People

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Archive

Developer Charles Fraser Learns the Secret of Turning Beaches into Gold

Posted on

The beach at the south end of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina is as broad and as smooth as a six-lane highway, with breakers gentle enough for a baby. Given the normal rapacity of shorefront developers, it is a setting for environmental disaster. Yet today, 18 years after Charles Fraser began building his Sea Pines Plantation resort on the island, there is a sense less of rape than seduction. No towering condominiums have sealed off the coastline; no burger shacks intrude on the beaches. There are no motels, no barren, sun-baked acres of parking lots, no gouges where the earth is laid bare. Credit for such restraint goes to Fraser himself, a relentless 45-year-old millionaire who has parlayed 5,400 acres of wilderness into a personal empire of plush seaside retreats.

Fraser’s solicitude for natural values, however, has not endeared him to hard-core ecologists. Though David Brower, former executive director of the Sierra Club, once conceded ruefully of Hilton Head that “if it had to be developed, I’m glad it was developed by him,” harsher critics view Fraser as a sort of buttoned-down buccaneer—a despoiler of irreplaceable wilderness. Currently, with backing from Kuwaiti investors, he is undertaking the development of lush little Kiawah Island near Charleston, S.C. Kiawah is one of a fast-dwindling number of unspoiled coastal islands, and its defenders fear that every one of them is in jeopardy. “Charlie Fraser is the enemy,” declares botanist Richard Porcher (PEOPLE, April 21). “If it’s left up to him, he’ll develop them all.”

If nothing else, such indictments testify to the growth of Fraser’s image and influence since the days when he was selling oceanfront lots at $11,000 a throw and was barely a step ahead of his creditors. Once a tangle of salt marsh and jungle, Sea Pines has become a stylish $125-million resort boasting a 35-court tennis complex, four elegant 18-hole golf courses, more than 700 private homes and 1,400 condominiums, and a posh 188-room inn on the ocean. Sea Pines’ guests have included such luminaries as President and Mrs. Ford, Burt Reynolds and Chris Evert. And numbered among the rich, famous or powerful who own homes there are such diverse names as rock star Gregg Allman, mattress king Grant Simmons Jr. and broadcaster Frank Blair. Similar Fraser resorts are already in operation at Amelia Island, Fla. and Palmas del Mar, Puerto Rico, and Fraser is still widening his horizons. Though the recession has for the moment stalled further expansion, Fraser has already acquired 6,500 acres in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains, where he hopes to develop America’s first “private national park.” And he has been wooing Arab support for a scheme to build dozens of suburban sportsgardens—parklike commercial recreational centers featuring facilities from beer gardens to jogging tracks.

Fraser first set eyes on Hilton Head in 1950. His father, a retired Army lieutenant general, had bought several thousand acres for timber, and Fraser, fresh out of the University of Georgia, spent the summer with logging crews. Eventually, he realized, someone was going to develop the island, and the logical choice seemed to be himself. But Fraser was visionary as well as acquisitive, and he detested the reckless claptrap development that has littered much of our Atlantic littoral with saltwater slums. Before returning to Hilton Head permanently in 1956—after three years at Yale Law School and a hitch in the Air Force—Fraser prowled the coastline from New Jersey to Florida, studying the mistakes of less fastidious developers.

“I took a road map,” he recalls. “I followed every little road in, and I talked to the people who lived there.” He learned, among other things, that the wind and the sea impose designs of their own, to be ignored at a homeowner’s peril. Consequently, though Fraser is not in any conventional sense an environmentalist, he tries never to abuse nature gratuitously. Part of each resort is left as wild as he found it, protected by covenants from future human intrusion. Elsewhere sound principles of land use are strictly enforced. Fraser does not permit builders to knock down trees indiscriminately, and he exacts penalties of up to $1,000 a tree from anyone foolish enough to defy him.

Wildlife is equally protected. An early Sea Pines promotional photograph shows Fraser looking, then as now, like a prosperous commuter in his Brooks Brothers suit, nonchalantly walking an alligator at the end of a leash. Nowadays, the reptiles remain a lethargic, vaguely ominous presence in many of the Plantation’s lagoons. (While alligators rarely attack human beings, Fraser has taken the precaution of removing those big enough to try. The only authenticated alligator-related mishap at Sea Pines involved an admiral who encountered one on the golf course and wrenched an elbow in his hasty retreat.)

Traditionally, Fraser’s concern for the environment has dovetailed with a finely honed sense of promotion. Several years ago, when he was planning Sea Pines’ Harbour Town yacht basin, he found a huge spreading oak on the site. Instead of bulldozing it, Fraser spent $50,000 fertilizing it, deepening its roots and building a protective concrete bulkhead around it. Now not even the gods would presume to remove it. Should the tree be knocked down in a hurricane, insists Fraser, “we would rush in tractors and have it right back up again.” Proudly, he has dubbed it the Liberty Oak.

Though Fraser’s imagination is appealing, it has occasionally led him wildly astray. In the early days at Sea Pines, says an associate, Fraser was such a fountainhead of exotic ideas that the company could barely afford to keep up with them. Once, while Sea Pines was teetering on the brink of insolvency, Fraser sank some $8,000 into an insurance policy so the Marines could stage a mock invasion—complete with napalm exploding, jets shrieking overhead and troops storming ashore—in commemoration of a Civil War battle. Another time Fraser put up $10,000 for a half-interest in the world’s largest privately owned collection of stuffed birds, which he planned to exhibit in a climatically controlled geodesic dome, admitting tourists at a quarter apiece. To the relief of many, negotiations ran into a snag, and Fraser’s interest subsequently dwindled and died.

Whatever his excesses, Fraser’s sheer drive, inventiveness and thoroughness insure that he is taken seriously. His personal authority, unchallenged within his company, is implicit in every phase of its operations. Attached to the deed signed by every buyer of Sea Pines land is a novella-sized sheaf of restrictions governing what an owner may do with his property. (Homesites of one-quarter to one-half acre cost from $10,000 to $125,000, while condominiums range from $40,-000 to $150,000.) Ultimately, Fraser reserves the right to reject any building specification for whatever reason he chooses, giving him a petty despot’s control of design.

An unabashed borrower of other people’s ideas, Fraser reads and travels extensively, keeping an eye out for useful design. “We’ve been copied a great deal, and we copy too,” he says. “Fine design is so rare that anytime you see it, you need to add it to the community.” Even more vital to Fraser’s projects than his architectural sophistication is his capacity for creating a mood. Somehow he combines a mature appreciation of style with a childlike longing for fun. Symbolically, Sea Pines’ most recognizable landmark is the candy-striped lighthouse at Harbour Town. “It doesn’t need to be there,” Fraser concedes, “just like the Liberty Oak doesn’t need to be there. But it’s essential for the appropriate romance. Little harbors ought to have lighthouses.”

Although Fraser claims he has mellowed since he married Mary Wyman Stone of Greenville, S.C. in 1963—and especially since the birth of their two daughters, Mary Wyman, 8, and Laura Lawton, 6—he suspects he is a hard man to work for. Some of his employees would agree. Compulsively absorbed in his business, with an encyclopedic grasp of detail, Fraser has surrounded himself with an executive corps of high-powered young business school go-getters, barely out of their twenties. He drives them at a pace close to his own. “What have you been doing?” Fraser once inquired of a wary employee. “Trying to avoid you,” came the answer. Though there are now 1,800 Sea Pines Co. employees, and the business is no longer in Fraser’s hip pocket, he can jerk the reins taut when he has to. Characteristically, any time he orders a study that he suspects others in the company might sidetrack, he attaches a crisp warning: “Stop it at your peril!”

Driven by ego and energy, Fraser has been known to ride roughshod over subordinates’ feelings, but expects his men to talk back when they ought to. “Self-confident people of high ability have no problem telling me when I’m wrong and why,” he maintains. “I will accept a new idea, no matter how radical, almost instantly, because I’m feeding it into this memory chain. If it fits into my knowledge of sociology and demographics and vacationers’ habits, I will accept it even if it’s never been done before.” Associates are forewarned, however, not to take positions that can’t be defended. “You never enter into a debate with Charles Fraser unless you’ve done your homework,” says one. “If you haven’t, you’ll be eaten alive on any subject.”

Though Fraser keeps a 44-foot ketch at Harbour Town and occasionally takes it out on weekends, his cruises tend to turn into conferences. “When you sail with him you don’t relax for a minute,” claims an acquaintance. “I’ve never seen the man when he wasn’t talking business.” Actually, Fraser cultivates a variety of intellectual interests—music and art among them—but often with such blinkered intensity that he seems merely to be feeding his “memory chain.” A colleague remembers Fraser being at a party when someone mentioned the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. “Fraser said he’d like to hear it, and the guy said he had the tape. Fraser said ‘Let’s go,’ ” remembers his associate. “So they went to the guy’s apartment, and Charles stretched out on the floor and listened to the entire score. When it was over he just got up, said ‘Thank you’ and left.” Most of Fraser’s top executives live on the Sea Pines Plantation itself, and their time is, effectively, Fraser’s. Occasionally Fraser will drop in at their homes unannounced, pick up a magazine and tear out an article that happens to catch his interest. “You don’t say no to him,” observes an experienced Fraser-watcher.

A pressing question now, inevitably, is whether Fraser’s little empire will survive the recession. Caution is not one of his virtues, and his company’s lifeline has been free-flowing credit. Now, with the resort business feeling the crunch, there is speculation that Fraser may once again be at the mercy of his bankers. But even if he is, says a friend, Fraser is a master of the art of survival. “Charlie’s been in a lot of tight spots before, and he’s always managed to fight his way out.” While it is impossible not to wonder—as some of his investors surely have—whether Fraser could have made more money, and made it faster, by cutting corners and easing his standards, Fraser himself dismisses such misgivings. “The long run is not over,” he says, “and I don’t think you could rationally prove to yourself that rape of the land would be more profitable. Nor could you prove the opposite. So since you can’t prove it either way, you might as well do it right.”