Rarely, do I write in the first-person voice.
But after an extraordinary week spent in federal court in Tampa, it’s probably the best vehicle for sharing the many observations from covering Properties of The Villages, Inc. vs. Jason Kranz, Christopher Day, Angela Kranz, Nanette Elliott and Angie Taylor.
This story is more about you than me or the people in the courtroom. But you’re going to have to bear with me through several stage-setting paragraphs.
Let’s start with the fact that when you enter the towering federal courthouse, you do so without your phone or laptop. Tools of the trade for a journalist. Or a realtor. Just a yellow legal pad and a pen. Prehistoric in 2021.
Even the woman at the forefront of the trial, The Villages Vice President of Sales Jennifer Parr, surrendered her high-tech devices and had to have her temperature checked as well as driver’s license ready for identification prior to passage through the metal detector. Then it was into the elevator (limited to four people at a time) for the ride up to the cavernous 17th floor courtroom of Federal Judge James Moody Jr., father of Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.
Day One, Parr took the stand and told the story of her family’s trek from Northern Michigan to a not-so-certain future at her grandfather’s mobile home park in Orange Blossom Gardens in Central Florida. She described her family’s hospitality, hard work, stewardship and creativity. (Core Values, anyone?) The lone recreation center also housed a laundromat. The golf course was more like a cow pasture. Parr has mastered the story through the years and it’s still compelling each time you hear it. Particularly, if you’re a girl from a small town in the Midwest who grew up in a small family business.
Her family wanted to make people’s retirement dreams come true. It was a formula chiseled into greater perfection each and every day. In the process, they created construction jobs, restaurants, shopping, a charter school, and ultimately six-figure opportunities for top-performing sales representatives. All designed to lure in more and more retirees. And their families. And their friends.
Her father, Gary Morse, was the master. It was confirmed when the plaintiff’s attorney showed a video tribute produced after his death in 2014. Heavy on sentiment. And as Morse’s top executives gushed about the “great listener,” the judge cut it off. How is this relevant?
Top trainers from Properties of The Villages were marched to the stand. They testified they provided tools, training and opportunity to the sales representatives who are being sued. And the sales representatives grew rich. Day, who defected with Kranz to launch competing KD Premier Realty, admitted on the stand he is a millionaire. He sat up straighter and squared his shoulders when he said it. He and other defendants testified they used their riches to purchase investment homes in The Villages, the very product they were selling.
It was a trial and as part of the expected script The Villages’ Fox News analyst-attorney forced the revelation of some embarrassing facts for the two primary defendants. When Day was a college frat boy he purposely damaged a golf cart. Campus police got involved. Day’s Properties of The Villages success prompted him to develop a superhero, super-selling alter ego. He wanted to write a book about it. And sell it. He testified that his devotion to Properties of The Villages drained his family time, but turns out his free time was spent writing a self-success book. Kranz squirmed when he was peppered with insinuation about a previous bankruptcy in Minnesota. The Villages attorney poked at marital miscommunication between Mr. and Mrs. Kranz as she testified that she believed she could remain in her six-figure sales role at Properties of The Villages (and keep their children in The Villages Charter School) while her husband birthed his competing firm. Really? But more importantly, how is this relevant?
Every day after court adjourned, my husband (a retired attorney) and I took a three-mile walk along the Hillsborough River and through the oasis-like University of Tampa campus. It was a chance to sort through the clutter before sitting down to meet my nightly writing deadline, while dining on takeout from The Hungry Greek.
Checked out of the hotel Friday and thrilled to be back in the comfortable familiarity of my own home. Now, I have the chance to push back and provide you with an important takeaway from the trial, not covered in stories from Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5.
Finally, finally, dear reader, I pivot this reflection to you.
It was fascinating to hear the testimony, from both sides, about the AS400, The Villages’ computer system that has for decades tracked the desires, dreams, dollars and hobbies of a million (maybe three million) prospective, past, present, perhaps and passed-away Villagers. It includes those who visited on the Lifestyle Preview Plan and never bought. Those with only a passing interest in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.
One thing from the trial is clear – The Villages insisted on sales reps posting detailed “diary entries” into the AS400 after each and every open house, new home showcase, phone call, web inquiry, walk-in at the lobby, trolley ride or “duck tour” at the square. If you casually mentioned your home up north, your pet’s name, alma mater or honor-student grandchild, it’s in the AS400. Your financial data is there. But don’t worry, The Villages zealously guards your gold nuggets it’s worked so hard to mine. That is, they want to guard it from everybody else.
It’s scary, even though the AS400 was repeatedly criticized by those who have used it as clunky and out of date.
Now it gets a little scarier.
Full-disclosure, I own a news organization whose success has been fueled by information derived from algorithms. I could never have dreamed this information would be possible when I started churning out newspaper copy on a Linotype at my hometown weekly as a kid. We closely monitor what stories are read and what time of day they are read. It guides our decision-making. However, we do not bore down to the individual user. It’s not part of our business model. We’re focused on larger trends.
But we’re not selling homes. And selling homes is all about magically catering to individual tastes.
Properties of The Villages executive Mike Berning took the stand and portrayed The Villages as David to the “behemoth” that is Next Home, the “Wall Street/Silicon Valley” Goliath hell-bent on conquering the real estate market by using data from the cloud.
The under-oath defendants revealed details about how their Next Home franchise is thriving thanks to Smart Zip, a platform and app that uses predictive analytics to zero in on people who might be thinking about selling their home. Is it a mind reader? Nope. Just monitoring email and credit card info you have stored up in (and easily purchased from) the not-so-secure cloud. The revelation prompted the usually silent, stoic 74-year-old judge to stop and ask a few pointed questions.
So if your real estate representative seems to intuitively know that you’d like a Roman shower in the master bath or a little fence to keep your teacup dog in the backyard, it’s not a lucky guess. They know a lot more about you – and your dog – than you’ve ever dreamed.
This isn’t Harold Schwartz’s little town anymore. And it never will be again.