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May 14, 2007

He Buys, He Fixes

Interesting profile from the Wall Street Journal:

Entrepreneurs like Gordon Black never really retire. The 65-year-old, who started a market-research firm in 1975 that went on to become Harris Interactive Inc., a prominent polling company, tried to stop working. But he soon found himself starting another business -- albeit one that took him in a completely different direction.

Mr. Black took Harris public on Nasdaq in 1999 and spent five years as chief executive. (The firm, long known for its public-opinion barometer, the Harris Poll, made a splash when it became the first outlet to use Internet polls to correctly predict the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.) Mr. Black retired in 2004, with generous amounts of time and money on his hands. But he soon decided he didn't want to spend the rest of his days at his home in Rochester, N.Y.

EN-AA264_PROFBL_20070511180341-1.jpg"I didn't want to stay in the middle of the Snow Belt and the high-tax belt," Mr. Black says laughing. Looking for sun and a place where his windfall would go further, he settled on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "I came down here because it's gorgeous, but it also happens to have an attractive tax situation, so I immediately started thinking of setting up a new company."

Within a few months, he hit upon the idea of starting a real-estate business. After buying and renovating a villa for himself and his fiancée, Annika Van Wambeke, Mr. Black decided to buy additional properties to fix up and sell.

"We bought a second house, and then a third, and my real-estate business just sort of happened," says Mr. Black, who so far has purchased seven homes, four of which have already sold. He looks for high-end homes selling for more than $1 million that are in a state of disrepair (some have been hit by hurricanes), and then renovates them from top to bottom with fixtures imported from the U.S. Ms. Van Wambeke is in charge of the decorating and interior design.

Mr. Black's customers are mostly Americans, the majority from New York, looking for vacation homes or retirement residences. One of his properties, a waterfront home with a 345-foot private beach, is on the market for $4.3 million. "People are ready to spend $2 million to $5 million on the right house," he says.

Mr. Black says he is always on the lookout for properties, and has real-estate agents alert him when a house that fits his needs hits the market. He works with architects and builders in planning each redesign, and has developed relationships with U.S.-based suppliers of furniture, appliances and building materials, importing every last tile, window and dishwasher. Each renovation takes about six months to a year, though one particularly run-down house took 16 months.

"It's very time consuming, but I love learning a new set of skills," says Mr. Black, who had never dabbled in speculative real estate before. "After 35 years of doing basically the same thing, the challenge of learning about a whole new market is fun for me."

Not that he doesn't have any free time. When not overseeing work on his houses, Mr. Black spends afternoons on his boat, and travels often to the U.S. and Paris, where he owns an apartment. He is also involved in charitable organizations on the island and frequently hosts friends and family.

"When you live in the Caribbean," he says, "you have a constant flow of guests."

Coldwell Banker, Stout Realty, St. Thomas

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