The Becnels Mix Business with Pleasure
By Lisa Burwell | Photography by Jessie Shepard
At VIE’s request, an interview with the Becnel family was arranged by longtime employee and friend of the Becnel family, Deborah Horaist. The Becnels, who are low-key and not prone to granting interviews, made this meeting even more special. Their welcoming hospitality, with their children and grandchildren bustling about, set the tone for a relaxed and informal interview. Tom and his wife, Carla, chose their beautiful new home in Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort so that they could be part of the community, but they said their company office would remain in Destin.
After a brief tour of their home and an impromptu photo shoot, I sat down with Tom and his son, Damon, in their large pool cabana. Watching this father-and-son duo finish each other’s sentences, banter, agree and then disagree with one another all at the same time revealed a strong family bond between them. They share a clear vision of how things should be done. They’re driven. They don’t appear to be the type of people to sit around and talk about what to do—they just do it. “We are passionate about our opinions,” Damon said with a big smile. “Intelligent, honest people can disagree without detracting from one another.” The fact that they are not mired in bureaucratic red tape allows them to be nimble and make decisions quickly. This family-run business is an important one to the Becnels. “It’s your name and not a corporation,” said Damon. “A family-run business can move faster than a large corporation.”
When we met, the Becnels had recently inked the purchase of the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort from Vancouver-based Intrawest that had been a year and a half in the making. Throughout the negotiation process, there was much speculation as to whether or not the deal would go through, with many rooting for the Becnels, partly because of the Becnels’ good reputation and partly because they were locals. A track record of success as developers and operators of Silver Shells Resort, the Palms of Destin, and One Beach Club Drive in Sandestin is to their credit. The purchase includes the management contract of Cottage Rental Agency, the primary rental management company in Seaside, Florida, and the management contracts for the Sandestin Marriott Residence Inn and Marriott Courtyard, both located in Grand Boulevard at the entrance of the resort. “It was a complicated asset with a lot of moving parts,” explained Tom. “We were the fourth bidder back in 2000 when we first attempted to purchase the resort, but we had been beaten out by Intrawest. So, the deal had really been ten years in the making if you count that.”
“We’ve been very well received by the Sandestin Homeowners Association and we’ll continue to dialogue about win-win strategies for success,” said Tom. They explained that their immediate course of action was to evaluate costs and benefits, and the subsequent rewards in moving forward to create Sandestin’s future. One of the evaluations taking center stage the day of our meeting was of the tram system in the resort to make sure it was green-friendly. “We plan on implementing environmentally sound principles with all we do in the resort,” said Tom.
The Becnels are avid outdoor sportsmen, and to that end they intend to introduce fifteen to twenty coveys of quail to the resort. “We have so much wildlife here that needs to be nurtured and these subtle changes will be noticed in the first few months of our assuming ownership,” noted Damon. In addition, they want the resort to celebrate its Florida locale by planting fruit-bearing trees, including lime, grapefruit, cherry, lemon, orange, and kumquat trees. “We want the resort visitors to have an aromatic sensory experience upon entering the gates,” emphasized Tom.
“We are developers, and it’s in our blood,” proudly continued Tom. “We want to make this place that we love even better. When you come to Sandestin, we want to make sure there is something for everyone, so we’re elevating the experience at the Village of Baytowne Wharf, opening a new fitness center and looking into adding day slips at the marina so we can have more visitors via the waterways, and more family-friendly attractions, to name a few additions.” He went on to say that they were adding more activities to the Village of Baytowne Wharf, like a carousel for the summer months. At the time of our interview, plans were under way to create a beach on the south side of the marina and a marina grill, both of which have since been completed. This simple yet appropriate addition makes a big difference in the ambience of the marina. “Our goal is to be more exclusive as we want visitors and residents alike to choose Sandestin because we’re the best.”
To that end, the Becnels are very pleased with the leadership of Sandestin’s president and head of operations, John Russell, and the team of professionals that he has assembled to lead this mandate for the resort. “John has a background working with the Ritz-Carlton and this will be a helpful commodity in having us achieve a higher level of sophistication.”
When asked for their predictions about our local economy, they said that we will feel the recovery before other parts of the country, as Sandestin was experiencing a dramatic improvement in sales over last year. Our interview occurred pre-oil spill, so we can only hope and pray that Tom’s insights are correct and that the oil crisis will be resolved as soon as possible.
— V —