Julie and Gary Hester made their fortune with a chain of British companies that specialize in property searches. So when they were searching for their perfect property away from England in the sunshine, they could have chosen anywhere in the world. And in fact, they scouted Italy, Spain, the Canary Islands, even Greece, where they first met on vacation 17 years ago. But they ended up choosing a spacious spec house under construction by Gulfside Homes (owned by David Fields and Brian Anderson) in Oyster Bay in Sarasota, a town they'd never even heard of until they came to Florida on holiday a year and a half ago.
The couple, who has four sons, "came to visit Disney World and loved the climate and the friendly people," explains Julie. A few months later, they came back again to look at property and discovered Bradenton, where they rented a home. "We wanted a home in a real town on the Gulf, not just a tourist destination," explains Gary. "The house had to be big enough for all of us, which means five bedrooms, and we wanted quality schools close by." The couple also needed to be convenient to the Tampa airport and required a place large enough to host visiting family and friends from the U.K., who tend to stay for several weeks.
The Hesters looked at 20 properties between Tampa and Naples, eliminating the keys because they thought them too isolating for their children. Nearly a week into their local search, they stopped at a 6,500-square-foot Mediterranean-style property on a cul-de-sac in an established Sarasota neighborhood, with water views and guest quarters separate from the house. The home's interior designer, Missy Youngblood, just happened to have a plan that could convert the upstairs of the home into a four-bedroom, four-bath "apartment" for the Hester boys, who range in age from 15 to nine.
"The house was about half done," remembers Youngblood, whose Englewood-based business is called the Dream House Coach. "The roof was up, but the tiles weren't on yet; and the rooms could still be configured into anything the Hesters wanted." They favored a floor plan that flowed one room into the next, with spacious terraces that merged indoor and outdoor spaces. Their English home, a 160-year-old converted vicarage in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, had self-contained rooms, and they wanted the opposite for Florida living.
"They also intended to start fresh with home furnishings," says Youngblood. "They brought nothing but a few contemporary paintings that Julie treasures. Sarasota is now their permanent home, and they'll run their business from here."
The Hesters operate the Property Search Group (PSG), which researches title and other aspects of real estate for solicitors acting for buyers of homes and land in the U.K. Julie, a police officer at the time, founded the business in 1997 from an office set up in the couple's bedroom. A solicitor friend was experiencing difficulties in acquiring searches from local authorities and asked Julie to do it for him. She did, and within six months she had earned more than $100,000 doing it for other attorneys, too. Gary, a mortgage adviser, decided they should franchise the business.
Today the Hesters have a thriving network of nearly 100 small businesses throughout the U.K. and are planning to expand into Bulgaria and Russia. Julie received considerable media attention when she instigated a successful campaign in Britain to gain reasonable access to public documents. And she and Gary are founding members of the Genesis Patrons Enterprise Club, which lobbies government on issues that affect small businesses in Great Britain. The association's patron, HRH Prince Michael of Kent, has asked Julie to chair the Genesis American division. Through her work with Genesis and PSG, Julie Hester has addressed Parliament and is a popular public speaker.
The couple was featured on the four-part BBC television documentary, The Mind of A Millionaire, and just before leaving England for a new life in Florida, Julie piloted a television show called How to Live Your Life for Half the Price. She's putting her theories into practice in Sarasota, where the Hesters believe luxury housing is a bargain compared to Europe and the weather is a bonus that money can't buy.
To make a spec house into a custom home, designer Youngblood met just twice with Julie and Gary and once with each of the boys to find out what style bedroom and bath they wanted. "We accomplished the rest by e-mail, phone and fax messages to the Bahamas [where the family lived for the five months that it took to completely finish and furnish the rooms]," she says. "Julie had worked with designers before in England when she updated and expanded an historic home that subsequently received a great deal of magazine and media coverage. She understands the process."
The Hesters' favorite part of the house is the kitchen/family room, which looks out onto a large loggia and pool area. Gary requested a tropical island motif, and he personally selected the double paddle fans with their woven frond blades. "We enlarged this part of the house, adding a bar and more seating areas for home entertaining, because it's where the family spends most of their time," says Youngblood.
The glass and metal table that forms a banquette area at the kitchen window was crafted by Regal Iron Masters of Venice. The custom base replicates the design of the iron chandelier above it, while the glass itself weighs 600 pounds and required eight men to install it. Nearby, a pool bath morphed into a small home office for Julie, with its own porch and separate outside entrance. The flooring downstairs is marble, and upstairs it's wood. The walls throughout the public areas of the home are a warm gold.
The family decided to give up a study off the central foyer in favor of an intimate dining room, where eight can sit around a square table designed and fabricated by Scott Harper. The color scheme of copper, gold and black creates a room both sophisticated and original. The coffered ceiling is gold-leafed, and the hand-painted medallion and painted fabric on the chairs are the work of artist Erika Moore.
Upstairs, the son's bedrooms reflect their individual taste. Scott, 15, admits his design influence has been the MTV show Cribs, which features the homes of rock stars. He wanted drama, which reveals itself in red walls, an Asian screen and a four-poster bed. "Scott is classic with a touch of bling," says Youngblood.
Reece, 13, went for a comfortably elegant Ralph Lauren look with a leather sleigh bed and a burgundy and blue color scheme. Twelve-year-old Joseph prefers an urban contemporary look and ordered swivel club chairs; while Curtis, the youngest at age nine, opted for a sporty-tropical ambience. (He loves soccer.) All the boys are outdoor sportsmen (there are always four bikes somewhere in the entrance courtyard), and their parents say they're healthier in the Florida climate.
All four Hester boys attend Out-of-Door Academy. Their family pet, a cat named Simba, came home as a result of high bidding at the most recent ODA Extravaganza. In Sarasota, you know a family is ready to call this town home when they start accumulating pets or possessions bought with enthusiastic donations at local charity auctions. Clearly, the Hesters have arrived.