Related’s Lissette Calderon: “The pressure is on”

Lissette Calderon
Lissette Calderon

During the last real estate boom, Lissette Calderon pioneered condo development along the Miami River, becoming one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in a male-dominated industry.

Now, Jorge Perez is counting on her to lead the Related Group’s plans to expand the company’s international presence.

Earlier this month, Related announced its founder, chairman and CEO tapped Calderon as president of the company’s international and strategic projects division. She is the first woman to hold such a lofty title at the $2.5 billion real estate giant.

“Lissette knows the pressure is on,” Perez told The Real Deal. “But she also knows the great satisfaction that comes with conquering a challenge.”

A 40-year-old entrepreneur, Calderon told TRD she and Perez began having conversations about bringing her on board over the summer.

“Jorge has been a mentor and a friend for more than 20 years,” she said. “We’ve always made time to get together for breakfast and lunch. The job offer just happened organically as we talked about the future and where we saw the market was headed.”

Perez said Calderon’s experience running her own development firm and finishing projects was a key factor in hiring her.

“She is already aware of what the job entails,” he said. “I’m confident that her experience both at Related and as the owner of her own company make her strong to lead our international expansion.”

A Miami native and graduate of the Wharton Business School, Calderon began her career as an investment banker at Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette in New York in 1996. About a year later, she moved back to Miami and switched to real estate development. She worked for Terremark, a former real estate firm that is now a technology company, before joining Related as a project manager in 1998.

Calderon opted to launch her own company in 2002. With her parents as partial investors, she developed her first condo tower, the 199-unit NeoLofts, which was also the first residential project on the Miami River. She sold 85 percent of the units before breaking ground. It was finished and sold out in 18 months.

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By the time Calderon started Neo Vertika, her second condo project, the development company employed 40 people and was on pace to record $100 million in gross sales in 2005. That year, Calderon’s firm Neo Holdings of Florida, through a subsidiary Neo Epoch 2 LLC, obtained a $155 million construction loan to build a third tower called Wind.

But the project was a victim of the real estate crash and economic recession. Although the 42-story building was completed, many buyers didn’t close on units at Wind and several contractors slapped liens on the building for non-payment by Neo. In one case, four buyers sued Calderon and her partners in 2009 to obtain a release from the contracts, blaming the global financial crisis for their inability to get a home loan.

Later that year, Wachovia Bank, which has since been acquired by Wells Fargo, foreclosed on Neo’s mortgage for non-payment. The suit exempted 214 residential units and four commercial units the developer sold from the foreclosure action. Two years later, the foreclosure case was dismissed after Calderon and her partners were able to sell the remaining units.

But Calderon scuttled plans for additional condos she had on the drawing board. When the economy began to bounced back in 2010, Calderon started a personal venture capital fund that helped several technology start-ups.

“I’ve been cashing out a lot of my holdings,” Calderon said. “That has been extremely lucrative.”

She also bought and refurbished several gas stations and spent more time on philanthropic endeavors such as Amigos for Kids, a nonprofit organization serving South Florida’s abused and neglected children.

Fellow board member and luxury real estate broker Andres Asion told TRD Calderon puts in long hours with Amigos for Kids. “She is a hard-working, intense individual,” Asion said. “I’ve seen her working until midnight at the Amigos for Kids offices.”

In early October, Calderon was asked to deliver the opening remarks at the annual CREW Network Convention & Marketplace, which took place in Miami for the first time in more than 20 years.

CREW-Miami president and local attorney Karyl Argamasilla, whose organization promotes the empowerment of women executives, told TRD Calderon received a standing ovation after delivering her speech. “Lissette epitomizes what it means to break the glass ceiling,” Argamasilla said. “She has succeeded in a male-dominated industry.”

Calderon said she accepted Perez’s offer around the time the CREW delegation rolled into Miami. Her primary mission is to develop strategies for Related to penetrate new markets. Her 15-employee division will be making a strong push into Spain, Mexico, India, Brazil and Panama and pursue other strategic opportunities within the U.S.

“Jorge is one of the few men who would place a woman in this capacity within a global real estate development company,” Calderon said. “This is my way of moving the needle and giving other women the inspiration that they can have it all.”