Written by Christiana Roussel
Spend any time at all around Jon Kohler and two things are guaranteed: you might feel a little reduced in stature – after all, the man is six-feet-four-inches tall and often boasts a commanding signature Stetson hat. And secondly – but most importantly — you’ll immediately understand the man knows land.
Jon Kohler’s bio reads like that of a man who has spent the past 30 years fully immersed in the business of brokering important land deals, shepherding the ownership of legacy properties from one owner to the next. Yes, he has accumulated multiple degrees and more awards and recognitions than can be listed here. But at the end of the day, if you ask Jon what he and his team do best, his answer is succinct: “We’re story-tellers.” This is a noteworthy perspective from someone who was just named “2022 National Broker of the Year – Recreational Land Sales,” by the Realtors Land Institute®, not just a milestone achievement, but also the highest award the industry offers. He goes on to say, “We’re a communications company that makes a living brokering land.” A warm smile spreads across his face and you realize you’re talking to a man who fully understands his purpose, one living out his life’s calling, every single day.
In 1989, Jon was sitting in a real estate class at Florida State University, working toward a double-major that also included entrepreneurship, when Professor John Lewis presented the case studies of two plantation brokers’ sales of famed Red Hills properties, Chemonie and El Destino – two notable plantations that fast forward 30 years later, Jon would have the distinct honor to work with and even one day represent himself. As Jon recounts the story, you can still feel the frisson of excitement he experienced that day, learning there was a whole profession encompassing all he valued. “Plantation Broker? That is a thing?!”, he recalls thinking in class that day, a huge lightbulb suspended over his head. And from that moment on, his vision has been laser-like focused on redefining that role, as he imagines it.
After college, Jon went on to earn a law degree, joining the bar associations in both Montana and Florida. He also holds real estate licenses in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina – all seminal components of protecting the natural resources of regions he holds dear, one parcel at a time. It is important to note that a career like Kohler’s could never have come to pass if he’d treated it as merely transactional; instead, he has built it upon a deep-seated knowledge of the region’s history and topography, as well as a fierce advocacy for its preservation. He says, “My lifelong passion is to see these lands’ legacy continue as we celebrate great stewardship and continue to uplift this niche.” His is a perspective that is foundationally-based upon a respect for the land and the inherent understanding that property owners are but caretakers of these resources.
“Kohler’s challenge is to employ unconventional story-telling means, to share this perspective, with prospective buyers.”
As a boy, Jon grew up spending time outdoors on his family’s 160-acre Blue Creek Coastal Preserve property. This Florida Coast gem established by his parents was lush with marshes, fresh-water creeks that wend their way into the Gulf, and more longleaf pine than could be counted. From an early age, he came to understand the joy – and the cost – of keeping things in their natural state. After all, it is one thing to purchase a parcel of land; it is quite another to have the wherewithal to be a good steward to it. His parents argued over the sacrifices required to care for such a piece of property. He notes, “As I got older and wiser to the ways of the world, I realized: This land produces nothing. Its only utility was its place in the natural order, and our enjoyment of it. That was instrumental for me, remembering my parents’ struggles and evolving a land ethic that brought together reverence for the land and a realistic understanding that nothing is free.”
“Land Stewardship is based on a Biblical ethic to both preserve and build wealth at the same time. Our time spent owning the land is about leaving as minimal a mark as possible.”
This intimate knowledge is what sets Kohler apart from other land brokers in the Red Hills region. Often referred to as ‘THE Plantation Broker’, he possesses a near encyclopedic knowledge of almost every longleaf pine, swath of wiregrass, swamp and lily pad-laden lake in these parts. He is a repository of the history of these plantations, most of which trace their lineage back to the post-Civil War era when wealthy Northern industrialists capitalized upon falling land prices, assembling rambling estates. Those aristocratic families fell in love with this ripe playground where they could engage in such European pastimes that included bird-hunting with English setters and horses, and custom British shotguns. They established grand homesteads, bestowing them courtly names like Greenwood, Chinquapin, Chemonie, Foshalee, and Pebble Hill that are still lionized, prized and coveted in the modern era.
From that first moment in Professor Lewis’ class, Kohler inherently understood the power of possessing and harnessing as much knowledge as possible. “Literally, the day after that class, I went to Tall Timbers and met with the organization’s archivist, Rose Rodriguez, who is actually still serving there today. You have to remember: this was pre-internet and pre-cell phones so it was a lot of going through old documents and reading their publications, learning all I could about the work they were doing and the history of the region.”
The mission of Tall Timbers, a Red Hills region research-based non-profit organization, is “to foster exemplary land stewardship through research, conservation and education.” They are considered to be the preeminent resource for those interested and invested in a well-balanced approach to ecology, conservation, land preservation and private property ownership. Their biology-driven conservation work and land ethic-based philosophies align perfectly with Jon’s own mission.
Jon’s own personal experience, coupled with his on-going drive for staying ahead of the learning curve informs the story-telling he does so well. Case in point, he notes, “You cannot underestimate the value of consistent prescribed burns on land in the Red Hills region.” As a board member of the national Quail Forever organization, and one of the first people to become certified in prescribed burning in the state of Florida almost 30 years ago, Kohler’s ability to value a parcel with a well-maintained and healthy habitat is decidedly informed. “I can tell you that the difference in the price per acre of a property that has a consistent prescribed burn program in place and one that does not, is about $1,200/acre.” In broadening the scope of his services to include the history of a place, with that story-telling component, Jon is able to present a property’s complete 360* value, encompassing all aspects – origin, lineage of ownership, physical improvements, as well as the health of the soil and trees, rolling hills and water sources.
At a recent closing, Jon and his wife Erica met with the property’s new owner, sharing dinner together. In between courses, the buyer turned to Jon and said, “You know, you call yourself a broker but that is really doing yourself a big disservice. What you do is really so much more than that.” This buyer – like so many others in Jon Kohler’s infamous Rolodex – has worked with Jon on several transactions. “The traditional sales approach other brokers take in marketing a property just isn’t as effective as what we do. Beyond the deep bench of our Rolodex, we help buyers feel connected to a property — sometimes even before they see it.” It is this use of story-telling that whets the appetite with buyers. “Not long ago, there was a property that had been on the market for four years with another broker. When we finally got the opportunity to market it, with our own way of doing things, I immediately had multiple buyers lined up and it sold for more than $2 million over the other broker’s asking price.”
That is some powerful story-telling.