Gazing out at an expansive new listing in southern Dallas, ranch broker to the stars Bernard “Bernie” Uechtritz narrates how the land becomes rolling hills at roughly this very point in Texas, unlike the flatlands in the highly developed region north of the city.
“I see a polo field,” he says, surveying part of the 6,000-acre property. The tempo of melodic hills had given way to a spacious, wide expanse of pristine grass cover, a native Texas-sized prairie grass pasture. Such a large ranch near the lure of Dallas is part of the future of land, as Uechtritz (pronounced you-tridge) portends it to be.
The 57-year-old has earned the right to forecast the future of real estate. His story is uncommon but not entirely unique to entrepreneurs who constantly innovate and adapt. His company, Dallas-based Icon Global, markets high-end, iconic real estate; as named, so delivered. His is the high-octane world of large ranches, complex deals, secrecy, and a learned approach that generates sales at prices rarely seen.
Uechtritz’s story began in Rockhampton, Australia, a town known for sugar cane, rum, and cattle. Off the eastern part of Queensland, it sits north of Brisbane and the Gold Coast. He was mostly raised in Papua New Guinea, with a few stints at boarding schools in New Zealand and Australia. Since the age of 3, he was speaking an older version of Pidgin English, a creolized language spoken by native New Guineans. By age 16, he was managing a large plantation—one that was home to cocoa and coconut production, 4,000 head of cattle, and 150 water buffalo. Those early New Guinea days had a significant impact on his life. It was 50 dusty miles to the nearest town of Lae, roughly halfway between the equator and the 15th parallel in the South Pacific Ocean, north of his Australian birthplace.
In managing the plantation, Uechtritz worked with as many as 500 New Guineans from a half-dozen tribes. They taught him quick decision-making and the duty of leading many people—tractor drivers, plantation workers, cowboys, and the like. “I had to be a doctor, lawyer, marriage counselor, and peacekeeper,” he says. “It was a great responsibility and character-building, requiring an abundance of communications skills.” He was essentially a sheriff who had to use farm management skills. The experience also introduced him to land transactions; the love of the deal took root in New Guinea.
But the United States was beckoning. Uechtritz was “consciously enamored with all things America,” he says. The eighth of 11 children, he spent much time alongside his father, rebuilding U.S. Army Jeeps and exploring miles of steep, marshy New Guinean kunai plains, mountains, and valleys, looking for war relics. The villagers’ storytelling in Pidgin English was always about heroic U.S. soldiers who came and saved their country, saying, “Ol hap man tru ya, dispela line bilong America,” a phrase imprinted in Uechtritz’s mind. He translates to me, “The Americans were legendary, strong, and brave soldiers—larger than life.”
Saturday treks to Lae to watch matinees of John Wayne as a marine in the morning, then True Grit in the afternoon, further sealed the deal. At a German-American Missionary boarding school in the primitive, mountainous goldmining town of Wau, he became even more enamored with the idea of moving to the states.
A difference of opinion with a boss in New Guinea compelled him to venture to Kentucky in 1986. He arrived with a saddle, six polocrosse racquets, and $800. He joined a landscaping crew, earning the state wage of $4.83 per hour. “I survived in Kentucky and broke through the blueblood veil when I began playing polo,” he says. The strategy of creating opportunity outside of borders, within the cracks, would resurface when he founded Icon Global.
Horses and polocrosse have been a thread in Uechtritz’s life since he was young. As a teenager, his seriousness about the sport led to international tours. In America, he was determined to help polocrosse gain wider appeal. “As far as I was concerned, I was going to convert the whole world [to polocrosse],” he says. From Kentucky, he traveled around and formed polocrosse clubs across the country and in Uruguay and Ireland, many of which exist today.
In the early 1990s, Uechtritz left Kentucky to seek his fortune in real estate in Los Angeles. With his lack of truly relevant experience, getting into the market was initially intimidating. But Uechtritz has never been one to let fear get in the way, and he soon realized the business wasn’t that complicated. “It was closer to trading horses,” he says. He cut his teeth on the headwinds of a recession, the Malibu wildfires, and the costliest earthquake on record in 1994.
Uechtritz found his niche by focusing on properties others didn’t want to touch. This led him to one of his early breakout deals—the notorious Menendez estate—building his portfolio of deals and then buying a real estate franchise. “I was disrupting that part of the industry,” he says. “While others were dodging the repo man, I needed to go in the opposite direction, embrace the market, and figure out how to sell stuff.”
During this time, he became friends with Peter Radd, a New Zealander who was also working in real estate. Radd was amused—and impressed—by Uechtritz’s ingenuity. “Bernie would get these distressed properties, live in them, and structure equity deals with the owner with a 75/25 split. He was the 75 percent portion, the owner, 25.”
The strategy worked, and Uechtritz soon had hundreds of brokers working for him. His purview stretched from Beverly Hills to Malibu, Hidden Hills to Calabasas. Celebrities and other power brokers became his clients and part of his black book—an elaborate network he’d continue to build later in Texas. He sold his firm, FrontGate Properties, in the early 2000s, freeing him to conquer the Lone Star State. Radd sums things up: “Armed with celebrity names, stories of Los Angeles, and his brush with Hollywood, Bernie parlayed that for his Texas endeavors.”
Uechtritz’s unconventional style was appreciated by the colorful entrepreneurs that Texas breeds, and his timing for targeting the state could not have been better. It was becoming ground zero for one of the most important developments in modern energy history—the shale oil and gas revolution. His ranch niche would nicely complement the land rush and emerging energy boom and, eventually, the energy transition.
Uechtritz says he finds bits of John Wayne in many of his ultra-high net worth sellers and buyers. Through the years, he has learned to identify and pair the best steward to shepherd the legacy properties. Marketing the massive expanses of land requires both a scientific and artful approach. “One of my tenets is that every property has a story to tell, and my job is to tell those stories,” Uechtritz says. “In my position, I’m dealing with substantial assets for an owner, heirs, beneficiaries, or conglomerates. It’s a great responsibility.”
Alongside developing Icon Global, he advised Sotheby’s International on forming a global ranch division. Then came the historic W.T. Waggoner Ranch, a 535,000-acre property that sprawls across six Texas counties. After gaining control of the listing, Uechtritz saved it from being auctioned off or carved up. The Waggoner had been under “continuous litigation for 25 years,” says Kelly Hart attorney Glen Johnson, who represented the estate’s majority-interest owner, Bucky Wharton.
Uechtritz was determined to look past that drama and focus on the land and its story. The ranch was established in Wise County in 1849 by 21-year-old Dan Waggoner for his six horses and 242 head of Longhorn cattle. He and his son, W.T. Waggoner, aggressively expanded over the years to the point that it became larger than the boundaries of Los Angeles and New York City combined. The pot was sweetened when they discovered oil on the property.
Uechtritz came up with a listing price of $725 million—more than double what others were suggesting—and found a buyer in billionaire Stan Kroenke, whose professional sports holdings include the Los Angeles Rams and Denver Nuggets.
After the watershed sale, expectations of sellers that followed were ridiculously high, Uechtritz says. He and Icon Global had captured “the high-risk, high-reward space that no one had aggregated, whether it was the Menendez estate, W.T. Waggoner, or everything in between.”
As his list of high-profile “sold” properties accumulated—the Moodys’ Rio Bonito, the Fortson/Carter family’s KB Carter Ranch, Kyle Bass’ Barefoot Ranch—new opportunities were emerging. In late 2015, global firm Alcoa tasked Icon Global with selling 31,000 acres of Texas farmland and industrial assets, including one of the world’s largest decommissioned aluminum smelters. Rebranded by Uechtritz as Sandow Lakes Ranch, it was ultimately sold for $240 million in November 2021 after a six-year marketing odyssey. The natural reconstruction of the property—14 lakes, tens of thousands of acres of pastoral grasses, sandy loam soils, and its massive water resources—was part of its metamorphosis. Sandow Lakes Ranch was a pioneering deal that went beyond a ranch to include industrial. Uechtritz calls it a hybrid, crossover ranch space.
A recent significant deal for his client ExxonMobil also illuminates the complexities of dealing with large transactions. It requires a unique skill set that involves “understanding the assets themselves to representing conglomerates’ endless departments and approvals, committees, and sign-offs,” Uechtritz says. “An initial Zoom call included roughly 30 people.”
The super-broker’s star is rising at a time when the value of land is receiving more attention, with the COVID pandemic, climate change concerns, the reckoning from more than a decade of easy monetary policies, inflation, and the ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “There is an aggressive awakening and appreciation for the asset class as an investment to a sophisticated, even scientific, financial set,” Uechtritz says, noting that the future of energy and the food chain are both dependent on land—infrastructure development, too. “[Buyers] are no longer a Ted Turner, wanting to buy a cowboy hat, a lambskin coat, and cool boots, with a herd of buffalo. They are buying to extract oil and gas, sequester carbon, capture water, and for renewables. The hybrid space is the most important class of real estate in the future.”
Icon Global’s large-scale deals and listings make headlines, a recent example being the $200 million Turkey Track Ranch in the Texas panhandle. But ranches in the $5 million to $10 million and up to $50 million markets are equally on-the-money for Uechtritz, along with the hybrid $200 million+ quasi-industrial properties. These deals are not quite a ranch but no longer a mining site (as with Sandow Lakes, for example). Think wind, solar, water, and fiber.
To stay ahead of the game, Uechtritz recently enlisted the aid of property and climate tech firm Landgate. Buyers, sellers, and investors can learn about the highest and best uses of a piece of property from the company’s land resources data. CEO Craig Kaiser notes that Uechtritz “has been looking at the whole layers of [land’s potential] for some time—the due diligence that a venture capital, private equity, or energy company would initiate for transacting.”
According to Uechtritz, his industry is approaching obsolescence and beckoning disruption. He has spent the last five or six years working to crack the code. “The ranch brokerage business is about to get a kick in the ass because it needs it; it’s archaic, defunct, and long f—ing overdue.” The most successful brokers going forward “will be part marketer, have boots-on-the-ground, and be part scientist,” he adds. They will have the best chance of succeeding in a “historic market acceleration.”
Breaking through the status quo has always been Uechtritz’s approach. And he continues to evolve. It’s no longer about closing the biggest deals, he says. His focus is on quality, not quantity, and value to the customer, culture, and society. And the three leadership strategies he values most? “Integrity, straight talk, and backbone,” he says.
Looking ahead, Uechtritz says he aims to deliver value on a different scale under a new agenda—one that even more deeply reflects the importance of the properties he brokers. “At the end of the day, beneath it all is the land,” he says. “No matter what kind of apocalypse the world encounters, it will still depend on life-giving land. If we start developing the moon, it’s still going to be land—it’s just moon land.”
When it comes to ranch sales, Bernie Uechtritz smokes the competition.
Last year, privately held Sotheby’s International Realty highlighted its top deal—a Florida property that sold for $99 million. Publicly traded Compass showcased its highest sale, a Jackson Hole ranch that sold for $65 million. Icon Global soundly trumped them both with the $240 million sale of Sandow Lakes Ranch, augmented by a series of deals in the $100 million to $150 million category. “I sell ranches really well,” Uechtritz says matter-of-factly.