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Fritz Grupe balances family, business, farming

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Posted: Saturday, September 1, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:54 am, Sat Sep 1, 2012.

Perched eight feet off the ground in the driver’s seat of a hunter-green carriage, Greenlaw “Fritz” Grupe makes quite an impression. Here, Grupe is in control and can meet the world on his own terms and at a speed of his choosing.

Once or twice a week, the 75-year-old Linden native hooks Sylvester and Ravell, a pair of dark brown Gelderlander horses, into their harnesses for a turn around Grupe’s vast Lodi estate.

Grupe is a unique man, and his property is unique as well.

Shady Oaks ranch sprawls on 1,400 acres west of Lodi on Ray Road. It is framed in front by a canal, tall hedges and a pair of black iron gates. Inside, that imposing front slips away. A sense of openness and tranquility is the first impression. Long driveways curl around lush lawns dotted with oak trees and lead to the five or six homes on site, plus the stables, carriage house and barn.

This isn’t just a palatial estate for the sake of it. This is a family’s home base.

And Grupe is an ideal patriarch.

In the carriage, Grupe directs the horses along dense rows of olive trees, past a Fuji apple orchard and around Chardonnay and Merlot vineyards. The horses take the lead and canter down a long stretch of dirt road lined with oak trees, warming up for the day’s training.

“Walk on, walk on,” Grupe urged them with a click and a tap of the reins. They walked on.

Grupe is the master of a real estate empire. He is responsible for building vast sections of north Stockton. His name and handiwork are evident in master planned communities of beautiful homes clustered around signature lakes. His developments range from California and Colorado to Georgia and Florida. He’s built apartments, offices, townhouses, golf courses and parks, most of which have a lake somewhere nearby. He’s not just building houses. He’s fulfilling a vision.

His work has led him to enter the New California Hall of Fame in 2008, to work on major land management issues of the day with the Urban Land Institute and the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. He is a past regent of the University of the Pacific and a founding chair of the University of California Merced.

He would rather be a farmer. Or a cowboy.

A farmer and his wife

Grupe grew up riding Western on a ranch in Linden, the same land that had been in his family since his great-grandfather, John Carsten-Grupe, arrived in Central California in 1849. The ranch had a reservoir where he would swim and play. Years later, while planning what the ideal community would look like, including a lake seemed natural. He still ropes calves and brands cattle with his great-grandfather’s G Bar brand. Grupe keeps that heritage on his belt, where a large silver buckle bears the brand.

The plan was to study agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, then come home and run the ranch.

Phyllis Lingo, his future wife, began her freshman year in 1958 studying psychology when Grupe was a junior. She got to know the sharp, blue-eyed upperclassmen through his sister Luanne Rotticci, a close friend.

“She told me, ‘Never go out with my brother. He is a wild man.’ And I didn’t. Not for six or eight months, anyway,” said Phyllis Grupe. “He ended up being a pretty darn nice guy.”

The pair married in a break between semesters, and she followed him to UC Berkeley and back home to the San Joaquin Valley.

But even the largest ranch can only support so many farmers.

It was a hard decision to leave the country and move to the city for Grupe to find a career in sales. Phyllis Grupe called it heartbreaking to realize they couldn’t provide for a family as farmers.

Grupe began selling houses in Stockton, and found his footing in the real estate development industry.

His first job in real estate was selling Lincoln Village houses in Stockton through a company called Village Homes. The owner ran into financial difficulty and creditors liquidated everything. Grupe saw the opportunity and stepped in. He made a deal with the bank to take over 12 unsold homes and 33 undeveloped lots. That’s how he became a developer.

Building the empire

In the beginning, Grupe sold homes to younger people, whom he calls the pioneers, who are more willing to take a risk on something new.

“I was 28. That’s pretty young to have people have faith in you,” he said.

The next project was Lincoln Village West. The land previously belonged to Benjamin Holt, but when he passed away the land he owned went to his heirs. Grupe made a deal with Warren Atherton, the family’s lawyer, to develop the land through a company called Lilval, of which Grupe was president and part owner.

By this time, Grupe had gained confidence and wanted to go big. The Grupe Company was created in 1975. Its first major project was the Quail Lakes community north of March Lane and east of I-5.

“I enjoy the planning aspect of it. I like to be on the cutting edge of what’s next,” he said. “Plus, it’s fun to build houses for people.”

An area off of March Lane in Stockton was purchased to become the next development project. Today it is Brookside, a well-to-do neighborhood of stately homes with a country club and golf course tucked in the heart of it. In 1975, it was Brookside Farm. The Grupes moved in and planned to develop it in a few years. But Stockton instated a building moratorium for a decade. The family was stuck.

For 18 years, the Grupes raised their children and horses there, along with sheep, 4H steers and any other livestock that came around.

There was a long driveway stretching from March Lane out to the house, and an expansive pasture on the south side. Grupe turned it into a point of fascination.

“He said, ‘Every day I drive down that road. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a great big draft horse standing in that field?’ I said no, I have enough animals in my field,” Phyllis Grupe recalled.

Six months later, the subject came up again.

“I just think a draft horse would look perfect out there,” Grupe would repeat.

It wasn’t long before Grupe found a draft horse to live in that field. Phyllis Grupe, a horsewoman since she was 12 years old, took on the task of training the horse and learning to drive carriage. Grupe was more interested in looking at the animal in such a pastoral setting.

Though Grupe couldn’t build in Brookside, he could expand his empire. The moratorium forced him to go to other cities. Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield all got the Grupe treatment.

Lakes feature prominently in his community design, a throwback to his childhood in Linden. Brookside, Quail Lakes and Lincoln Village West all center on lakes, some with docks and slips and marinas. There’s even a lake and a dog-training pond at the Shady Oaks estate.

Other innovative features were to put utility lines underground, so there were fewer cords in view. And Grupe was the first builder to include cable TV lines in his houses.

Grupe’s signature style is to bring together a neighborhood of single-family homes next to apartments, and schools next to parks.

Master planned communities mean no one is going to build a factory next door in five years, and there are rules to what a neighbor can and can’t do. It doesn’t mean there’s only one style of home. Once the developer is gone, it’s ruled by the homeowners association, not just city rules.

“If you want to live in a neighborhood where a broken-down truck is repaired in the driveway, then live in that neighborhood. This is America. You’re free to do what you want. But if you’re in a planned community, you flat-ass can’t do it,” said Grupe.

Brookside was finally completed in 2005, and it was Grupe’s final project in Stockton.

Challenging adversity

Grupe made running his company and building whole communities seem easy. But it took true grit to make it through.

Few may be aware of it, but Grupe is dyslexic. He couldn’t pass an English class, even in college. He failed remedial English twice before earning his degree.

Some would call it a drawback. He says the condition helps him to see the world with a different perspective.

“It doesn’t mean I can’t be successful. I think it makes me more inquisitive,” he said.

Complications like the real estate bust of 2008 are insurmountable problems to some. To Grupe, they’re setbacks, not permanent situations.

“I didn’t see the recession coming as bad as it was going to be. But that’s a government decision that’s out of my control,” he said. “You have to have a stomach for adversity. Take a measured risk and have the tenacity not to quit.”

Now his new passion is mentoring others and spreading his tenacious mindset to the next generation. He also uses his influence to address community issues. A long list of organizations list his name as a past chairman or president, including San Joaquin A+, a youth education non-profit; the San Joaquin County Business Council; San Joaquin Partnership; the Young Presidents’ Organization; and the United Way in San Joaquin County,

“It’s just like any legacy. You can leave your children a ranch, or you can leave the community you were in a better place to live for your kids and grandkids,” he said. “There are four generations of Grupes here. I’d like to think I left it better than when I started.”

The home and the horses

Grupe isn’t tied down. There’s a walnut orchard in Linden, a cattle ranch near Yosemite and a hunting ranch in Oregon. But Shady Oaks is home.

He bought Shady Oaks in 1988 and moved in 15 years ago. The house’s signature is in reusing elements whenever possible. The ceiling is supported by beams of old-growth Douglas fir rescued from a sawmill in Oregon that went under. The floors are 300-year-old recycled North Carolina pine. Portraits of each child, painted at age 16, hang in the entrance.

His favorite room takes those hunting lodge-esque elements to a new level. It’s an indoor log cabin, with walls lined in fallen logs from Montana. Stuffed boar and deer heads are mounted on the wall, along with his great-grandfather’s rifle. A blanket of muskrat pelts, trapped on the Oregon ranch, covers a spare bed in the corner.

A stone fireplace was built as a family project. Grupe’s grandchildren collected stones, and a mason put them together.

It’s the same room in which the San Francisco 49ers cheerleaders once shot a calendar.

From his seat at a cluttered desk, there is an expansive view of the lawns beyond a great willow tree at the window.

In the garage, Grupe stores cases of extra virgin olive oil made from his trees, placed next to a huge square shipping container. It is a chandelier, made of deer antlers. It is exactly his style.

The Grupe family is close, and runs various aspects of the company together. Two children, Mark Grupe and Sandy Huber, and 12 grandchildren live at Shady Oaks. Daughters Bonner Murphy and Michelle Hart have moved on, but still work with Grupe Company.

An endless pool sits on the patio for Phyllis Grupe and the kids to exercise in. Grupe doesn’t use it, preferring a morning routine of push-ups, crunches and free weights. He weighs the same today as he did in high school.

Outside, Grupe sits ramrod-straight in the driver’s seat, his sandy blond hair covered in a Team Grupe cap. He has donned leather gloves to drive his horses through narrow cone obstacles on a field. He favors Wrangler jeans and plaid button-down shirts over a more formal uniform. His eyes are bright and focused when he’s leading a pair of horses, or managing a new project.

He is an avid player in an unusual sport involving speedy carriages and huge horses. Despite coming into the sport later in life than many of his competitors, Grupe competes at the advanced level in pairs and singles carriage driving.

He was the first person west of the Mississippi to claim the United States Equestrian Federation’s National Championship title for Pairs Driving in 2005. In 2009, he won first place in the advanced single horse championship.

To keep up with training, Grupe designed and installed several driving obstacles on his property. Narrow turns, steep hills and water hazards keep the horses busy and Grupe’s mind sharp.

Friends and the future

Friends and business connections marvel at Grupe’s personality and drive.

Jim Klingbeil, CEO of Klingbeil Capital Management, met Grupe through the Young President Organization and the World President’s Organization forums, and they’ve been close friends for over 20 years. Klingbeil calls Grupe a leader who cares about his city, county and state, and has the wherewithal to do something about it.

It can take Grupe half an hour to make his way across a room, said Klingbeil, because he’s got to stop and say hello to so many people.

“Well, Fritz is Fritz. He’s everybody’s friend,” said Klingbeil, who lives in San Francisco. “He’s sort of a model citizen. You just wish you had more of him.”

Grupe isn’t weighed down by former success. One branch of his company is dedicated to taking older model homes that leak energy and heat, and retrofitting them with more efficient solutions.

Green Home Solutions is run by Mark Fischer of Stockton, who has worked with Grupe for 20 years.

Fischer calls Grupe a very dynamic, entrepreneurial guy who focuses on the end result over the minutiae of the process.

“He’s not a hands-on guy. He’s a big-picture guy,” said Fischer.

It started with Carsten Crossings, in Rocklin, a “zero energy” community which featured building materials that collect and store solar energy, and homes with energy-efficient appliances and amenities. The homes use two-thirds less energy than new homes built to standard codes.

The success of that community led to the creation of Green Home Solutions in 2009.

In a few years, Fritz predicts, knowing a home’s energy efficiency will be just as crucial as a clean termite inspection for home sales.

It’s that kind of vision that has allowed him to build his empire and keep it moving forward.

The same goes for training Sylvester and Revell. They’ve been pulling carriages for years. But that doesn’t stop Grupe from trying to improve their game.

On a warm summer morning, the horses and their driver are taking in the spacious grounds before another training session.

“Come on boys, walk on,” he clucks to the pair.

The horses move confidently forward.

As does Fritz Grupe.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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6 comments:

  • Fred Hoffman posted at 4:54 pm on Sat, Sep 1, 2012.

    Fred Hoffman Posts: 1

    Many employees of the Grupe Company have worked for Fritz for years; some for decades. Why? Because he treats them as partners in a common cause, with much respect for their skills. Other corporations could become a lot more successful if they followed Fritz Grupe's lead: treat others as you would want them to treat you.

     
  • Joanne Bobin posted at 11:52 am on Sat, Sep 1, 2012.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4305

    What was negative, Mr. Baumbach, except your need to make a ridiculous comment about a request to correct the names of two very wonderful ladies?

     
  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 11:04 am on Sat, Sep 1, 2012.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    [yawn][sleeping] zzzzzzzzzzz

    How unfortunate to offer negative in such an inspirational story.

     
  • Stephanie Rodriguez posted at 10:33 am on Sat, Sep 1, 2012.

    Stephanie Rodriguez Posts: 1

    Thank you Sara for writing this about Fritz and Phyllis. I have the pleasure, and I mean "pleasure" of working for this man, and he is an amazing individual. Proud to say I know him and love him.

     
  • Joanne Bobin posted at 9:37 am on Sat, Sep 1, 2012.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4305

    Better hurry up and make this correction, Sarah.

    Fritz's other two daughters are Bonner Murphy and Michelle Hart, not the other way around, and not "Bonnie" either.

    Otherwise, a very well written story.

     
  • Wendy Buchanan posted at 8:25 am on Sat, Sep 1, 2012.

    Readergal Posts: 1

    Sara, you are an excellent writer! [smile] I thoroughly enjoyed reading your very well written article about Fritz Grupe. I'm proud to say I knew you were a talented writer back in fifth and sixth grade when I had the privilege of having you as a student.[beam]

     

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