The family business

From left: Alicia Cervera Lamadrid and 321 Ocean, which Cervera is marketing
From left: Alicia Cervera Lamadrid and 321 Ocean, which Cervera is marketing

When residential power broker Alicia Cervera Lamadrid was growing up during the 1960s, what is now Miami’s bustling financial district was lined with single-family homes.

Cervera’s Lamadrid ’s family, led by matriarch Alicia Cervera, played a major role in the area’s transformation from quiet residential neighborhood to metropolis filled with commercial skyscrapers and condo towers. By the time she joined her mother’s firm, Cervera Real Estate, in the early 1980s, the company was known for specializing in developer sales.

In 2000, Cervera Lamadrid formed a second company with the Jorge Perez-led Related Group and sold more than 14,600 units totaling nearly $7 billion over 10 years. With no new projects to market after that, the business wound down, and in 2011, Cervera Lamadrid was named managing partner of Cervera Real Estate. Her firm is ramping up as the latest South Florida development boom unfolds, serving as the exclusive sales agent for more than a dozen condo projects in the tri-county area.

She recently sat down for a talk with The Real Deal about her career and the market today.

What was it like growing up in a real estate family?

It’s a very close family. Part of the reason for that is a family that works together stays together, or at least sees each other all the time. We came to Miami in 1961 as a result of losing our native country [Cuba] to communism. My mother is from Peru and my dad is Cuban. As a result of this dramatic change, my mom, who had never worked a day in her life, had to find work to support her two small children. Thankfully, both my parents arrived with an education and knew English. Very quickly, my mom and dad got involved in real estate. They found out that the city planned to rezone Brickell Avenue from single-family to multifamily. My mom got on the phone and was able to negotiate a purchase of a site there. It’s a great story to hear her tell about scrounging up money to be able to close that transaction, everything from borrowing money from parents to hawking silver to our nanny lending her $500. Buying a site, getting it rezoned and selling it afterwards helped them get out of the initial shock of arriving in the country with little money in their pockets.

Was there pressure to join the family business?

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Every time I tried to do something else, my mother would look at me and say ‘Do you know how much help I need? Do you know how hard it is to find talent?’ Education was very paramount in my family, but my mother was not shy in saying she needed help from me. I didn’t fully appreciate how my mother felt until my daughter went to college and decided to get a real estate degree. When she came back to Miami, I said, “I hope she comes to work for me.”

What did you learn from the partnership with Related Group?

When Jorge and I shook hands I said, “I hope you become a billionaire so I can succeed right behind you.” He didn’t disappoint. Jorge has a lot of vision. This was a very entrepreneurial company. I was able to get creative and build a wonderful team. We were perhaps the first broker and developer to [form a company together] and to Jorge’s credit, he approached me and said he wanted to be my partner. Now I see different alliances being formed. As the city becomes larger, it becomes smaller in many ways. Sometimes very unlikely partners become good partners. Developers understand Miami is a global market and it takes more than a couple of people sitting in a sales center to effectively market a property.

How is your company approaching the current development cycle?

One of the interesting things we did at the end of the last cycle was double the size of the company when everyone was contracting. One of the reasons we did that was we wanted to be part of the solution, and keep the people who helped us succeed in the last cycle. We were lucky when the city recovered so quickly that we had held onto our talent and didn’t let go of any administrative staff.

In addition to all of the developers we represent, we cover a lot of geography. We’re in Wynwood, Edgewater, Miami Beach, Coconut Grove. We have nine offices and locations in most of the buildings we’re selling.

The good news is so much of the cycle is already funded with cash, so we’re starting from a much better place. But there is a problem with the high deposit structure [common today]: local buyers are locked out of the market because many can’t afford to put a 50 percent deposit down. There’s a lot of pressure on the marketplace from these people.