Palm Beach man reveals secrets on how to make it 'Big'
By Liz Doup
Posted June 23, 2006
I have always created a name for myself -- an outrageous one.
So it says in a new book by Frank McKinney, 38, who builds spec homes the size of small countries in Palm Beach County.
Today, his outrageous name is in the news again. Not because he's sold another BIG $30 million manse, which he did in 2000, but because he's written a BIG book, appropriately called Make it BIG! 49 Secrets for Building a Life of Extreme Success (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95)
The hefty tome, compiled with the obligatory ghost writer, is a combo autobiography and how-to guide on making it ... you know ... BIG.
See McKinney in the flesh at a Palm Beach book signing on Friday, or check out the book cover to witness his signature look: jeans, Versace vest and Fabio locks, which he has professionally colored -- blond streaks -- every three months.
You can read all 271 pages of BIG! or get the gist of it here: Buy low, sell high and promote yourself to the point that Donald Trump looks more modest than a monk.
Behind all the hoopla is this. McKinney builds in a way that's more typical of tract housing: on speculation, hoping someone will like a 72-room home. That oversized palace in the tony Palm Beach County town of Manalapan sold for nearly $30 million in 121 days in November 2000.
By McKinney's calculations, only one person in 150,000 can afford his homes, which feature such flourishes as marble-floor garages, two-ton crystal chandeliers and closets the size of small apartments. Since 1992, he's sold 11 wow-look-at-that homes, starting at $1.9 million, to buyers, typically self-made business types, who want to remain anonymous. Most of his houses have sold in the seven-digit range.
McKinney says he must promote BIG time to find buyers.
Just picture this: For one magazine story, McKinney posed in a loincloth atop the poolside faux-rock formation of one of his spec homes.
At the home he ultimately sold for nearly $30 mil, he had a tiny image of himself painted into a ceiling mosaic, a figure with long blond hair flying a hang glider. And his press releases don't hold back, calling him the "world's premier speculative real estate entrepreneur."
"He reminds me of a thoroughbred horse," sighs his mother, Katie McKinney, who lives in Carmel, Ind. "You've got to give him the reins."
Still, other high-end spec builders say you don't have to bathe in the media's ink to sell a house.
Merle Smith, who builds high-end spec homes in Broward County, has had a successful career and owns nary a loincloth.
"I'm just an old man who likes to build homes," says Smith, 71, who doesn't know McKinney personally. "Most of my business is word of mouth."
Truth is, McKinney would stand out no matter what he did. He's been rebelling since he was a kid, so why conform now?
"We go round and round about his hair," his mother says. "I say to him, `You're so successful now. Why can't you just look normal, like everybody else? Like a banker.'"
And he says, "I like who I am."
Big but bland?
So who is he, really?
Like most folks, McKinney is a series of BIG contradictions, though his might be a tad more pronounced.
His story sounds like it's rags to riches, but, in truth, he skipped the rags chapter. He sells excess but doesn't buy it. In his personal life he's conservative, but in business, he lives on the edge.
"I'm still a BIG-time adrenaline junkie," says McKinney, who watches thousands of dollars vaporize every day he doesn't have a buyer. "I live every day in fear, which is fine. I have to have that fear. It makes me feel alive."
At the moment, McKinney is in his office, a newly built tree house connected to his Delray Beach beachfront home by a suspension bridge. Yes, a tree house ... with an ocean view.
Before taking a phone call, he hands over a self-penned paper titled A Vision Statement for My Life, with a list of his personal goals. Flaws to perfect: temperament and impatience.
Meanwhile, McKinney's voice on the phone is all business: "Tell him to do it and don't be an idiot."
So much for learning patience. But McKinney didn't succeed in real estate by turning mellow. He began buying distressed property at auction, fixing it up, then selling for a tidy profit.
In 1992, he took a chance on an oceanfront parcel and from there went BIG, zeroing in on huge homes on beachfront land.
Preservationists criticize McKinney for replacing old homes with monster mansions, all flash, no style. They're more about size -- BIG -- than distinctive architecturally.
Still, McKinney's personal taste is more subdued. He and wife Nilsa, 40, an interior decorator who furnishes his projects, live in a 2,500 square-foot home with two guest cottages, all built in the '30s.
It looks like a family home, with a pile of jeans and an ironing board visible in a back room, yet tastefully furnished with a mix of antiques and contemporary pieces.
For the right price, $5.9 million, the 2.5-acre spread is for sale. McKinney is an entrepreneur, remember, always looking to make a deal.
Mom's bad boy
Lucky for McKinney, he found his niche in high-stakes real estate. As a kid, he was always in BIG trouble.
"I didn't think he'd make it to his 21st birthday," his mother says. "I thought he'd get killed in an accident or I'd shoot him."
She's kidding, of course, but only about the shooting. McKinney could turn any mother's hair white.
The black sheep in a family of overachievers, Francis McKinney III is from a prominent Indiana banking family. His father, who died in a 1992 plane crash, was disciplined and driven. Frank, oldest of six kids, rebelled against his father's straight-laced banker's conformity.
Though his siblings gathered college degrees from the likes of Stanford and Notre Dame, he was tossed from private schools and spent time in juvenile hall for stealing cars and doing drugs.
After barely graduating from high school, he left home at 18 and landed in South Florida with $50 in his pocket, digging sand traps at golf courses.
He moved on to teaching tennis lessons to the well-heeled at upscale developments, including Boca Marina and the Sanctuary.
McKinney worked his students hard for 50 minutes, using the last 10 minutes of the hourlong class to pick their brains about business. One man suggested distressed property, and McKinney was off and buying.
In the fast lane
Though McKinney says he doesn't live the lifestyle of his buyers, he lives well enough. Besides the beachfront home, there's a vacation house in Cañon City, Colo., not far from a Catholic prep school that gave him the heave-ho.
But in actions, he's conservative. He doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs. At a restaurant, he orders Shirley Temples. He's up at 5, in bed by 9. Married for 11 years, the couple waited until McKinney's career was established to have children; Laura Katherine is 3.
"He's an unbelievable father," Nilsa says. "I see a more nurturing part of him, more humbling. He's willing to be the butt of a joke for her."
In the past, the couple has sold their home to help finance a McKinney project, and they've never abandoned their frugal ways. Nilsa is a coupon clipper and McKinney will pick up a penny on the sidewalk. A nanny helps cook and clean, but the family isn't pampered by a raft of servants.
Though McKinney drives a 1974 candy-apple red and white Cadillac station wagon with a leaky roof, his love of speed is documented by a slew of speeding tickets from the '80s. He still owns four motorcycles, built to fly fast.
When not zooming around on his cycles, his idea of a treat is sipping a BIG cherry Slurpee with his daughter, buying Pop-Tarts at Wal-Mart or enjoying a sushi dinner with his wife. In some ways, McKinney is still a BIG kid at heart, and that's fine with him and his wife.
"People ask if we're going to have a second child and I say, she is my second child," Nilsa says.
Sunday mornings, McKinney ushers at the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach. This Sunday, he'll deliver the sermon, based on the more spiritual parts of his book, which includes a healthy dose of work-hard-and-help-others advice.
"In my honest opinion, he's a humble man," says the Rev. John Skehan. "He doesn't go around with religion on his shoulder. He lives his faith."
McKinney's personal cause is helping the homeless, and he also gives his time to kids. On a recent day he spent several hours talking to students at Lynn University in Boca Raton and shows remarkable patience when one student says he wants to do real estate because the 9 to 5 world sounds so constricted.
Says McKinney: "How about working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.?"
The best spin
In my business, hyperbole is our stock in trade ... I have to admit (somewhat shamefacedly) I haven't always been completely truthful. I've certainly been known to put the best spin on things ...
So writes McKinney in his new book. But then he adds, you gotta be honest with yourself.
In the end, who really knows where the public McKinney stops and the real McKinney starts? Not that it matters to McKinney.
The point is, you know who he is, what he's selling and, hey, even if you can't afford his houses, maybe you can spring for his book.
For sure, the promotion party last week was vintage, over-the-top McKinney. Who could miss the life-size replica of the cover of McKinney's book?
Like the man always says: Make it BIG!
Liz Doup can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4722.