Gators Going Greater

“In order to be a success, you have to be selfless, not selfish.”

Bryan Kornblau credits his father and UF professors with instilling in him the secret to Going Greater

By Barbara Drake (MFA ’04) UF Advancement Published August 22, 2018

Louisiana Superdome, January 1, 2010: The third quarter of the Sugar Bowl, and Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators are crushing the Cincinnati Bearcats, 37 to 3.

Upstairs in concessions, the enticing smells of barbecued shrimp and Cajun seafood nachos waft through the air as hungry fans line up to grab some famed Nawlins grub. Conspicuous in the long queues, with their dazzling white pants and crisp orange-and-blue jackets, are members of the Gator Marching Band. The “Pride of the Sunshine” have just finished a rousing halftime show, and now the musicians’ stomachs are grumbling louder than a bull gator’s growl.

Just then, a dashing, silver-haired man in an orange-and-blue-striped tie cuts through the crowd.

“I’m buying dinner for the band,” he announces, slapping down a credit card. “Whatever they want!”

When the grateful musicians began returning to their seats with tales of a mysterious benefactor, band director Jay Watkins felt compelled to investigate.

“It was Bryan Kornblau!” says Watkins, recalling the moment eight years later. “When I asked why he was buying dinner for the whole band, he said he appreciated their hard work, energy and enthusiasm, and wanted to give back. What a great legacy.”

Kornblau, in a recent interview, explains his motivation: “The band is one of the most under-appreciated entities in Gator sports. Buying dinner was a natural. I wanted to do it.”

“Students still talk about it,” Watkins adds, .“and none of them were even here when it happened.”

Dream Big, but Avoid Debt

Actually, it’s not surprising that his simple, spontaneous gesture became a Gator legend: Bryan Kornblau (BBC ’81) has a knack for touching people’s lives.

Yes, Kornblau is a successful businessman and industry leader—he’s the president and principal of the real-estate investment firm Markel/Eagle Partners; the chairman and founder of Eagle Construction, until recently the largest privately held homebuilding company in Virginia; and the former director of the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority—but what really matters to this Gator alum is giving back in ways that are felt and appreciated.

“You know, I’ve made some outsized donations to UF over the years, in comparison to my financial situation,” he says of his endowment gifts. “I dug down deep every time I was asked because I wanted to make a difference.”

He credits both his father, Sam Kornblau (1923—2014), “the elder statesman of Richmond real-estate development,” and his University of Florida education for laying the foundations of his rewarding life: “From my dad, I learned the importance of fairness, toughness and generosity. He had concern for everyone.”

He traces his financial success to lessons learned at the then-School of Building Construction. His professors encouraged him to dream big but never to take on too much debt, a philosophy that helped him weather many economic storms in the construction industry.

UF also was where he forged close friendships—and a love of Gator football—that sustain him to this day.

Over the years, those friendships led to membership in the Gator Boosters and close ties with other donors, as well as coaches, deans, and UF presidents. His growing connection with UF inspired him to give more than $5 million, most of it to Gator Athletics, along with endowments for the Rinker School of Construction: “I guess you can say that UF is home for me.”

He adds: “In order to be a success, you have to be selfless—not selfish. That is the secret.”

Early Lessons from The Chief

The man who would one day be inducted into the Rinker Construction Hall of Fame and have an impressive foyer at the Heavener Football Complex named after him didn’t grow up near The Swamp or even in Florida: Bryan E. Kornblau was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia.

Known for its red clay soil and rolling hills, the Piedmont area was where Bryan’s father, Sam “The Chief” Kornblau, made his name in construction and real estate development. Throughout Bryan’s childhood, he remembers bits of red clay being tracked all throughout the home, courtesy Sam’s muddy work boots. “My mother would scream at him to take them off,” recalls Bryan, but The Chief kept his bootlaces tied. Work and family life belonged together.

“I remember him putting us in a station wagon every weekend when we were kids, and driving us to construction sites,” says Bryan. “Even if we didn’t want to go. I learned from his work ethic.”

Kornblau Sr. also hauled Bryan and his siblings to Parker Field ballpark—former home of the Richmond Braves and farm club of the New York Yankees—where The Chief loved to make deals:

“He’d be smoking on cigars and talking to bankers while the game was going on,” recalls Bryan. “He was a consummate dealmaker—very driven and detail-oriented.”

Formative Years at UF

So, how did a young man entrenched in Richmond traditions end up on the sandy soil of Gainesville?

A competitive golfer in high school, Kornblau realized in his senior year that his athletic abilities “weren’t as great as I’d hoped” and he’d have to look elsewhere for success. Fortunately, Dad was looking out for Bryan’s best interests.

“He told me I should head on down to a university in a little town called Gainesville because they had a fantastic construction program, the best in the country,” says Kornblau. “I said okay. I’d been to Florida before on vacation. I thought, ‘Palm trees, beaches, pretty girls—why not?’”

Father and son drove down to the UF campus—“no palm trees, just pine trees”—to meet with Don Halperin of the School of Building Construction, and Kornblau Jr. was accepted for the fall 1977 semester.

“I moved into Tolbert [residential hall] and plunged right in,” recalls Kornblau. “You really do get directly into the field in your first semester in Building Construction—back then and now.”

His four years at UF gave him an in-depth understanding of good building practices, including fiscal responsibility.

“Back in that time, the construction professors weren’t academics, per se,” he explains. “They were successful people who left the construction industry to go into teaching, and they taught us from a conservative perspective, on the money side. They didn’t believe in leveraging.”

I’ve made some outsized donations to UF over the years, in comparison to my financial situation. I dug down deep every time I was asked because I wanted to make a difference.
Bryan Kornblau

The highlight of his senior year was completing a final project—now called the Capstone Project—a rigorous, real-life exercise for construction professionals.

“You go from doing a feasibility study to designing a building and presenting your plans to professors, who decide as the ‘bank’ whether to fund your project,” explains Kornblau. “It was a great experience.”

Today the tradition of the Capstone Project endures, and Kornblau credits it for molding Rinker graduates into some of the most sought-after in the country.

“Last year the School of Construction had a job fair for 44 graduating seniors, and 100 companies came, seeking new talent,” he says. “If we had more graduates, they’d snap them up too.”

The Eagle Takes Off

After returning to Richmond post-graduation and working several years for his father, Kornblau took out a small loan to open his own business. That was October 1984, and inspired by the patriotism of the Reagan era, he named his new firm Eagle Construction.

Going solo was a bold move for someone so young, but Eagle’s founder was primed for flight.

“Thanks to my education and my experience working for my dad, at age 26 I knew a lot about how to do things right in construction,” says Kornblau. “What my teachers at UF taught me put me light years ahead of local businessmen.”

Working night and day, Kornblau built Eagle into the largest privately held homebuilding company in Virginia. By the mid-2000s, the firm had built 135 communities and more than 5,000 homes, from Central Virginia to the Hampton Roads area.

Kornblau was also appointed the Richmond District representative for the Commonwealth’s Transportation Board (CTB). As a member of the CTB’s finance committee, he was integrally involved in the planning and implementation of the Public-Private Transportation Act, which enabled Richmond to complete its main beltway, Route 288.

Despite being so firmly enmeshed in Richmond-area development, Kornblau remained a diehard Gator fan, wearing UF-striped ties to business events.

“There’s no red and blue in my wardrobe,” he jokes, referring to the colors of the University of Richmond. “Just orange and blue.”

Navigating Rough Waters

As Eagle Construction’s sales and the home-building industry surged in 2007, Kornblau got a feeling that “something bad” was going to happen to the economy. He sold off prime building sites and secured solid mortgages for all his home buyers. Thanks to those preemptive strategies, Eagle was able to survive the big downturn that flattened America a year later.

He also raised money to create a private equity firm, to help banks deal with troubled loans and turn distressed properties. After selling Eagle to Markel Venture in 2013, Kornblau became president and a principal of the new equity firm, Markel/Eagle Partners.

That same year saw the marriage of his oldest daughter, Chelsea Kornblau (BSBC, 2011), who worked at Markel/Eagle, to Jason Tinsley. The couple recently gave birth to son, fittingly named Sam Kornblau Tinsley, in honor of The Chief.

Smooth Sailing

Now the man who steered two companies through 34 years of economic ups and downs has traded his hard hat for a captain’s hat.

In October 2017, the lifelong Virginian and his wife, Hunter, relocated to Naples, Florida, putting a grown-up spin on a teenage dream: Palm trees, sand, and a pretty woman.

He’s happiest trolling the Gulf waters in his new 25-footer, an Everglades Center Console christened Gator Hunter.

“It’s named for my wife and my team, but everybody in Naples thinks it’s ’cause I hunt gators with it!” he laughs.

Living in Naples also means Kornblau is closer to his favorite team his alma mater, where stepdaughter Carson Fisher will graduate in May 2019 with a master’s degree in speech pathology.

And, of course, visiting Carson means more opportunities to cheer on his favorite team:

“UF football season is like a reunion every year – a special time to meet with others – donors, fans, players, and especially my old friends from when I was an undergrad,” he says.

For Bryan, game season also means giving back to UF athletics: “I’m a firm believer that success in team sports breeds academic success for a college. Those successes make a university more popular and well known, and that attracts more good students to a school.”

Asked to reflect on his generous history of philanthropy at UF, he answers with customary humility:

“Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet great donors to UF – George Steinbrenner, Ben Hill Griffin,” he says. “To even be mentioned in the same breath as the great figures who’ve supported UF over the years: It’s beyond words.”

By Barbara Drake (MFA ’04) UF Advancement Published August 22, 2018