Life in the fast lane

Car-crazy condo developer redefines luxury in Sunny Isles

Gil Dezer in his office
Gil Dezer in his office

Gil Dezer is holding his own with the crowd, and it’s not easy, even though he’s the reason everyone is here.

A couple hundred jet-setters are talking among themselves. Spanish. Portuguese. Russian. Hebrew. The booze is flowing. Models in outrageous heels are standing near strategically parked Porsches.

Then, there is the venue on this April day: a pristine stretch of Sunny Isles coastline where these beautiful people will have homes someday, in a condominium skyscraper that its developer — Dezer — promises will redefine luxury. Even the name exudes fortune: the $560 million Porsche Design Tower.

Construction isn’t even underway and already Dezer has sold more than half of the tower’s 132 units, which start at $4.5 million and top out at $32.5 million. So far, buyers have already ponied up hundreds of millions and their move-in date isn’t until late 2015, maybe early 2016.

They don’t really care about the finish date, though, and Dezer knows it. What they want — the best of the best — is worth waiting for.

“We’ve raised the bar to where it will be unachievable by anyone else,” Dezer matter-of-factly tells his audience.

Dezer’s dad and partner, Michael, looks on. The mayor of Sunny Isles, Norman Edelcup, is there. And two top executives of the Porsche Design Group, Juergen Gessler and Frank Angelkoetter.

The applause is wild. It’s for Dezer, but it’s also for simply the groundbreaking — grandiose just like the ones before the 2007 housing crash. Ones that kicked off in the afternoon and kept going long after sunset. Ones with fireworks, live bands and acrobats.

In his no-holds-barred style, Gil Dezer used his over-the-top tower to proclaim to the world: South Florida is back in the real estate game.

Today, six months later, the project is three-quarters sold, and last month received a $214 million construction loan from Wells Fargo, the biggest loan for a new condo in South Florida’s post-collapse real estate market.

Like father, like son

Dezer, 38, grew up in a family with money, but he makes it clear that he certainly didn’t get everything he wanted. He gives a car example, naturally: In the third grade, he pleaded for a remote-controlled model. His parents said no.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to have to ask people for anything.’ Success has been my vengeance.”

Today, the Dezers — Gil, dad Michael, mom Neomi and sisters Leslie Dezer Salmon, 43, and Estee Dezer Gurwitz, 35 — all play a role in the family business.

Gil and Michael together own most of the beachfront property in Sunny Isles. Dezer lives with his wife, Lorena, and their two daughters, year-old Daniela and Alexandra, 3, in Trump Palace, a project that he partnered on with close friend Eric Trump, the youngest son of Donald and Ivana. Michael and Neomi own a condo in the high-rise, too.

Next door, on the 31st floor of Trump International Beach Resort, is where Dezer wheels and deals. Appropriately, toy cars and pinball machines clutter his office. Dezer Sr., 73, is retired but keeps a desk, formed — appropriately — from the front end of a vintage Cadillac.

The Dezer men are car crazy. Michael started it; Gil picked up on it. Today, Dezer Sr. spends much of his time in North Miami at the Dezer Collection Auto Museum, where he displays more than 1,800 vehicles and rents out the building’s six event spaces for meetings and private parties.

Like many fathers, Michael has been a strong and steady influence on his son. The cars. Luxury boats. But the important things, too: Work ethic. Business. Family.

Gil makes no secret of the importance of Michael in his life. Sebastian Tettamanti has watched the father-son relationship since 1998, when he met Gil through his parents. The Tettamantis and the Dezers lived in the same building.

“Success is his main motivator, but also he really looks up to his father — he wants to get that pat on his back from his dad,” says Tettamanti, Porsche Design Tower’s sales director and Gil’s copilot in the Gumball 3000, a 3,000-mile British motor rally held every year.

If Michael had stuck with his first occupation, Gil could be in advertising. Dezer Sr. ran an agency in New York before deciding to give real estate a try — first in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, then in South Florida. It turned out that he was very good at development.

The early days, though, weren’t joint ventures with Trump or swanky condos with waterfront views. Dezer Development was buying mid-rise Art Deco hotels in Sunny Isles that Gil describes as “infested with drug addicts and prostitutes.” Nearly all of them have been leveled.

Gil learned by watching — and by doing, just like everybody else whose dad wasn’t a developer. He started his work life after his freshman year at the University of Miami. Gil’s B-minus average convinced Michael that a job during the day and classes at night was the way to go.

The arrangement actually wasn’t that hard of a sell: Michael had always thought his son should have to prove himself before joining Dezer Development as heir apparent.

Michael even went to the principals of International Sales Group, asking them to bring on Gil so he could learn the ropes, recalls Craig Studnicky, the brokerage’s president.

“Gil came in as green as today’s bananas, but he has a tremendous sense of humor that helped him develop a rapport with clients and just really a great amount of imaginative power,” Studnicky said.

Then Gil hawked time-shares. And all the while he kept going to school, earning degrees in both international finance and marketing from the University of Miami, as well as a broker’s license.

“I told him to go work with these companies to learn how to sell,” Michael remembers of his conversations with Gil. “He learned everything from them. He really believes he’s doing it for himself, not for the parents.”

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The day did come when Gil went to work for Michael — in 1998. His first deal: landing a luxury car dealership for a Dezer property in Hell’s Kitchen. His first commission: a bright yellow Viper. The son finally got a car from his dad.

“I drove that car all over the UM campus,” Gil recalls, bragging that he routinely stayed out until 3 a.m. but was always at work by 10 a.m. the next day.

Today, Dezer is partial to Porsches, though he also owns a Bugatti Veyron, a $2.5 million French two-seater, and an incredibly practical Chevy Volt, which he calls an “impulse buy.”

The sports cars all get him where he needs to go fast, but the black-and-silver Bugatti is a head-turner.

Case in point: One noon hour, Dezer decides to head out to the Bal Harbour marina where he anchors his 75-foot yacht, christened “Dezeo,” in a nod to the native Spanish of Argentina-born Lorena. He takes the Bugatti, slipping the sleek racer into fourth gear as he cruises down Collins Avenue. A minivan filled with kids is in the next lane. They all whip out their iPads and phones to get a picture of the man — with a ponytail and a banker’s rimless glasses — driving the fancy wheels.

No fear, no doubt

Only a few weeks after the Porsche groundbreaking, Dezer found himself in the hospital with a pair of broken ankles — an injury from one of his hobbies. His other yacht, a Phase II, hit a rough patch of sea on the fifth day of a trip from Miami to the Hamptons and he went flying across the master bedroom.

X-rays show six tiny screws and a plate on the outside of his right ankle, and three much larger screws and a plate on both sides of his left ankle.

“I wanted to show the world that even with two broken legs, I can conquer the world,” said Dezer, who now has only a limited range of motion in his right foot.

His attitude about setbacks — the boating accident, the remote-controlled car, the housing crisis — is this: Get over it. Prove everybody wrong, but don’t stop taking risks.

The Porsche Design Tower epitomizes the Dezer philosophy.

ISG’s Studnicky is practically awed by the project, a reflection of the edginess that Dezer came to embrace at the brokerage: “This Porsche Design is about as out-of-the-box as I’ve seen in a 35-year career.”

Even Dezer’s competitors admire his design eye and his business approach: Gil is “among the most innovative developers working today,” proclaims 35-year-old David Martin, who cofounded Terra Group with his father, Pedro Martin. “He’s working in the north while I’m focusing more on the south, but it’s been fun to watch him do it.”

The Porsche project is signature Dezer — gutsy and over-the-top. It is unapologetically for men and their cars: an auto elevator, sky garages, a car concierge, a four-car interconnected virtual race simulator. There’s a virtual golf simulator, too. And a state-of-the-art weight room, a card table and billiards.

Oh, there are nods to women: a hair salon with mani/pedi stations, a yoga room, a sunbathing deck, two oversize plunge spas. In the gender-neutral zone: the three-story glass lobby, pools on the balconies, double-height living rooms, a private wine locker for each apartment in the lobby-level restaurant.

Still, the place will ooze machismo, and it’s supposed to.

Dezer patterned the car elevator and sky garages after the ones in Trump Palace. A handful of his 29 cars are parked just off his triplex’s first-floor cabana, in a climate-controlled “man cave” decorated with posters of fast cars taped to the walls. And if that weren’t enough, he had a Porsche Spyder 550 mounted diagonally on his living room wall. Yes, a real car.

“Everyone has their own kind of craziness,” Dezer explains. “We wanted to create a building for the guy who views cars as art, and I’m not the only one.”

For an extra $2.5 million, a buyer can have his own 10-stall man cave. One foreign collector is ponying up the cash so he can bring over his vaunted 1964 Ferrari GTO, valued at $18 million.

“I throw everything at it. I don’t care how much it costs, because I know these people are going to love it and thank me for it, even if it costs a few extra bucks,” Dezer says.

In the five months since the groundbreaking, Dezer has collected another $150 million from buyers, bringing the total to $550 million. Tettamanti and his sales team have contracts for 98 of the 132 apartments, just shy of 75 percent.

Nearly two dozen of the homes — 22 — under contract will belong to billionaires; one put down a deposit on one of the priciest units, sight unseen. Two Russians bought neighboring $7 million units, but one had to bail when Cyprus’s finance sector collapsed.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dezer is not financing his skyscraper with hefty down payments, a South American model that has gained a foothold with South Florida’s condo recovery.

“My philosophy is simple: If the bank wouldn’t give me money, why should you?” Dezer asks, rhetorically.

But the bank is backing Dezer. The $214 million loan from Wells Fargo amounts to roughly $300 per square foot, a good bit of the $500 he figures needs to break even.

The difference isn’t going to keep Dezer up at night. He has unwavering confidence in his business plan.

“In the downturn, we decided we had to do something so unique, so crazy, so outrageous, so incredible, that we’re not going to be looking for a buyer who needs financing, because at that time there was zero financing; we needed people who had a lot of money and who would respect something that was so wow that they’d want to buy it.”

Now, Dezer just needs to sell those last 34 condos. He’s going to make a pitch to 300 of his fellow Bugatti owners in November at their annual club meeting — this year in Dubai, for a road rally through the United Arab Emirates.

“We market, we don’t advertise, and the upper-level marketing, I do myself. With most of these guys, the key is to make them want it and to be willing to part with their money to have it.”

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