Snow globes. Of all the things to find in here. Snow globes. But there they are, two of them, sitting on a conference table in the middle of the war room that passes for Cameron Kuhn's downtown Orlando office. Pick one up. Shake it as hard as you like. The miniature landscape never flinches. No matter how wild the tempest, the self-contained little scene remains the very picture of balance and serenity. Not like the world of Citizen Kuhn. Not like that world at all.
"Can somebody please tell me," Kuhn is roaring, "why we just gave up 5 million dollars? Will somebody please explain that to me?"
A half-dozen employees have gathered around their 46-year-old boss for a late-morning meeting in the sixth-floor Kuhn Cos. suite overlooking Lake Eola. No one has an answer to suit him. Now a staffer's oversight could shear away some of the profits from the company's latest deal: buying a downtown Jacksonville high-rise for $37 million and converting it into pricey office condominiums.
Kuhn is still steaming a few minutes later as he charges away from his building and across Central Boulevard toward a business lunch, a bullish man in casual slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, hammy forearms jutting from his 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound frame.
His brown eyes are close-set and intense. There's a deep, semicircular furrow across the bridge of his nose. He looks like an angry high-school football coach making a beeline for an errant player as he steps headlong into the street, barely glancing left or right, forcing the driver of a car about 20 yards away to brake.
Kuhn storms through downtown Orlando as if he owns it.
"Well," he says, momentarily brightening, "I do."
Since 1994 he has bought 27 office buildings in the city core, including the one he just stormed out of (bought for $3.1 million, selling for $8.5 million). Others have been renovated or torn down to make way for new developments.
He capped off the run two years ago by clearing away a city-block bramble of vacant and decaying buildings to build the Premiere Trade Plaza at Orange Avenue and Church Street. When completed next year, the complex of shops, restaurants, a multiscreen cinema and three office/residential towers of 16, 21, and 30 stories will mark a turning point in the most recent renewal of downtown Orlando.
The mastermind of all this is a free-thinking college dropout who wears a thin gold earring to work, lords over his empire from an overstuffed chaise longue next to his desk and once presented city leaders with a suggested blueprint for downtown development that featured a wave pool and skateboard park, all of it sketched in his own hand on a manila file folder.
Kuhn has nearly ridden out a wave he helped create. Office space in the city core sold for about $50 per square foot when he started buying buildings in 1994. Now it's up to $250. Other downtown building owners thank him for raising their property values and then ask: "Would you like to buy it?"
So Kuhn has embarked on a broader empire by snapping up and renovating office buildings in other urban centers: Jacksonville, Atlanta, New Orleans. Once, he ferried buyers and investors around downtown Orlando in a golf cart. Now he shuttles from one city to another in his new $1.75 million Bell helicopter.
He's a charter member of the Oak Room, a lushly appointed private bar on Church Street, past a door you'd probably never notice and up a staircase you'll probably never see, featuring a honeycomb of built-in, refrigerated lockers where private stashes of liquor and wine can be stored.
When he was invited to join, Kuhn had just one complaint: His locker was too small. He's having it expanded.
King Kuhn lives large.
The brash landlord
From a distance, he seems to fit the stereotype of the urban landlord as big and brash, filthy rich and coldly calculating.
He owns part interest in a yacht docked in the Virgin Islands, where he frequently retreats with business cronies and romantic interests. He drinks only the finest wines, traveling to Italy and the Napa Valley each year to sample and stock up. He smokes expensive Cuban cigars, mainly pre-embargo Gurkhas, $800 a box.
He once served an eviction notice on his own brother.
He tears down historic buildings: For the Plaza to rise, the old McCrory's and Woolworth buildings had to go down, much to the irritation of preservationists.
Three years ago, federal officials called together three dozen Orlando-area developers and asked them to submit bids to purchase and renovate the downtown post-office building.
Developers are a competitive lot. Kuhn looked around the room and wondered whose idea it had been to put all the sharks in the same tank. Then he stood up and berated the officials, telling them the building was a lost cause, rattling off all the difficulties of renovation. It was a ploy to dishearten the competition. Only three developers put in bids on the restoration. Kuhn beat them out for the contract.
When he bought a lakeside Windermere home, it bothered him that a couple had a contract to buy the vacant lot next door, planning to build their own empty-nest dream house. So he approached the seller, offered to insure her against any legal repercussions in breaking the contract and bought the lot.
"We were so upset," says Linda Hill, who was buying the lot with her husband, Donald. "We had the building plans. We were getting the approvals. Everything was fine until he showed up."
Kuhn says that in both cases, he was simply positioning himself against the competition, as any good businessman would.
He wonders aloud -- not argumentatively, but with what appears to be sincere puzzlement:
"Is that bad?"
Then he poses another question: "Doesn't everybody do that?"
Shrewd Mr. Nice Guy
For all his competitive, bulldozer ways, Kuhn has a laid-back demeanor: He's Gordon Gekko as played by Owen Wilson. And he is generous and bighearted when he wants to be.
Every year, he throws a lavish Christmas party for the staffers who have grown accustomed to his interoffice outbursts -- an all-expenses-paid, out-of-town Christmas party. Last year's was to Las Vegas, this year's to New York City.
He's planning to spend $2 million to create a series of statues devoted to the arts downtown, wants to help bankroll an annual downtown film festival and promises to make at least three of his own buildings available, at radically reduced rents, to artists and art galleries to help jump-start a downtown arts district.
But it is the art of the deal that defines Kuhn. And the Plaza represented the most complicated deal of his life.
It put him in the middle of Orlando politics, with the city providing $22.5 million in loans and incentives to the project. It involved an epochal cast of lawyers, buyers, architects, builders, investors, partners, banks, City Council members and Mayor Buddy Dyer, a key backer of the enterprise and its developer.
It took two full business days for the various business partners, sometimes literally jogging from one conference room to another, just to sign stack after stack of contracts and loan documents.
There was one potential deal-breaking snag after another. An anchor tenant backed out. So did two of the banks involved -- one a month before the closing deadline, the other just three days prior. In the midst of construction, a critical wall had to be moved 8 feet, adding $1.4 million to the budget.
Raul Alvarez, an Orlando trial lawyer who became Kuhn's partner in the Plaza deal, was accustomed to the gamesmanship of courtroom battles. But the crisis-du-jour reality of high-stakes urban development unnerved him.
He never saw his partner flinch.
"I'd look over at Cameron, figured he'd be as freaked out as I was, and here was this jolly cherub of a guy who looked like he was just laughing it off. He'd say: `They don't have the power to stop this deal. They don't have the strength to stop this deal.'
"And pretty soon it got to the point where I was laughing, too. It was like every day bullets were flying at us. You know that Matrix movie, where they bend over backwards and the bullets go zipping right by? It started to feel like that. Like we were invincible. Like nothing could stop us."
Not long after the Plaza deal was muscled through, Kuhn's mother, Barbara Bergstrom, was at a social function where she met a local bank president who told her he'd had dealings with her son.
She told him that Cameron had played chess as a child.
"I think he's moved on to poker," he said.
Born to the deal
By now it should come as no surprise that the pair in Kuhn's office do not feature woodland creatures or Tirolean chalets.
They are cityscapes. One is of the downtown Orlando skyline his efforts helped to retool. The other depicts the city where Kuhn himself took shape. Even in miniature, its skyscrapers are elegant and distinctive. The Sears Tower. The John Hancock Building. The old firehouse.
Kuhn grew up 40 miles northwest of the city, in the upper-class suburb of Lake Zurich. In grade school, when a teacher asked members of his class what each wanted to be, he watched a cavalcade of police officers and nurses and writers blossom around him and then announced: "I want to be a millionaire."
Though he had difficulty with reading and writing, his grandmaster uncle tutored him in chess and was impressed with his protege's knack for aggressive gamesmanship.
Though bored in his middle school's classrooms, he was alert to the entrepreneurial possibilities of its hallways. He was 12 when he teamed with another seventh-grader whose job it was to print $20 lunch cards. Kuhn arranged to buy them under the table for $5 apiece, then sold them to classmates for $12, a smooth little enterprise that ended abruptly when school officials caught on.
In sports he was overshadowed by two older brothers in football and wrestling. During one wrestling match, his eldest brother set the high-school record for the fastest pin. On the same day, Cameron set the speed record for being pinned.
College was a disaster. He did more socializing than studying and was expelled after five quarters and a 0.0 grade-point average. Then he went home to Chicago, where his father introduced him to a world that would welcome his embrace.
John Kuhn was an accountant, real-estate investor and workaholic who left Cameron's mother when Cameron was 5 in favor of a bachelor pad featuring a Lake Michigan view and a circular bed with a white-fur cover. He hired Cameron to handle the maintenance, then the bookkeeping, for several apartment buildings he owned in Chicago. Two years later, the elder Kuhn left for the sea. That was 36 years ago. He has yet to return.
John Kuhn is the ultimate distant dad. At 74, he continues to sail around the world in relative solitude aboard a 52-foot schooner, living off his investments. He comes home for brief, infrequent visits, to share stories about hunting wild boar with Polynesian tribesmen and scrubbing barnacles off whales as they loll near his boat.
Cameron Kuhn calls his father the biggest influence in his life.
"I always say he did two things for me. He taught me how to do business. Then he left. That meant I had to figure the rest out for myself."
My brother, my renter
The rest of the Kuhn family soon came to suspect that his father's brusque tutelage had hardened Cameron all too well.
The eviction notice was a pretty good clue.
In 1983, Cameron's oldest brother was living in one of the apartment complexes Cameron managed. He was 30 days late with the rent.
Ken Kuhn still remembers very clearly the moment his younger brother showed up at his door with the notice.
"I said, `What are you doing?' He said, `Well, you didn't pay, it's past 30 days, and the next step is to send the sheriff to take the front door off your apartment.' I go, `Dude!' And he just said, `Well, you know the rules, Ken.' "
Ken Kuhn eventually came up with the rent. But in the years that followed, as he watched Cameron build up real-estate holdings in Chicago and later in Orlando, he had the sensation that he was watching his little brother disappear.
"He became so obsessed with making money," says Ken Kuhn, now a shoe-company sales representative who still lives in Chicago, that "It stripped him of all his emotions. As a kid, he was always a very creative individual, always very popular, a very feeling person, a listener. Something happened to the feeling part. I'd talk to my wife about it -- I'd say, `I know he's in there, somewhere.' "
By 1991, Kuhn had rehabbed several West Chicago warehouses and sold them as apartments, making himself a millionaire several times over.
So he decided, at age 32, to retire. He and his wife, Jonalyn, moved to a place where he thought he could say goodbye forever to his workaholic ways.
They headed for Orlando, Florida.
Out of retirement
Within a year and a half, Kuhn had embarked on a business partnership to provide energy-conservation strategies to building owners. The business eventually made $3.5 million in annual sales.
Then Kuhn was offered a chance to buy the Central Arcade on Central Boulevard. That started his downtown-Orlando spending spree and a new workaholic skein.
A year later, he divorced Jonalyn.
"Cameron has a good heart," she says. "But his `enough' is bigger than my `enough.' ''
For her, a single incident summed up the latter stages of their marriage.
She had worked for several weeks to redecorate a room in their home as a nursery for one of their two children. One day, Cameron walked into the room.
"This is beautiful," he said. "Who did this?"
"I did," she replied. "A year ago."
The two of them parted on good terms. The same cannot be said for Kuhn and his second wife, Lauri Fields, daughter of a Longwood car-dealership owner.
They were married in Nassau, Bahamas, in October 2000. They had a son, Merritt Randolph Kuhn, in May 2003. Six months later, just days before embarking on the Plaza project, Kuhn filed for divorce.
Fields would not comment for this story. Her attorney, J. Cheney Mason, did not return repeated phone calls. Although the divorce was finalized this past May, the dissolution agreement left unresolved her claim to Plaza profits, the subject of a current Orange County civil-court battle.
Kuhn says that, before the divorce, he had offered to try to work with his wife to smooth out their differences -- but only if she would sign a postnuptial agreement giving up any claim to a share in the Plaza profits.
Taking a fall
Four months ago, at the height of his career, with his net worth hovering well above $50 million, with his credibility in Orlando indelibly established, with a promising future in other city centers ahead of him, Cameron Kuhn fell apart.
For a week, he could barely eat or sleep. He stayed home from work and wouldn't answer the phone. On a bike ride with a startled Raul Alvarez, his bulletproof Matrix buddy from the Plaza deal, he began weeping so uncontrollably that he had to pull over and then collapsed in a soggy heap beside the trail.
The catalyst was the breakup of a romance. But there was also the news that his first wife was remarrying; the hollow, anticlimactic feeling that he always felt after wrapping up a big deal; the threat to his pride and his pocketbook that Fields' suit represented; his sudden awareness of his own advancing age.
Kuhn was in midlife-crisis terrain. What hammered at him most was a realization both liberating and painful: He had spent years anesthetizing his feelings. It was an asset in business but disastrous elsewhere. His game face was his only face. He had become comfortably numb.
"That's what got to me," he says. "I couldn't feel. How sick is that? Both of my marriages, it wasn't just that they ended. It was that I walked out of them without feeling a thing. Just, boom, to walk out like that. What kind of person does that?"
His mother, an Orlando-based business-etiquette consultant, compares what her son went through with The Picture of Dorian Gray, the famous Oscar Wilde novel in which a man strikes a Faustian bargain in an effort to retain his youth. Though he never ages, a portrait of himself does. Hidden in an upstairs room of his mansion, it becomes more and more hideous as it accumulates the toll of his evil deeds and the passing years.
"Cameron got a look at that portrait, and what he saw wasn't pretty," his mother says. "People used to tell me how proud I must be of my son. And I would say to them, quite honestly: `I love him. But I don't like him.' "
She thinks she now sees a profound change for the better in him. Kuhn says he wants to make amends, to be less abrasive and more sensitive, to pay more attention to the arts, to friends, to his own well-being.
He says he knows now that the deal is his drug, and he's doing his best to loosen its hold on him. He's delegating authority, doing his best to stay in the background and let staffers manage his properties and orchestrate his development deals.
For a while, he cut back on his hours, going to his office late in the morning and leaving in the early afternoon.
But two weeks ago, he decided that his company's management of several new downtown-Jacksonville properties wasn't going smoothly enough without his own hands-on involvement.
A weekday morning found him up early again and in the thick of Interstate 4 traffic, headed for Orlando Executive Airport.
"I'm going back to work full time," he said.
A few minutes later, he was traveling through blue skies at 178 mph in his new helicopter, headed for Jacksonville. It was still rush hour. I-95 was bumper to bumper. Flying a thousand feet above the interstate, Cameron Kuhn had a spectacular view of the workaday commuters he had decided, once again, to rejoin.
Kuhn's Windermere home is filled with artwork, but there is one piece among them that is his favorite. Kuhn was drawn to it when he saw it in a San Francisco art gallery.
It is a brightly painted sculpture of a man in a coat and tie. A fireplug has sprouted from the man's head. A surge of water is pouring out of it. Above the composition, a disembodied hand hovers, palm down.
The meaning is clear as daylight to Kuhn. It is, he says, a portrait.
"It's the businessman," he says. "He's creating. He's producing. That's the water. He's just -- it's just pouring out of him: whoooosh! And the hand -- that's the hand of God. He's keeping the lid on everything. He's not giving the businessman any more than he can handle."
And how much can Citizen Kuhn handle?
He doesn't even have to pause to think it over.
"A lot," he says.
Michael McLeod can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5432.Copyright © 2015, CT Now