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Profile: The Scion of Sea Island

A. W. "Bill" Jones III operates one of the most prestigious luxury vacation retreats in America
Harry Hurt III
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

His real name is A.W. Jones III, but most friends and family in Sea Island, Georgia, refer to him as Bill Three. He's the fourth-generation chairman and chief executive officer of the Sea Island Co., the proprietor of one of the world's largest and finest golf resorts, and the scion of an empire that encompasses 65,000 acres of prime low-country coastal property, which he is continually developing and upgrading through both good and bad economic times. And enjoying the best that the cigar world has to offer.

"I like a strong, powerful cigar that's rich in flavors," Bill Three allows during a recent interview as he fires up a Fuente Fuente OpusX double corona. "I smoke two or three cigars a day, and I find it a very relaxing activity that's a great complement to the things I enjoy doing outdoors."

Jones's taste in cigars fits his personality and his favorite surroundings. Impeccably power-dressed in a blue blazer, regimental tie and gray flannels, he insists on conducting the interview in the richly appointed men's locker room at Ocean Forest Golf Club, the private championship course designed by Rees Jones. Trophy heads of Cape buffalo, leopard, and sable antelope peer down from the walls at wood-paneled lockers, Oriental rugs and gargoyles bursting forth from a concrete fireplace mantel carved by his brother Jim.

Despite a few wisps of gray hair, Bill Three looks younger and fitter than his 45 years, his sunburned complexion smooth as Sea Island cotton. An avid golfer with a legitimate 7.9 handicap, he is a member of Burning Tree near Washington, D.C., and the Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta, and one of the few American members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland. He loves boating, fishing and hunting, both on foot and on horseback, and owns well over 400 turkey calls handmade by the late Neil Cost, whom he calls "the Stradivarius of turkey calls." His robin's egg blue eyes flicker with delight as he boasts of shedding 35 pounds from his five-foot, nine-inch frame.

"I went on a hunting trip to Africa with my father and my brother a few weeks ago," he says, "and I drank water and ate fruit the whole time."

Bill Three hastens to add that he has since been on a heady diet of expanding and renovating the lush amenities of Sea Island. Five years ago, he commissioned Rees Jones and Tom Fazio to redesign the Sea Island Golf Club's vintage resort courses, the Plantation and Seaside. Three years ago, he spent $52 million to build The Lodge, a 40-room boutique hotel where guests sleep on Frette linens and have personal butlers at their beck and call 24/7. Two years ago, he commissioned Sea Island's resident PGA Tour pro, Davis Love III, and Love's brother Mark to redesign the nearby Retreat Course.

Now Bill Three is embarking on the most massive undertaking in the 75-year history of Sea Island: a $200 million expansion that includes the complete rebuilding of The Cloister, the fabled Spanish Mediterranean-style hotel that has been the cornerstone of the resort since its inception. He is duly mindful that the project is coming amid an economic downturn and a continuing damper on the travel industry resulting from the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

"People have asked me, 'How can you afford to do this?'" Bill Three admits. "But as my father said, we don't really have a choice. Our options are to move forward, or to sit on our hands and move backward. But to do nothing is not an option. That would compromise our brand. We decided we didn't have the luxury of time. We had to act now."

A bit of Jones family history puts Bill Three's latest and greatest construction project in proper perspective. Detroit automobile magnate Howard Coffin founded the Sea Island resort back in 1928 with his cousin A.W. Jones Sr., Bill Three's grandfather. A local pundit described the southwest Georgia coastal site they bought as "swampy, mosquito-ridden, and of little economic value." Coffin and Jones commissioned renowned architect Addison Mizner to design The Cloister, only to have second thoughts at the last minute.

"My grandfather and his cousin weren't sure the Sea Island Company would survive, so they built a 40-room temporary building with a wood frame and without concrete foundations," Bill Three recalls. "They had one good year, then the Crash came in 1929. The company struggled until after World War II."

By the dawn of the postwar era, management of Sea Island had passed from Jones Sr. to Jim Compton, who succeeded Jones as president in 1944 when the latter assumed the chairman's reins. A.W. Jones Jr. took over from Compton in 1966 and oversaw the expansion of The Cloister to more than 200 rooms. By the time Bill Three took the reins from his father in 1993, the resort was enjoying a steady growth that continued through the present era with the addition of a spa, a shooting range, a beach club, oceanfront cottages, 25 tennis courts, four pools, fishing and horseback-riding excursions, five miles of private beaches and a popular children's program. But The Cloister was deteriorating.

"We got to where we couldn't keep patching up the old building, so we're going to build The Cloister of the future," Bill Three says. "We're going to stay true to the Mizner spirit. We're going to rebuild the Spanish Lounge in The Cloister exactly, with the original stained glass and ironwork. But we're going to build a permanent building with much better construction, including pecky cypress ceilings and new fountains around the spa that will create a relaxing atmosphere. The new Cloister has got to feel like a grand private residence where people come as guests of the owner."

Not incidentally, the new Cloister will include especially lavish accommodations for cigar smokers. "There's going to be a smoking lounge with the feel of a London gentlemen's club," Bill Three promises. "It'll have a great cigar menu."

Scheduled to commence in December, the rebuilding of The Cloister is part of the first phase of a master plan that stretches into 2007. Phase one also includes the construction of a new hotel. The second phase of the master plan calls for 23 more ocean cottages, new guests rooms, a new fitness center, a new beach club, indoor and outdoor pools and a children's recreation area. Most guest areas and all amenities, including The Lodge and the resort courses, will remain open during the construction period, with no fewer than 200 guest rooms available during any phase.

Bill Three shrewdly appreciates how the Sea Island Co. can get yet another leg up on its recession-beleaguered resort competition by taking advantage of record low interest rates to finance the $200 million expansion. "The banks almost pay you to borrow money today," he says. "We're using long-term, fixed-rate financing for the major part of the project. We plan to pay for the rest out of revenue from continuing operations."

As if all that's not enough to say grace over, Bill Three is planning to build another golf course on a 3,000-acre site on the north end of St. Simons Island in nearby Frederica Township. The course is being designed by Tom Fazio and Sir Michael Bonnallack, the former longtime secretary of the Royal and Ancient. The development, which will be known as the Frederica Golf Club, will include 350 home sites, a spa, a fitness facility and an equestrian center.

Bill Three hints that still more grand projects may be in the offing. The Sea Island Co. owns another 50,000 acres in Camden County, south of The Cloister. Known as the Sea Island Game Preserve, it features 41 miles of coastal and riverfront land. "When we bought that property, we were looking at it as something to develop twenty-five years from now," he confides. "But I wouldn't be surprised if we start on it five or six years down the road. It's an opportunity to create something really upscale with an extremely low-density rural lifestyle."

But Bill Three is far from a sticks-and-bricks crazed alter ego of the children's cartoon show character "Bob the Builder." The unwritten Sea Island Co. master plan calls for intoxicating wealthy hotel guests with the local lifestyle, the aim being to sell them residential real estate. But the plan also emphasizes protection of the natural environment as vital to the area's enduring attraction. Guests at The Cloister and The Lodge are encouraged to donate $2 per room per night to a local land trust. The program generates more than $100,000 a year for environmental preservation.

"As the largest landowners down here, we've always felt a responsibility to be good stewards of that land," Bill Three says. "Over the years, we've donated thousands of acres of lands to the state of Georgia through the Nature Conservancy. The 3,000 acres on St. Simons were originally zoned for 6,000 home sites. We started out downsizing it to 2,000 homes, and now we're down to 350 homes. We feel that if it's not good for the community, it's probably not good for us."

In the meantime, the existing amenities of Sea Island continue to win raves from guests, travel writers and the golf world. Open for less than six years, Ocean Forest Golf Club was picked to host the 2001 Walker Cup matches. Since opening in March 2001, The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club has garnered two AAA Five Diamond Awards and the Mobil Five Star Award for 2003. But that's literally just par for the course as far as Bill Three is concerned.

"We're passionate about excellence, and we hold excellence as our standard," he declares, waxing enthusiastic between puffs on his OpusX. "Our vision is to be the finest resort company in the world. We don't want to be number two or number three. We want to be number one in everything. It's a bold vision. And it's my job to see that we focus on it and keep moving in that direction."

Then the scion of Sea Island takes one more puff on his cigar and adds, "People have confidence in us—we haven't messed up yet."

 

Harry Hurt III is a writer and professional golfer based in Sag Harbor, NY.

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