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Pilots land in Tampa real estate

As pilots for Air Canada assigned to international flights, John Lum and Aram Guluzian worked only 10 days a month.

What to do with all that spare time?

Buy real estate.

The pair, co-founders of LIST Group Developers, began buying multifamily properties in South Tampa in 1993. They renovated and rented the units until 1997, when they started to tear them down and build from scratch.

Today, LIST Group signs dot streets throughout South Tampa. Townhomes, office buildings and commercial space under construction all bear the name.

LIST's 13 employees work out of a 2,000-square-foot office on Platt Street. In about a year, they will move into a 5,000-square-foot headquarters on Kennedy Boulevard, the site of the old Cafe Pepe.

LIST stands for Land In South Tampa, because they're pilots who "landed in South Tampa," Lum said. But LIST has designs on land well beyond.

The developers have nearly 12 projects in the works in Pinellas County, including townhomes in the Old Northeast neighborhood and on the Vinoy golf course in St. Petersburg. And their biggest project yet, a 68-unit condominium building on Madeira Beach.

For the past three years, they've been buying waterfront property on the Pinellas side of Gandy Boulevard. It's land ripe for development, they believe.

If their record is any indication, their instincts will be correct.

"LIST is a pioneer and not afraid to take risks," said Tampa development consultant Stephen Michelini, who counts LIST among his clients. "They almost singlehandedly reclaimed Courier City."

Before LIST came along, Michelini said, the neighborhood northwest of Hyde Park was a haven for petty crime, prostitution and drug arrests.

"It was a very risky area," he said. "They put their money and energy and talent to work in that area and now Courier City is what most people would consider a model reclaimed neighborhood."

LIST was also among the first developers to venture south of Gandy Boulevard and north of Kennedy Boulevard, two areas in the midst of revitalization.

Most recently, LIST is helping city leaders realize dreams for rehabilitating Kennedy by planning four commercial and residential projects for the well-traveled but unsightly thoroughfare.

"They tend to be into fringe areas earlier than other mainstream developers," Michelini said. "Once they prove an area warrants redevelopment, other people follow."

Townhomes, LIST's staple product, have their critics in South Tampa, where not everyone wants to see more people crammed into less space.

But the company has earned a reputation for doing quality infill development on parcels with space constraints, rather than building on pristine acres in the suburbs.

"They seem to give a lot of thought to the projects that they build," said Joe Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.

The company doesn't shy away from building a home with its front entrance on an alley. They simply pave the road, put in attractive landscaping and add their signature extra touches, such as hand-painted accent tiles near the roofline and decorative doorbells from Restoration Hardware.

Lum said he and Guluzian have benefitted by being newcomers to Tampa with no preconceived notions about neighborhoods.

Lum, 43, was a teenager pumping gas at a small airport in Montreal and learning to fly when he met Guluzian, 49, who was a flight instructor.

"I was making two bucks an hour," Lum said. "Whenever I had $30 saved, I took a lesson. By the time I was 16, I had a private license."

The two, who share a Feb. 13 birthday, eventually got jobs with Air Canada but often talked about starting a business. They dabbled in real estate in Toronto for about three years, buying homes and selling them for a profit.

During frequent vacations to Florida's East Coast, they plotted to leave the cold and pursue their real estate fortunes in the Sunshine State.

While visiting a friend in Tampa in 1989, Lum got lost and ended up on Bayshore Boulevard.

"I drove down to the end and back and did it again," Lum said.

He was hooked. When he got back to Toronto, he told Guluzian: "We're moving down there pal. I found the spot."

Two months later, Lum had an apartment on Bayshore; Guluzian moved to Tampa with his wife, Clare, soon after.

In the early days, Lum and Guluzian bought triplexes and duplexes, fixed them up with the help of a handyman friend and rented them.

"Our dream was urban development, and so we were just buying inventory," Guluzian said.

By 1997, they had nearly 50 multifamily units. They replaced them with high-end townhomes with granite countertops, hardwood floors, crown molding and stainless steel appliances. They sold them all.

The two Canadians no longer spend their time sanding floors and painting walls. Instead, they scout property, meet with architects, engineers and bankers, and oversee construction.

Today, LIST has 51 projects in various stages of development and contracts on $40-million worth of townhomes, commercial and office space and condominiums ready for construction. Homes sell for $250,000 to $800,000. Lum's brother, Martin, works as a real estate agent for LIST.

They're also building a handful of single-family homes, including residences for themselves. In March, Guluzian bought a $350,000 house on Davis Islands that he tore down so he can re-build on the lot. Lum will move from his $750,000 home in a gated community at Bayshore and Gandy to a new one on the water in the same community.

By all measures, their real estate venture has taken off, even though the two say they started out thinking it would just be a sideline business.

Lum didn't quit his gig with Air Canada until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which made the airline industry more speculative than buying property in Tampa's fringe neighborhoods. Guluzian still works for the company, although he's a reserve employee and hasn't flown for months.

What's next for LIST?

"We just want to get to the point where we can cut back a little bit," Guluzian said.

Both have young families. Lum and his wife, Lana, a former member of the U.S. Olympic rifle-shooting team, have an 18-month-old daughter. The Guluzians have three children under 10. The business partners have gone from working 10 days a month to working 10 hours a day, five days a week.

They're not complaining, they said, but that wasn't really part of the plan.

"We're not big office people," Guluzian said. "We're a couple airline pilots with a passion for real estate."

_ Janet Zink can be reached at 226-3401 or jzinksptimes.com.

A sampling of LIST projects in Tampa

+ 13 townhomes at East and West Davis boulevards. To be completed by the end of the year.

+ 10 townhomes on Kansas Avenue. Completed in 2000.

+ Six townhomes on Tampania Avenue just north of Swann Avenue. Completed in 2002.

+ 16 townhomes on Moody Avenue. Completed in 2003.

+ LIST office building on Platt Street. Completed in 2000.

+ 20 townhomes on Gandy Boulevard between Bayshore Boulevard and MacDill Avenue. Completed in 2001.

+ Nearly 20 townhome projects in Courier City.

For information, go to www.listrealty.com.

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