Jim Seneff was born shortly after World War II in Gary, Indiana. His parents both came from large farming families of 12 children each. Seneff lived with his family in a small two-bedroom duplex during his early childhood. When he was older, they moved to a home built by his father, who worked in the town’s steel mill and had a small construction business building garages on the weekends to earn extra money. His father later started a small subcontracting construction business.
“My father was a great influence on me,” says Seneff. “He had character and integrity, and a great work ethic. He was a pilot during World War II and had a great love for this country. He taught me that capitalism and democracy are fragile concepts that require constant vigilance. He also loved our church, and one of my fondest memories is sitting with him in church on Sundays.”
Seneff’s mother stayed at home to take care of the family. “She was very bright and aspired to improve herself from her humble beginnings. She was my emotional support and friend,” he recalls. “Both of my parents gave me a lot of room because they trusted me. The only specific advice they gave me was to remember who I was. They felt that if I did that, they didn’t need to worry about what I did. So I had a lot of freedom growing up. I was grateful to have such wonderful parents, and I always wanted to do the right thing by my family.”
From age of seven, Seneff worked with his father on construction projects. He also worked on his own, mowing lawns and repairing bicycles. But his summers were devoted mainly to helping his father.
In high school, Seneff—a serious, dedicated student—was a student leader and belonged to the National Honor Society. He also played three sports, and his primary mentors in those years were his coaches. Seneff will never forget the year his basketball team went to the state championship. In their last game, Seneff had the last two shots, and he missed both of them. “I felt responsible for losing the game,” he says. “It was a hard loss but a defining moment in my life. I told myself that I would never again be unprepared if an opportunity came to me in the future. I took inspiration from something Abraham Lincoln once said: ‘I will prepare myself and perhaps my time will come.’ About 15 years ago, I reviewed that game on tape and realized I didn’t actually lose the game for us. Another teammate dribbled the ball on his foot, and it got away from him. I blamed myself for that loss all these years, but now I realize it doesn’t matter because that moment helped me to focus on my future.”
Seneff graduated from high school in 1964 and attended Chicago’s Wheaton College on an academic scholarship. Two years later, while walking across a snow-covered campus, he decided to transfer to a school in a warmer climate. That led him to Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, where he majored in business. At the same time, he started a small business from his dorm room. “I bought cleaning products wholesale and then sold them at a profit,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get up each morning to go to my business classes so that I could find out what I needed to do to keep my business going. Eventually, my business was profitable enough that I had my own lawyer and CPA while I was still in college.”
Upon graduation, Seneff was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served one year in Washington, D.C., and another year in Vietnam. During his last few months overseas, he drew up a 50-year plan, splitting it into three parts: first, to finish his education and military service; second, to get married, have a family, and build a business; and third, to become a patron. He began that phase in 2008. “Having a long-term plan is a powerful thing,” he says. “I believe it is a great secret in life and one I didn’t fully understand at the time I made my plan. Being intentional about your life is one of the great levers in life. It’s also a great leveler. You can have less talent than others, but if you’re intentional about your time, it’s amazing what you can accomplish—not in 5 years, but in 20, 30, or 40 years.”
After finishing his Army stint, Seneff settled in Orlando, Florida, just before Disney World opened in 1971. He predicted Orlando would become to Florida what Atlanta already was to the South. For one year, he sold insurance, then earned his real estate license. Next, he asked his father for a $5,000 loan to start his own business. In 1973, he launched CNL Financial Group; his office was a windowless room with only a card table, a folding chair, a telephone, and a typewriter. With only one car in the family, his wife, Dayle, tooled around town on a bicycle with their young son strapped to a seat on the back.
In the 1970s, CNL was a local business, but it grew in the 1980s to become a regional business. It went national in the 1990s and global in the 2000s. Since 1973, CNL has formed or acquired companies with combined assets exceeding $24 billion. Those companies are focused on the retail, restaurant, hospitality, lifestyle, and retirement sectors, making CNL one of the nation’s largest privately held investment, real estate services, and development companies. In 2006, at the height of the real estate boom, Seneff sold three public real estate investment trusts that CNL had started in the late 1990s for $15 billion. That was a fortuitous call on his part and one that many others in the real estate market missed. “There are two parts to business—the operational side and the asset allocation side,” he explains. “Most companies spend a lot of time on the operational side and don’t ask the larger asset allocation questions, such as should we deploy capital and, if so, where? Most of the problems people had in the recent economic downturn came from asset allocation decisions, not operational decisions.”
Seneff thinks of business as a liberal art. “What you don’t know will hurt you,” says Seneff, who spends two to four hours a day reading. “We live in a complex world, and we need to stay abreast of what is happening so we aren’t caught sleeping at the switch. When you are in school, you don’t fully appreciate the education you are getting, but you take those tools with you into life. I found that school was the beginning of my education, not the end.”
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Seneff says, “I read Horatio Alger stories when I was growing up. His theme was that in this country, you can grow up in disadvantaged circumstances, but through hard work and taking advantage of the many opportunities America offers, you can be whatever you want to be. I believe that adversity builds character and gives you the ability to navigate life in the future. Those who begin in difficulty should try to think of that as an advantage.”
For Seneff, success is reaching one’s full potential. “I think everyone has a different level of success. The real question then is to ask yourself: ‘Am I doing what I am capable of doing? If not, what could I do differently?’ It’s not just how well you do, it’s how well you do in light of your potential. That’s what really matters.”
Family is also very important to Seneff. He and his wife have five children and seven grandchildren. They own a farm in Asheville, North Carolina, and they share it with their large family each summer. “Our farm has no television and electronic games are not allowed,” he says. “The kids are expected to do chores and enjoy the great outdoors. The farm has anchored our life as a family. I told my children and I tell my grandchildren what my parents told me: ‘Remember who you are.’ They know what that means. They are representatives of our family, and they gain a real understanding of that during our long discussions at the farm when we’re just together and unencumbered by the rest of the world. It has helped us to live a balanced life. I would encourage the Horatio Alger Scholars to try to keep balanced. I hope they will be aware of their physical needs, their spiritual needs, their friendships, their finances, and their work. I hope they will find good mentors to encourage them. And I hope they will read. Reading is a part of the mentoring process. If they do that, they will go a long way.”
Seneff has helped millions of people through CNL and his funding of education, entrepreneurship, and the arts. Some of the organizations he has supported include the Dr. P. Phillips Performing Arts Center, FSU, Valencia Community College, the Central Florida Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the University of Central Florida Medical School, the Orlando Museum of Art, and the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
Seneff has also served as chairman of the Orlando Economic Development Commission’s Governors Council, and he as a trustee of United Arts of Central Florida. He is a former member of the Florida State Commission on Ethics and a former member and past chairman of the Florida Investment Advisory Council, which advises state officials about retirement issues.
Seneff’s honors include Lifework Leadership’s Legacy Award, the 2008 Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and recognition as 2007 Industry Leader of the Year by the University of Florida’s Kelley A. Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies. In 2005, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer gave him a key to the city. In 2006, Seneff was inducted into the FSU College of Business Hall of Fame.