Season 1, Bonus Episode: An Interview with Steve Nygren

Do you have the courage to take a 90 degree turn into the unknown? It can be difficult to leave what’s comfortable and enter risk—but with risk you can experience great reward. Steve Nygren, Founder of Serenbe, an award-winning biophilic community, did just that. He is a place-maker who created an environment in the rural hills of Georgia that focuses on arts, agriculture, health and education. He envisioned the future he wanted and made it happen. Serenbe has won numerous awards for its sustainability and excellent development. In this bonus episode of Questioning Leadership, learn from Steve while he and Daniel question rules that are often established in fear and how to consciously keep dreams alive—moving them forward into reality.

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(We use an audio transcription service so please disregard any errors below.)

Daniel Harkavy (00:00:02):

Hey everybody, Daniel Harkavy here and welcome to a bonus episode of the Questioning Leadership podcast produced by building champions, our executive coaching and leadership development firm. So you all know that last week we said that that would be the a final episode. Well, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with a visionary and a leader who I’ve watched build a whole community over the past two decades. And in my conversation with them, I found it to be so insightful and inspiring that I thought I need to record this with you. And, and here you go. Welcome to questioning leadership with Steve Nygren, the founder, visionary and leader of Serenbe. You’ll learn more about Serenbe. If you don’t know about it, it’s just been a, a blast to watch it evolve. And here’s a treat because Steve’s a few decades ahead of me and he shares some insights and some thoughts that I myself found to be inspirational and challenging, and I want to bring it to you, enjoy the conversation. This one’s gonna be a bit longer. So make the time, sit back, grab that journal and look for the nuggets that will help you to be the best you can be.

Steve Nygren. It is great to get to invest some moments with you and to learn from you welcome to the Questioning Leadership podcast.

Steve Nygren (00:01:34):

Thank you. Looking forward to the conversation.

Daniel Harkavy (00:01:37):

Yeah, so folks, Steve and I have had quite a bit of conversation time over the last 24 hours yesterday. And today we had the privilege of meeting one another, just about a month ago. And we met in an area you’re gonna hear a whole bunch about, so I, I’m just excited about the conversation. Many of you who have been around building champions for a long time might recognize his last name, Nygren. And that’s because he’s cousin to a two decade plus dear friend and client Melanie Nygren, and your cousins, Melanie and Charlie told me about you a long time ago. So yeah. Super great to have you small world. Yeah, it is. It is a small world. So before we get into the leadership side in the business side at, at building champions we always like to unpack the human side. We do believe that better humans make for better leaders. And I always like to have my guests share maybe three to five things about them outside of work that will help us to understand who you are.

Steve Nygren (00:02:41):

That’s the outside of work. I’m Scandinavian heritage. If you will raised on a farm in Colorado. In fact, our family has been out there for generations since the 1860s, exactly where Mel and Charlie are. So I think that that, that gives a foundation of looking at the world a little bit different. Maybe I think of in Atlanta when I was in the business world in Atlanta, and it was, you know, leaders under 40, I guess it was, and it was on the cover of the magazine. And under my name was concerned now I had never really thought that that’s what I would be identified with. And I realized, you know, I, when something came up, I would be concerned. And so I think it was that combination of the way I was raised a family that always felt they had to give back, you know, I had granddad and, and uncles and my mother all, you know, they served on boards and nonprofits and school boards and that kind of thing.

Steve Nygren (00:03:36):

And so I think that just is, is part of the foundation that you don’t think about. It’s just, it’s just the way life is. And so I think that’s you know, who, who we are, that’s largely defined by, you know, how we were raised, even if we wanna run from it, you know, you know, I wanted nothing to do with the, you know, agricultural lifestyle and everything that, that I have been raised around. But now when you, when you get to this age, you look back and you know, much earlier than this age, you know, you realize that’s, that’s really your core in who you are.

Daniel Harkavy (00:04:06):

That’s great. That’s great. You know, I see that characteristic of getting back to that core, the scan roots, the desire to give back I see that in, in your entire family, I’ve spent a lot of time with some of your family members over the years. So I see that gimme another couple things.

Steve Nygren (00:04:22):

About you. Well, and the, and the other thing is, you know, on all sides, I had an alcoholic father and that gives you a very different perspective on life. And, you know, it took me into my twenties to have compassion. And you realize that we’re a flawed group. We humans. And if, if you’re going to, to navigate, there has to be compassion about the various journeys that people had. But along with that, I had very strong women and various circumstances happened that in when I was from five until seven, we lived in the ancestral home of my great, great grandmother who was still alive. And in the home, it was a home. My grandfather had been raised in and he lived there with my grandmother and we then moved there with my mom and dad. And it was the house that my mother had been raised in and was more five years before my grandmother, who she was living in, in her mother-in-law’s house, moved her parents in because her father had a stroke.

Steve Nygren (00:05:26):

And back in those days, now I’m talking about the fifties late forties. You didn’t have assisted living if you had a family member that couldn’t take care of them. So they moved into your house. Yep. And so I lived with three great grandparents, two grandparents, wow. The two parents and myself and I was used to a lot of attention. So, you know, you <laugh>. Yeah. Yeah. I was the only child used to a lot of tension, but also I saw adults as real people because my great-grandmothers, while I never heard them argue, they certainly had different perspectives. And they would share with me in various ways how that branch of the family had problems <laugh> or had a different perspective. And you realize that all these adults were on pedestals. Yeah. You know, there were all these issues. So all those things gave me a foundation to, to see life more realistic than a lot of people do, cuz they hit their twenties.

Daniel Harkavy (00:06:28):

Yeah. You and I had some similar experiences cause I grew up with an alcoholic mother and had some of the similar experiences just from the gender parent. You pull yourself up on the personal side, you continue to grow. I know your pride and joy is you and your wife have three daughters and five little PI pipes that follow you around your community. Is that right?

Steve Nygren (00:06:51):

That’s right.

Daniel Harkavy (00:06:53):

Yeah. So how old do the grandsons.

Steve Nygren (00:06:57):

The grandsons now range from three months to five and a half years. Yeah. Yeah. Great fun, great fun. I mean, and I’m so lucky. My, my daughters, well, we we, we, we bought a farm, you know, on the outskirts of Atlanta when they were three, five and seven and that changed our lives. And I’m sure we wanna talk about that, but I was able to really connect with my kids because on the farm and I retired early because you know, connecting with nature really changed. I, you know, I looked back and it was going back to the, what I found enriching is my childhood and didn’t want anything to do with, you know, here, I got pulled back into it, you know, without ever really consciously doing that. But I developed this great relationship with these kids, you know? And, and so three daughters, teenage years, you know, the conversations we started jogging and, you know, it was a great way.

Steve Nygren (00:07:52):

And no matter how far you jog, you know, we would jog further and further if it was a really serious issue. And guess what? You have to walk back. Yeah. You know, and you could walk back crying or not speaking, but you walked back and, and somehow by the time you got back to the house, whatever it was was totally diffused. And I’ve always been one, you know, to, you know, believe in letting the kids go. We were always the ones that we had conversations about things without rules or dues and don’t, and you know, it was, is, go experience the world. And so the eldest daughter went to Cornell. The next year, went back to Colorado, the university of Colorado. And I expected them like many families to be all over the country cuz that’s just what happens. Garney the oldest in Cornell had offers to, you know, be all over the world. And I thought I was gonna travel all over the world, get comped in all these great presidential suites, you know, Uhhuh <affirmative> and it ends up, she comes home and all three of them have come home with their Northern husbands. All my son-in-laws are from upstate New York. Yeah. And I get to see ’em almost every day just in the normal course of a day. And I realize how very fortunate

Daniel Harkavy (00:09:00):

I am. Well, what you’re doing now is you’re giving a little trailer as to what you’ve built and why your kids all wanna live. I’m sure. Close to you and your bride, but also the amazing community you’ve built, which we’ll get to in the, in a few minutes. So folks, what I don’t want you to miss is I’m, I’m gonna now move with Steve. We’re gonna move into his leadership experiences and career. And then after that, we’ll jump into what he’s doing now, which is what I really wanna share with you because it’s a fascinating story. Steve and I met face to face in the gym in the property where he met. So the jogs that he was doing years ago will tell you one thing about him. The guy still is a guy who places a, a very high value on health, nutrition, fitness, and all of it stay tuned.

Daniel Harkavy (00:09:50):

You’re gonna hear more about this. But the unique opportunity he had was at age 49, he retired from crew rear number one. And he took, if I remember right, he took about a seven-year sabbatical or a hiatus on a farm with three girls that were like six, eight and 10 years old, which I just have to think has to be so foundational in those adult kids who are, are now raising the five grandsons. So you had three daughters, no there. And then all of a sudden you have five grandsons, which is a whole nother story, but why don’t you give us a little overview on your professional career? You’re on the podcast because I see you as not only a, an incredibly gifted leader, but I see you as a passionate, visionary and a builder and a, an architect developer designer, you make the invisible visible. So why don’t you give us kind of the, the overview on your career up to the point of starting CBY?

Steve Nygren (00:10:45):

Yeah. So as I mentioned, I, I wanna get off the farm went to the university of Colorado and architecture. I was gonna be an architect. I thought, you know, loved all mass and math and that kind of thing. And then that first summer I wasn’t gonna go back to the farm and a friend in friends that we had in grand bay, Colorado up in the resort area said, come on up. There’s lots of resorts, summer things. And, and I’ll get you a job. And I arrived. And he said, man, I didn’t know how hard jobs were. All these kids are returning, but I have a job for you washing dishes in the nicest resort. There is, and I’ll find something else. And I said, I don’t care. I don’t have to go home and work on the farm.

Steve Nygren (00:11:25):

Yeah. Washing dishes is fine. You know? And the third night that I was back there, the owner came back and he said, did any of your kids bring a dark suit? Now, somehow I was taught to always be prepared. I was the only person that raise and he said, go put it on. I fire the mare D you’re the mare D tonight, somebody at the door just to walk people to the tables. And I ended up being the mare D for the entire summer and all of the waitresses that had to be over 21. They of course wanted me to love them because I would be responsible for all the early seatings and the late seatings to fill their station. So they got me a fake ID and took me bar hopping every night afterwards <laugh> and you know, I, they, they said, or order scotch on the rocks, you know, they won’t question if you order that.

Steve Nygren (00:12:10):

So so I, I, I returned to school and of course, architecture, gosh, it was hard, you know, and I thought, you know, I I’m gonna be here forever five year program. It was six, seven years. And, you know, and I, I needed some money. And so I thought, well, you know, I, I’m an experienced Reau here. I I’ll drive down to Denver and get a job here. And, and two weeks after being turned down by all jobs, I thought I was qualified for, I reluctantly humbly accepted bus busboy with stokers, which was opening the top of the Rockies in their, in their aim. Well, I ended up working for Sofers for seven years and into their management, into opening hotels ended up at a young age of 24 being head of marketing for all their hotels. They were offering, you know, just a crazy, crazy way that got me there.

Steve Nygren (00:12:57):

And I, I arrived, you know, when there was a big transition I was at the home office, two doors down from Vernon stuffer, and we’d be at the coffee machine at like six 30 in the morning. And I would hear these stories and, you know, I was there while when they sold to lit industries and then Nestle chocolate within 18 months. And so I, I, I decided to, to step off the treadmill, I’d fallen in love with Atlanta. We were opening a hotel there. And so I asked to, to return to open that, actually open that hotel I did, and I had no actual vision other than Atlanta was hot. This was you know, 19 seven in a hot Atlanta. I mean, it was, you know, the, the busy the city too busy to hate. And I just, every time I was in Atlanta, I had a good time, great people.

Steve Nygren (00:13:43):

I loved it. It was just a thing. So I decided that’s where I wanted to, to be. So I came back, opened that hotel for them in October of 72 left in December and opened my own restaurant. And it took us, you know, two, three months. So February 73, I opened a, a restaurant in what was in the wrong part of town, but it was on Peachtree street where all the big bankers and they had to drive from their fancy, big houses and Buckhead. And those that know Atlanta down to the downtown where everything was. So I knew that they’d have to go bias, you know, and this area, a building that had been built in 1900 and, you know, was, was a grand delicate Testin, but had, had fallen into lesser times over the last couple decades. And it was a mess, but I could afford it.

Steve Nygren (00:14:28):

The rent, it was $400. I could buy all the used kitchen equipment for 12,000. So you can imagine what shape it was in, put a K good beer in the middle, invited all the friends, anybody that knew how to be an electrician or pretend they were in a carpenter and a plumber and redid that thing and opened it. And I, I was, you know, recognized later me and my partner, as, as introducing casual, what we think of as American cuisine, you know, it was no reservations, fine food waiters white linen flowers on the table. And so that, that propelled me and to the, the restaurant industry. Second restaurant was in a fifth Plaza with all, you know, Tiffany’s and Lauren Taylor’s, but it was failing. And they brought us in and we were given credit for revitalizing it. There were lines and they rented everything.

Steve Nygren (00:15:16):

And suddenly people were calling me. So I, either people were bringing me into areas that were failing, cuz they knew we had the guts to come in. We didn’t look at feasibility studies or what the place was name Stanley Marcus negotiated. My first Le lease in Washington, DC, I’d be next to a Neman Marcus. It was a great fun ride. We renovated places. And where I put my original restaurant was, you know, Midtown, we ended up having four restaurants there. And then I was asked at the end of the, the seventies to take over a fledgling business association. There weren’t that many new businesses, but it had been funded by the downtown group cause they just wanted to clean up the path. And I ended up taking that over and that’s what’s today, the Midtown Alliance. And we changed zoning in this area to be a walkable in the eighties, which that you were fighting with department of transportation, nobody was doing that.

Steve Nygren (00:16:11):

And so Midtown today is some of the highest real estate in Atlanta and all those bankers and all of the lawyers, they have all moved to Midtown that thought we were crazy. And that’s one of my pride and joys looking, looking at that, you know, at 10th and Peachtree, which was between some of my restaurants someone shared with me the feasibility study for the rapid rail system when it was coming through 73 was the year I opened my restaurant. They said, don’t put a station there. There’s nothing there. And there never will be. And now, you know, almost 50 years later at some of the highest real estate. So that, that was a matter of, of having passion, having determination <affirmative>. And one of the turning points when we brought the neighborhoods in to, with the businesses. So everyone was working together and we wanted to clean up Peachtree.

Steve Nygren (00:17:01):

You can’t believe it today, but it was a mess weeds in the, in the tree Wells. And that weekend, we, we all planted panes. We bought a truckload of pansies and volunteers spent two days in the hall street about a mile long. We had pansies it totally transformed it. What we didn’t know is IBM was doing their site visit for a site selection three weeks later. And there was something about the spirit that, you know, it was months later that when this was a surprise announcement, they were coming to Midtown. That was one of the things. So, you know, basically cleaning up actually led to the first domino to fall to make that happen. So that was a great I had a lot of great stories about renovating going into places that had been lost at one point and, and bringing it back to life. So while I was a hospitality person, I was really a inner city rejuvenator, I guess you could say,

Daniel Harkavy (00:17:58):

Hmm, folks, as you’re listening, you’re just gonna hear these themes, which I think is really fascinating, especially if you’re younger you know, if you’re younger and in the beginning of your professional journey, and you’re wondering about this old saying that, you know, if you do what you’ll love, the money will follow. How should you look at your career? I want you to hear some of these themes that Steve’s talking about, because what you hear is architect, which means he had a natural Benton and passion around design around building around aesthetics around structure. You hear hotelier. So he had a, a servant’s heart. He had a desire to serve and create experiences. You hear restaurateur again, more along this hospitality, service mindset, creating experiences that elate and, and enrich people. You hear crazy entrepreneurs stay tuned. It’s just starting to get good. And you hear courage. You hear passion, you hear determination. These are all words that have just gotten us up to this point. And I would say in your career now you’ve got multiple restaurants at this stage, in the story. What year did you leave the re restaurants and then make the move to your most recent endeavor, which would be CBY

Steve Nygren (00:19:16):

In 1994, I had 36 restaurants in eight states served on a lot of national boards and realized because of my connection on the weekends to the nature, then I was on a treadmill. Yeah, I really wasn’t affecting that much change. The, you know, the, the disease boards, we were on the arts boards that were constantly going broke. If you didn’t, you know, raise more money. And I had a great Rolodex, I could call almost anybody. I had a restaurant seven blocks from the us capital and helped a lot of important people to their cabs to, to get to their desk. I was just hoping they could remember red, yellow, you know, and I realized they already knew how they were gonna vote. They just had to remember, you know, which fellow, so, you know, it was a great life. Chelsea Clinton had her 16th birthday.

Steve Nygren (00:20:04):

One of our restaurants there, I could call almost anybody of importance. And yet I couldn’t, I couldn’t make much happen. The politic, since I was supporting, they weren’t getting reelected. And so it was one Monday morning and we were driving back from a great weekend. And I said, why am I doing all this? I have an opportunity to just cash out. And I did and stepped off the treadmill and restored the historic house, put the organic gardens in, let my hair grow down to my shoulders, went barefoot most of the time <laugh> it was a totally big, you know, transfer life. You know, Daniel, one, one thing I realized looking back is it’s the courage to take the 90 degree term because it’s, you know, if I had been an architect, I had probably have never lived to the vision that I imagined because you, when you’re headed in that straight line, there’s all kinds of fantasies about what life should be like and what the reward should be. But when you take a 90 degree return, you’re, you’re into the unknown and everything’s exciting and rewarding because you didn’t imagine it. And I taken several of those turns, you know, I, I guess you could think about so many right terms of I’ve gone in a circle and I, a bit, I felt that way when I got back on the farm, you know, I’d taken so many right. Turns I was back where I started. I was gonna

Daniel Harkavy (00:21:19):

Get away from planes of Colorado, just in just in, in Georgia.

Steve Nygren (00:21:23):

Yeah. But I love that. I at it’s, I I’ve I’ve, I’ve really just totally just shifted

Daniel Harkavy (00:21:32):

Such a big point, Steve, the courage to take the right turn. I’ve never heard that. I love it. What you may not know about me was I was in banking. Now we talked about this, but I was in banking from 10 from ages 20 to 30. So a decade and being groomed to succeed the CEO who is in a wonderful guy, great mentor. They had brought the company public just a couple years before. And at the age, 30 with three young kids, a heck of a career, I, I resigned with zero plan. I took a one-year sabbatical. I moved from Southern California up here to Oregon and and then I started building champions, which is now 25 years and wow. And running. And I love what I do, but gosh, darnit, if, if I wouldn’t have had the courage to leave a very lucrative, very, very wonderful opportunity to chart a new course.

Daniel Harkavy (00:22:26):

And, and my reasons were very much the same as yours. I want to get off the treadmill. I had young kids, I wanted to pour into them. I wanted a different life. You know, I had good, I had the material, but I was so busy and I felt like I was on the tail end. I wrote a book about it called living forward with a long time friend and client Michael Hyatt so much of that, that fueled what it is we do today. And I, I’d never heard that courage to take the right hand turn. So I’m gonna steal that from you. I’ll give you credit, but I love that line. Absolutely.

Steve Nygren (00:22:55):

Well, and the other thing that is clearly you do, and I know your graphics deal with a heart. Yeah. But when you do that, you, you, you have to lead from your heart and your gut. And you know, so many of our organs actually are thinking fun, but we’ve come to our society where we think it’s only the brain. Yeah. And it’s, it’s our brain that holds us into these places that are not necessarily fulfilling because the fulfillment comes from your heart. And when you’re, you’re doing hard work it’s totally different. So I think those are the two things it’s

Daniel Harkavy (00:23:26):

So good. So good. All right. So for the last two plus decades, when I have frequented Georgia, I’ve had the privilege of spending time with different executives from different firms at this place called Serenbe. Now all of the folks listening from down south, you know what I’m talking about, but maybe some from the west coast, or maybe from, if you’re listening in, from somewhere else in the world, outside of the us, maybe you haven’t heard about it. So as you’re listening to this podcast, I want you to Google Serenbe. It’s amazing. Over the last two decades, I’ve seen it grow and evolve. And I was just there a few weeks ago and I could not believe what I felt, what I saw, what I experienced and what you’ve built. So tell us about Serenbe, what is it who should come there? Why tell us a little bit about this place you built.

Steve Nygren (00:24:15):

It’s a place that’s filled with common sense, and it’s amazing how people respond and realize that we aren’t living in very many places with common sense anymore. And I can unpack that for you. The other thing for clarity, because we’re doing conference is, and I find more people know us on the west coast and in New York and new England and, and, and even Australia and Stockholm by the people that come even more than the south, only until the last few years. So we, we have become known in, in what I think of as, as conscious centers kind of around the world. And that kind of leads to, to how we, we started. So I’ll give you a little of the basis is, is, is I think you set up, I’d retired and had no intentions and I’m, you know, everybody thinks you get bored.

Steve Nygren (00:25:04):

I wasn’t bored at all. I still had my real estate holdings and we traveled all the time. Life was about as perfect as I thought it could be. And we were on in the Southwest corridor and nothing was happening in the south race. All, you know, if you look at racial issues, a lot of things that were considered that near Atlanta, but, you know, and, and so this was just farmland that was still farmland. That same distance anywhere in Metro, Atlanta had already been developed. And so you had just this, this wonderful pocket out here that we had discovered, and it felt like it was time had stopped somewhere around 1950. And then we had a couple instances where it looked like, you know, there was affordable land development was now gonna to start happening. Some parcels picked up developers coming. And my first reaction, as, as you had, you know, I had gone from that person that cared and realized I couldn’t care.

Steve Nygren (00:25:57):

So now I’m just taking care of my family. I’m very selfish, you know, this seven, you know, and think I a selfish, but I, I’m not worried about the world. I’m not worried. I’m worried about my family, what we’re gonna do, and we’re having a great time. And I, I don’t wanna disturb that. So I start buying more land to protect us, you know, just how much. And so at 900 acres, I realized I couldn’t buy enough to protect us. I couldn’t keep showing up at those closings. And so I started looking at what I could do. And a dear friend was Ray Anderson, any listeners who are environmentalists with know Ray Anderson of interface carpet. And he’d been a, a friend for years, his stepsons godfather to are now 33, 34-year-old. And so one night at dinner, I said, Ray, you, you know, all the important people because he was the first us industrialist to put his company on a carbon neutral footprint in the, in the nineties.

Steve Nygren (00:26:49):

And when the white house created the council on the environment, he was the first chair. And so I said, Ray, you know, all the smart people who, who can help me figure out how to save this area and keep it rural. And Ray asked the Rocky Mountain Institute. And so Ray and the Rocky mountain Institute convened 23 thought leaders in September of 2000. Well, the, these were people at the forefront names, you know, John Todd on water and, and Steven Strong on solar and people dealing with land. And, oh, it was such an education. And after it all, you know, you’re sitting in these meetings for two days and it’s just like, whoa, whoa. And then it was like, Ray, who’s gonna help me. All you’ve done is exposed all the serious problems. I’m more depressed and more concerned <laugh>. And so he sends me here and he sends me there to see the Rainey’s in Chicago.

Steve Nygren (00:27:41):

And I, I knew about seaside there and he kept pushing, you know, if not you who, if not now, when, and I could not believe that there wasn’t anyone applying these, these environmental common sense principles to community development that I had that novice eye to ask the questions. And somehow I, he pushed me through that threshold of passion, to where I realized I had to do it because no one was doing it. And I couldn’t understand why, how old were you at this time? Let’s see. I would’ve been let’s see that would’ve been 2000, so I just turned that point. What 55. Yeah,

Daniel Harkavy (00:28:29):

55, 56 or about my age.

Steve Nygren (00:28:31):

Okay. Yep. And so there I was, and it just, you know, as I stepped into that, I became fearless in just really on realizing how stupid regulations were and because of the regulations, I realize why we were in this situation because developers usually they’re buying land. You know, the interest clock starts ticking and they run into all of these roadblocks. And through the last five decades we’ve been building so fast, we create a lot of rules around fear, or we’ve gotten so big, we have silo thinking. So there’s a lot of, of, of rules and regulations, federal, state, and local that have unintended consequences. But no, one’s talking to each other, they’re in different apartments, different buildings. Yeah. And it just, it seemed like the most, same thing that I had ever. And, and as we look back it is, and I realized if we did something great on our land, that when I looked at models like Prairie crossing in Chicago, seaside and Florida, people didn’t volunteer that you had to have the rules and regulations and, and, and those communities and others actually destroyed the area around them rather than changing the developers that were going to develop in the areas.

Steve Nygren (00:29:49):

And so I spent the next two years bringing 500 land owners together. Pro-Development pro preservation developers, preservationists, and we changed zoning on 40,000 of acres. Wow. The zoning regulations move all the density to the disturbed 30% and we’re saving 70% for agricultural anything, agriculturally zone. There is nothing like this in the United States, near this near an urban city that exists today. We use the countryside of England as the law because after world war true, they could not afford to sprawl all over the island. It was only so big. And so we love that. And if you you’ve been to the countryside of England, you, you drive through the country and then you drive into the little Hamlet villages and towns. It’s, you know, and there’s a lot of people living in those and yep. And you have the pub and every everybody’s walking into the, the little food store and it’s just the, the life and a dear friend lived there.

Steve Nygren (00:30:47):

And so in my seven years of retirement, we took the family there every year and really became acquainted with, you know, what it meant to have common foot paths and, and walked to everything. And so that was our model. And then Rocky Mountain is helped me find Phil tab, who did his doctorate on the English village system. And everything just seemed to start falling in place. Except the bankers, the real estate people thought I was crazy. And everyone thought I had been in the country too long. Maybe I was growing marijuana out there in the woods and a few came out and wanted to know where it was. But they were sure I was on something that this was gonna so fail. And I was gonna absolutely lose everything. And, you know, I found the market was screaming for this while all the analysts and everyone thought it was nuts, but I realize, and part of the problem we haven’t in, in most industries is everyone requires the feasibility report. The only way you’re gonna get that is to look through the rear view mirror. Yeah. And, and, and if you’re, you’re headed into unchartered territories, there’s no way you’re gonna get that. And, and we need a lot more people that are willing to, you know, look through the windshield rather than the rear

Daniel Harkavy (00:31:58):

View mirror. All right. So let me, let me stop you for a second because you know, I’ve watched serum B grow. I’ve seen the change when I was there a few weeks ago, there was so much construction, so much building, so much improvement. It was buzzing. And I have to think over the last 20 years, you’ve had a, at least one or two near deaths where, you know, you started this, you didn’t need to start this in your mid fifties, coming out of retirement, you decide to take risk. You decide to pour all of your passion and energy into something that you believe is gonna create a greater good for those who get to benefit from it. So today, what there’s are there 800 or so homes in it is how, how many homes are in it?

Steve Nygren (00:32:36):

We’re in about four to 500 homes. Now, four, five about a little over 400 homes with a good hundred under construction and another 300 under infrastructure development. Okay.

Daniel Harkavy (00:32:47):

I think that’s, yeah. That’s where my numbers come from. And I would have to think that at at least once or twice, you’ve had some near death experiences on this thing where you thought, what am I doing? I, I we’re good. I’m gonna build a fence around it. We’re done.

Steve Nygren (00:33:00):

Does that happen? Well, I’ve absolutely. I’ve been on a rollercoaster. Everyone had convinced me. I was absolutely nuts. And I thought I probably was, but it was so passionate. I had to do it. And luckily, because I had had my real estate holdings in Midtown and, and something, cuz when I sold the company, I didn’t sell underlying real estate. And what have you. So you know, I thought this was such a great idea. Investors would certainly I could bring that cause I was never gonna borrow or dime again in my life. And they’ve all shared with me how hard they laughed going back and none of ’em took me up on it and, and, and it was so risky. Banks didn’t wanna loan me money. So I, you know, I, I had to dive into this and, and I did a conservatively.

Steve Nygren (00:33:39):

And so, so we had 40, you know, we had the master plan, but there was 40 lots I started with now those first 40 are expensive because you put in all the, the wastewater, you know, the first infrastructure to get just 40, you know, <laugh> the first two houses. And so I was convinced that, you know, I was nuts, but we were, people were gonna come around eventually. And my, my sister-in-law said she would build a, a cottage. My friend said he had built an, a state house. I realized the kids were gonna be headed out. So we would build a townhouse. Nobody could imagine a townhouse out here in the middle of, you know, the Georgia woods, you know, a townhouse. And then I said, yeah, we’re gonna do live works. I’m gonna do a restaurant. Yeah. Once I live work, you know, they weren’t even in most of the zonings in that, in that time.

Steve Nygren (00:34:22):

And I really did see crazy. And, and I was gonna build, I’ll say, we’ll do a restaurant. So we’ll have a townhouse, I’ll build a restaurant. And my sister-in-law and a friend we’ll have four buildings, you know, in the street with 40 houses and, and everyone will start finally kind of seeing what it is. And of course some, my, my, my hospitality friends that came out, Steve, you have lost it. If you’re gonna put a restaurant out here in nowhere, at least put it on the Mac, how are you gonna find it? You, you know, you know, and I take him out to the middle of the forest and literally it’s like, you know, there wasn’t a row. There wasn’t anything you’re putting a restaurant here. And definitely a

Daniel Harkavy (00:34:55):

Destin destination spot.

Steve Nygren (00:34:56):

Yeah. You know, I said, well, you know, I, I, I’m a, Placemaker, you know, we got, you know, I’m doing the us to create place. So, you know, various people we knew said, oh, that’s a great idea. And people would hear about it. Cause I’ve been talking about this now for two years, plus in meetings to get zoning through and what have you. And, and we had several editorials that, you know, this was revolutionary zoning led. It’s gonna be, you know, and of course I had a certain reputation from my work in Midtown. So people were following me and curious, you know, even though it seemed crazy what, what was going on. And so I sent out, you know, did this card, you know, raise the money, we’re start, infrastructure bulldozers are coming. And here’s 20 lots that we’re gonna release. And 48 hours later, they were all reserved.

Steve Nygren (00:35:39):

Wow. I said, man, the market is wanting this. I took the prices up 20% and six weeks later, the next 20 were gone. And so we built that and suddenly I had nothing to sell. And so we start the next, you know, I’m very conservative. And so the next 40 and the builder that we detracted because I had these reservations, he took them all. So literally from the time I had those lots planted to where I could sell ’em I owned them for 24 hours. Wow. And so suddenly all the money was recouped. I said, man, this is a lot better than all this restaurant business. This is, this is really cool. The next same thing I had brought in two more builders, they took everything. And literally this was, I, you know, the, the market was hungry. And so I said, okay, I’ll go into debt.

Steve Nygren (00:36:29):

You know, I can’t keep just doing this. And then, you know, I have six, eight months. I have nothing to sell while we’re putting in the next infrastructure. So I’ll going ahead and, and go into debt and we’ll put in 120 units, you know, and all the information. And so I had four builders, they’d reserved all hundred 20, you know, with a take downstair, I was gonna have a, a year that they were gonna take ’em down. They, they, they didn’t, you know, they couldn’t take ’em all down in that 24 hour. Like, and I brought those to market at the end thousand seven. Two of the builders went bankrupt and took the building. Yep. <Laugh> they had started about a total of maybe 12 houses <laugh> oh. As, as they all started crashing, it crashed fast. I mean it just 2008 hit and it just caught me be totally by surprise all of us.

Steve Nygren (00:37:21):

And so I’ve been through recessions, so I said, you know, fine, the bank loan was 36 months. So, you know, it’s okay. We hunkered down, did all kinds of things, trails, you know, do what you do 2009 K. And we still didn’t sell anything. And it was like, well, this is, this is starting to get uncomfortable because my bank note was coming up and the bankers weren’t terribly friendly. Yeah. And when they renewed that note for six months and increased the interest 2%, and I thought, well, you know, I gotta figure out something. So I took five lots that were a quarter acre and reimagined them into 15 small houses. And I had a 900 square foot house that I could bring the market for $265,000, about 50% of what we were doing. And we advertised that and people started coming out.

Steve Nygren (00:38:23):

And one of my favorite stories, someone said, well, you know, we were thinking about Seren B, but it was a second home, but that just didn’t seem responsible in, in what, what was happening. But 265, we, we could afford that for weekend house. And, and they said, but it’s awfully small. Couldn’t that bedroom wall be moved out six or seven feet. And we said, no, the property line is five feet outside your bedroom window, you know? And they ended up saying, well, is there maybe another lot that, you know, that kind of overlooks the lake, this does. And they end up buying a $280,000 dirt lot. Yeah. You know, it’s probably spent that for an architect again and sent a couple million dollar house, but it was things like that, that, you know, people had money, they just weren’t, it didn’t wanna spend it.

Steve Nygren (00:39:11):

And that was one of the things that we started stepping out of, of this, but the banks were really difficult and they were putting us further in the hole every six months to the point that they finally, you know, when the federal government wanted the stress test, they just wanted to get rid of anybody that had development. Because we, we were the bad boys that caused all the problems supposedly. And they became impossible. And so I took advantage of their difficulties and found a private investor to, to buy our debt at a percent of what they had. And so it was kind of a restart, but everything I owned was still on the line. And back when we started all this, I, I called the girls together for dinner one night and Garney was headed. You know, she was in high school, not going to college yet.

Steve Nygren (00:40:04):

And I said, it seems no one will invest. And no one will loan us money. I’m going to have to put all of our holdings at stake. And I’ve protected a fund for all of your college degrees, but this, the chance we could lose our comfortable lifestyle. And of course they said, oh dad, you know, and they look back. And, and that, that was a, a big night for me to, to really share that with them and get, to get their support. And of course they shared later, oh, dad, whatever you wanted to do, we didn’t think it was a big deal. But for me it was a big deal that I eight, 2009, 2010, I thought it might actually happen. Yeah. And it got to the point when I played chicken with the bank and told ’em I was gonna give ’em the keys.

Steve Nygren (00:40:47):

And I was headed to China on a consulting job, which I had set up and I had the PR releases to go to all the people. I mean, I was I was ready and I thought, okay, we’re, we’re gonna lose it all. And had the family prepared that this, this was it. So I had been to actually those places. And I also realized by being in those places through some courses, I, you know, some conferences in my retirement that it was the whole center because where you are in the center is where it is. And that it’s the process rather than the outcome. And if you attach too much to the outcome, it’s gonna drive you crazy. And I realized through that, that I was okay. And when I told my wife, it’s gonna be okay. I said, that doesn’t mean we’re not gonna lose everything.

Steve Nygren (00:41:39):

It means it’s just gonna be okay. You know, it might be one of these 90 degree turns that I didn’t necessarily go into with my full intention where maybe being pushed to make that turn, but it’s gonna be okay. And I realized that I really believed that because I was tested and I was very calm. I didn’t lose sleep. It was, we were headed into an unknown. And of course we have been able to navigate that. And now this year we brought equity people back. And so you know, I’m sitting here today with all those bulldozers, no debt, because we have 19 people who’ve invested in this. Most of them live at Serenbe and they’ve come in from New York and California. And, and we have these pockets from Silicon valley and Hollywood and wall street. First one person finds it and then their friends come to visit and then they come and they come. And, and so we have these huge pockets of people that are really thought leaders because they realize you know, some of the books about the creative class, I think se is, is one of those places that’s really attracted the, the creative class, the thoughtful class and the responsibility, because we’re one of the leaders in environmental to me development. And you feel

Daniel Harkavy (00:42:55):

It. Yeah. You definitely feel it. Steve, there was so much goodness in there. You know, I just hear of courage. I think of pivot, I think of changing strategic bets when your backs up the wall and having the courage to reinvent, go where the market is, that’s what you did when you scaled down and made those second homes affordable. Didn’t see that when you first started, but that was out of necessity. And there’s just this grit, determination to still create something beautiful and to create something that fits with your vision, but it’s not exact. And I think there’s been so much of that over the last couple of years. I would like to talk to you about your leadership experience since the, the the, the global pandemic started. But before I ask that, I’ll, I’ll go there in a second. I wanna know, you know, as I’ve watched Seren B evolve over the last few decades, I wanna know today as we’re bringing 20, 21 to a close, what do you see for Seren B? That’s different that the normal eyes wouldn’t see walking through it. What do you see? Five, 10 years down the road for Serenbe?

Steve Nygren (00:44:06):

Well, the amazing thing, Daniel, if you look at the maps we did in 2002 and three, the framework is exactly the same. We’re just carrying it out. Yeah. if you look at the commercial, these things, like when we announced something like a hoteler, we said, oh my God, I didn’t know that. And we said, no, come back and look at the map. All these things are on the map. And when I realized I was gonna be a developer, I realized that all my experiences travel, hospitality, the people I knew, it seemed somehow that it was a huge preparation for where I was headed. And I started thinking about what do I want? And, and, and I went back both in memory and revisiting places that were really great. And what made them great? Why was it talking to the people? And so we brought a lot of this forward.

Steve Nygren (00:44:57):

And in my I’ve heard you talk about waking up in that, that four o’clock period in the morning with the great ideas. And I, I think, you know, someone told me that’s when the universe has a crack and you actually, you know, can tap in to some of this. And so I, I, I would wake up for, you know, four o’clock in the morning so much, and it just seems so logical. This is what you need to do. This is what you need to do. This is what you need to do. And so I think of it is, is what I created in, in my mind. And we’re starting to bring this, you know, share it is, is a library filled with things that need to happen for a responsible community. And now people are showing up at various times through the decades and pulling that book down.

Steve Nygren (00:45:41):

And so it isn’t necessarily an order. It wasn’t an order. It’s a shelf of things that need to be done for responsible development. You can’t do ’em all in the first year, the first decade they’re evolving, but it so cool. And so I think of myself as a hospitality guy and I’ve set the table and it’s amazing the guests who show up and then become team players to pull this off because they buy into a piece of the passion and see where their role is. And that’s how we pull this off. There’s nothing different. It’s just, I do not know the sequence that’s gonna happen. Sometimes that has surprised me things that have moved forward in different things I thought was gonna happen in the first decade haven’t even happened yet. And things that I thought was gonna be so far reaching have just come through fully. It’s largely because of the people that show hooked up to go shoulder to shoulder to make this happen.

Daniel Harkavy (00:46:35):

So you’re, you’re tapping into an absolute truth. My most recent books, the seven perspectives of effective leaders. And I say, decision making is determined by just two things. The decisions you make and the influence you have, that’s leadership effectiveness, the way that you create an environment where you as a leader can make better decisions and, and have more influence. You need to intentionally be intentionally curious in seven different perspectives of your business. The second one’s vision, I unpacked this, Steve, not so much for you, but really more so for, for our listeners, because over the last 25 years as an executive coaching company, building champions has worked diligently with leaders like you to help them to extract that vision. My friend Henry cloud, Dr. Henry cloud says, you know, great leaders make the, the invisible visible. And what I hear you doing is you are just affirming an absolute truth.

Daniel Harkavy (00:47:33):

And that is if you can see something long before the world can, and if you can take the risk to begin to surround yourself with, with people and show them what it could look like, show them what it could feel like. And if you’ve got the passion and you’ve got the courage and you’re, you’ve got the grit, you’re, you’re willing to continue to push through. You don’t exactly know how it’s all gonna happen, but if you can see it, you take the time to see it ends birth out of a passion or a burden. You’ll surround yourself with all of the superheroes who have all of their unique strengths that come together. They’re better than you are in many of the different areas. And together you create something special. That’s how you make vision become a reality. That’s how great businesses and communities and, and organizations, that’s how it’s built. And I just love hearing your story. It’s just a, a story of vision becoming reality.

Steve Nygren (00:48:26):

And what you said is so true. I, I watched many people who have come some out of being burnt out by corporate America, wherever they’ve been. And it’s usually it’s the spouse. Who’s decided that Serenbe would be a place to move and, and, and they’ve been reluctant. And then they become the champions. And what you talk about is that switch of the heart, because after being at Serenbe period, they have that courage to lead with their heart. Yeah. And for many of people who’ve been very successful. They have never even tapped into that or realized that. And it’s just, it’s just wonderful to see both, to see what happens to the person, but then how they bring pat a lot of other people around them. So you have these, all these little circles of, of people doing just incredible life warming, exciting world changing things.

Daniel Harkavy (00:49:22):

So good, bud. So good. All right. The last couple years, any big changes for you as a leader and how you’re leading as a result of the pandemic? If so, what are they, if not, just let that question go and we’ll move on. Cause I’ve got so many and we’re running out of time.

Steve Nygren (00:49:37):

Well, I loved what the pandemic, I mean, did I often say that to share with people how I felt when I made the decision to, to get off the corporate treadmill and sell my company? I said, it’s very much like when nine 11 happened, everyone realized they reanalyze their life, but it only lasts about 48 hours. Yeah. And I think the pandemic has had that same effect, but it’s, it’s, we’re still in it for many people, you know, we’re, we’re ahead into two years and it’s forced a lot of people to stay where they live, where they’ve chosen to live and they find they don’t like it. And it’s brought a focus to the way we have been creating places for people who live in community and even the houses, you know, places without sidewalks, without front porches. And suddenly when people are in the four walls of their house, they become starved for each other for that connectivity.

Steve Nygren (00:50:38):

And so it has brought a focus to, we have a broken system of the places that we have been building. And it’s CBY is one of those places that analysts, researchers, universities are coming to and seeing that there is a different way and how it really changes life in that March, April, and the Heights of the pandemic shut down the vitality. Its CBY was unbelievable be because we had everyone living there all the time. Even second home people were there full time. People that went to work during the day were there full-time and because every house has a porch, mostly pulled close to the sidewalk. People could work from their front porch. The kids could play on the front porch. Friends would walk by and wave. We had conversations 10 feet away from the sidewalk to the porch. It didn’t decrease our life. In fact, it improved the vitality of it and showed the importance.

Steve Nygren (00:51:41):

And as people were stressful, a walk in nature totally changes. And you know, there’s been for years now and hospitals are being redesigned because we know that, you know, a view of, of nature, even a picture of nature in all the research, it changes how fast you recover. Yeah. And there’s research now that’s coming out that the other important thing is connecting to one another. You have to talk to people, you can be in these. And that happened naturally in many times in our work environments and suddenly when that was pulled away. And we were in these houses without sidewalks, without connectivity with, you know, vehicles that you went into your garage and you didn’t even know your neighbors, it’s brought all this to focus. And so I think it’s one of the greatest things for our society. What’s happened is we reanalyze where we live.

Steve Nygren (00:52:34):

And it’s certainly been incredible for Serenbe. I mean, we have just, we, we can’t sell things. The minute a house is priced before it hits the foundation it’s sold. Yeah. Surprise, our school has tripled in size. We’re building a big new campus and you know, I, Richard Lou’s work last child in the woods. I dunno if your listeners are familiar with it, but it came out about 12, 13 years ago. It, it gave voice to the reason I moved the kids to the country. And so glad I did. And it’s if you don’t know about it, read it, it really, you know, it’s about childhood development and the importance nature plays in that. And, and one thing we talk about is our free range kids now under those principles, and I’m amazed at how many people notice our free range kids. They comment on it just here.

Steve Nygren (00:53:23):

About a month ago, someone told me that they were having a bad day and they pulled into Serenbe. And here were these two kids of different races holding hands, about five years old, skipping down the sidewalk. And there was an adult that they could see and they said, it just changed my attitude for the whole day. I started smiling without even realizing it. And it’s an amazing, just seeing kids hearing laughter it’ll change your day between that nature. How can you have a bad day and what we’re really going to be announcing here sometime this year is a whole new program looking at senior housing. And so I’ve said we’re gonna free our elders too. You know, in America we tend to put both our kids and our elders in, in these prisons. And we think it’s this safety and they’re separate from each other.

Steve Nygren (00:54:11):

And we’re changing that and we’re gonna be announcing a whole program and we’re gonna have free range elders <laugh> in including dementia. You know, what, why do we treat them? Is there with a plague? And, and so we’re doing, we’re bringing people in from Europe. We’re gonna really bring to America a, a new model that we do not think the United States is seeing. And the pandemic what’s very obvious now is free range executives. Because when they’re walking in the woods, talking to themselves, you realize they’re probably on a conference call or, or a podcast on a podcast, you know, and, and, and they’re not going back because they’re efficient and they’re making it happen. So you know, I, I, I think this whole idea of let let’s free everybody, whether it’s from their desk or, or their school classrooms or their gated senior housing let’s live together. And it, it brings a, you know, a complete different

Daniel Harkavy (00:55:08):

Attitude. That’s so good. So good. Well, man, we are definitely we’re, we’re we’re at an hour on this thing. And Steve, I could honestly, I’ve got like five more questions for you. But I know it’s late in Atlanta and we should bring it to close. I’m gonna ask you or question, then I’ll give you an opportunity to tell people how to learn more about you, but a younger, you, you know, here you are, you’re 76, you’ve got so much passion. You’ve got such vision. You know, every time I talk to you’re making things happen, you’re involved in so many different organizations. And it just seems like, you know, your batteries continue to to charge, talk to the younger generation leaders younger you, what advice do you have for them? What are two or three things you think they should really focus on?

Steve Nygren (00:56:01):

Do not let the rules of my generation dictate what you do. Ask the questions, no matter where you are. Most of them are manmade rules outta fear. Hmm. And analyze why something can’t be done. Ask the questions. Don’t just accept it. Because we have not built a place that’s really very hospitable or working on the long term. So don’t, don’t, don’t, you’re the leaders that are going to bring us out of this. And we have a lot of universities and, and graduate students. I, I, I never turned down out an opportunity to tour and talk because it’s our young people, the people starting their careers and be careful because as you’re graduating from college, as you’re starting your first job, you know, you’re gonna change the world and do the right things. And somehow now in five years and 10 years you’ll have stepped to the dark side without realizing how you got there, because you’re satisfying a client. You’re just trying to follow a rule. You’re trying to make a buck. And all of a sudden you move to that other side and be conscious is of every step that you’re taking, somehow figure out a way to keep that dream. That when you got outta school, that you had hold onto that somehow, and don’t let my generation kill it.

Daniel Harkavy (00:57:41):

So good. So, you know, what’s fascinating about your answer to my question. I said, young people and young is completely subjective because here you are, you started this thing in your mid fifties. So all of us listening yeah. Young, come on. It’s have the courage to take that, that hard, right? 90 degree turn and and follow that passion. Steve you’re. You’re awesome. I love your energy. I love what you’re doing. Serenbe’s a special place. It’s this last time that I was there with really good friends and clients, I actually thought to myself, my wife and I get to travel. We’ve been very fortunate. Our family have been free range kids. As you say, we, we did the homeschool thing from a young young age, and now they’re adults and their parents and blah, blah, blah. But when I was at Serenbe last time, I thought this would just be a really cool place for my bride and I to hang out. It’s cool. And come hang out.

Steve Nygren (00:58:37):

We’ll take a walk. We’ll take a walk in the woods. You’ll, you’ll see some of this through my eyes. And, you know, you’ll, you’ll see some of the things that maybe you didn’t see, you’ll, you know, you’ll hear nature in a different way than maybe you, you did when you were there. And so I, I, I invite you to, to come out, spend some time with this.

Daniel Harkavy (00:58:54):

Well, I’ll do that. But your cousin Melanie said, I need to get you to take me for a ride on a Gator. Just, don’t be the, don’t be hard pressed for time, cuz there’s a chance we’ll get stuck. I heard that story, buddy. I look full forward to it

Steve Nygren (00:59:07):

And I rarely turn it over, but that’s good.

Daniel Harkavy (00:59:10):

Rarely is good. Hey, thank you for sharing with us. If people wanna learn more about Serenbe or they wanna learn more about Nygren Neron, how do they get in touch with you?

Steve Nygren (00:59:17):

We have a webpage and it’s, S E R E N B And you can also go to Serenbe stories. We have about seven seasons of podcasts, and there’s a complete directory. You can see what subjects interest you and it, you can go in depth from when we started and how we brought a D together of diverse people. And you’ll hear in season two, some of the people that really helped us make it happen. And then you, we have several with residents who live there and they talk about how their life has changed and what they did. And so Sam’s stories is the second way. You can go deeper into what we’re doing. Excellent. And the best way is to come visit us.

Daniel Harkavy (01:00:02):

That is the best way. All right, well, I’m looking forward to forward to a gator, right? I’m gonna be out in your neck of the woods. I’ve got plans again within the next couple months. I’ll see you

Steve Nygren (01:00:10):

Soon. Okay. Let me know. We’ll get all right buddy. Thanks Daniel. You’ll enjoyed it.

Daniel Harkavy (01:00:14):

Thank you. As did I take care

Daniel Harkavy (01:00:20):

Again? Thank you at Steve Nygren. I found your insights and the conversation to be incredibly inspiring for me. This is one that I’m having my kids listen to as well as executives building champions and clients that we get to serve. So my hope is that you enjoyed it and that you will apply a bit of what you learned. If you did enjoy the episode and you wanna learn more about how you can better leverage your influence and increase your own leadership effectiveness, feel free to reach out to us at building champions. If you’re not real familiar with who we are, what we do, you need to know for 25 years, we’ve been coaching thousands of leaders and have helped them to be the best they can be in business and in life. If you wanna learn more, shoot us an email at and our team will, will reach out and respond. You can learn more about us at and we would love to journey with you in order to help you to be the best you can be. Thanks again for listening in, stay tuned for future podcasts and future episode. And as always, if you like Questioning Leadership, please share it with all of the leaders that you rub shoulders with day in and day out. Thanks again. Take care.

In This Episode