out-of-state is a retirement community north of Dallas. His latest project is a huge development called Robson Ranch near Casa Grande that will take decades to complete.

Robson has weathered three real-estate downturns in Arizona and said the recent crash was by far the worst. He believes Arizona will rebound and continue to "grow on its merits" as long as leaders address the state's education and job problems.

Robson came to Arizona in the mid-1960s. He was born in Massachusetts and went to college at Colorado College on a hockey scholarship. He met his wife, LaNelle, a Phoenix native, at college.

The couple married and moved around while he was a helicopter pilot in the Marines. After he left the military, the couple had the choice of going to Massachusetts or Arizona.

"It was an easy choice: sunshine or snow," Robson said. "We moved to Arizona, and I started selling real estate."

The Robsons raised five children in Phoenix, and two sons joined the family business. LaNelle Robson died in a boating accident in 1985. Several years later, Ed Robson married Michelle King, who was a real-estate agent.

A few years ago, Robson drove to Bullhead City with a land-broker friend to look at a vacant parcel for sale. While there, he drove around to look for the lots where he sold so many mobile homes almost 40 years ago.

"I looked and looked, but I couldn't find it," Robson said. "Like Arizona, Bullhead City has grown a lot in the past four decades. I am glad I have been here for the ride."

by Catherine Reagor The Arizona Republic May. 16, 2011 12:00 AM

Arizona Storyteller: Robson builds career providing Ariz. homes

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