The Closing: Gil Dezer

The flamboyant Miami developer talks branding, car racing, and partnering with Donald Trump

Miami Issue /
Mar.March 19, 2021 03:30 PM

Gil Dezer (Photos by Sonya Revell)

Any screenwriter who pitched the character of Gil Dezer to a Hollywood studio would be laughed out of the room. A chain-smoking, gold chain-wearing, foul-mouthed developer who owns the Aston Martin DB5 James Bond drove in “Goldfinger” and was married at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago?

The 46-year-old president of the development firm started by his father, Dezer might be straight out of central casting, but he’s also a genuine innovator. Dezer pioneered the practice of partnering with luxury lifestyle brands on condominium projects. His marquee developments include the Porsche Design Tower and Residences by Armani/Casa as well as six Trump-branded towers, all in Sunny Isles Beach, where his family has amassed more than 27 developable acres on the oceanfront.

All told, Dezer’s firm has sold more than $4 billion worth of condos — some 3,000 units. It recently received approval for a $1.5 billion mixed-use project in North Miami Beach after a contentious rezoning. The family also owns over 1 million square feet of commercial space in New York City.

Dezer has attracted plenty of controversy with his take-no-prisoners management style and long partnership and friendship with Donald Trump. But he is unapologetic. “We live on,” he said in a conversation with The Real Deal. “I think I did everything right. Up until now.”

 

Born: March 1, 1975
Lives: Trump Palace, Sunny Isles Beach
Hometown: Tenafly, New Jersey
Family: Daughters Daniela, 11; Alexandra, 8

 

You live the “fuck-you money” lifestyle you sell. Do you have any regrets about being so out there?

I don’t necessarily show it off.

You’ve got that car collection. You’re wearing that giant gold watch.

I never really thought about it that way. I have an anonymous Instagram account where all I do is show my toys. I have 70,000-odd followers. Some people tell me, “Hey, you’re my inspiration.” Which makes me feel bad. I hope they find better inspiration.

I have a Bugatti Veyron. They made only 300 of them. I have a Porsche 918, they made only 918 of them. I have number 305, which is cool for Miami [its area code is 305]. These things are assets like any other asset. But you get to play with them and have fun with them. You can’t play with your Coca-Cola stock.

Your love for cars came from your dad, Michael Dezer, who’s one of the world’s best-known car collectors.

He’s a straight collector. He enjoys the transaction of buying, and he enjoys owning the car and looking at the car. I remember in fifth grade, he had 36 cars. I thought that was normal. He has over 1,500 cars today. Me, I love driving.

You’re a regular at the Gumball 3000 rally.

It’s an intense seven, eight days of your life. You have to drive through the streets and obviously not get caught by police, but there’s more to it. There’s the camaraderie and the friends you meet. You just wind up getting pulled over with some wild people. I get the best memes and jokes out of it.

You won it in 2009?

We were slamming it the whole time. It was L.A. to Miami and we were the first ones to the checkpoints, the first ones to the hotel every single day. It was a great run, and we got lucky. The best plan you can have is a great radar detector, and that’s it. A flat tire, the simplest things could go wrong. I remember getting the trophy. We drank a little bit too much, so by the time I actually had the trophy in my hands, I fell off the stage.

When did you realize you were rich?

I didn’t know until I got to university. I was born in Queens, New York. When I was 7 years old, we moved to Tenafly, New Jersey, into a beautiful house. It wasn’t a mansion. So we were still very humble in that respect. I think that’s the reason why I’m so not humble now, is because I was like, “Fuck this nonsense,” growing up.

Your father started his real estate career making bets on Chelsea, which at the time was a seedy arts district. What did he see in that neighborhood that others didn’t?

What he saw and what he always sees is what makes him the visionary. What he saw was a way to make money. He started a very interesting business called Automatic Typing, which is what’s today’s junk mail. You typed on one typewriter and it was connected to 500 other typewriters. He started buying up his competitors. He was buying the Brooklyn competitor, the Queens guy, the Bronx guy. To the point where he needed so much space in Manhattan, he found it easier to buy his own building.

How much did he pay?

$200,000, something ridiculous like that. He understood that individual floors in the neighborhood were selling for as much as $50,000 [as commercial condos]. One thing he did, which was in retrospect one of the best things he could have ever done for the entire family, was he kept the storefronts and the penthouses of each one of these buildings.

We still own these properties here and there. I think the last one we sold for $9 million, and we bought a strip mall with it. It’s all worked out.

You talk about your dad with a lot of pride. You inherited his love for cars and his appetite for risk. What else did you pick up?

How to negotiate, how to be patient, know when you’re winning, know when you’re losing. One thing about my father is the guy can pivot 45 times in a five-second period. He doesn’t allow himself to get stuck in one way. That’s always worked for him because he’s dynamically moving around through good and bad markets.

What mindset do you need to be a developer?

I own the best piece of dirt in the entire United States today [in Sunny Isles Beach], so to go put something mediocre up there would be horrible. I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve seen great things, I’ve understood different ways of doing things. I wouldn’t call myself a guru of construction, but I understand enough to be dangerous.

And your cost basis is so low, because you guys bought the land well before South Florida high-end real estate was a thing.

Not just that, but we’re a bit more dynamic of a company than your typical developer, because when we were buying these motels [now development sites], we were actually running them as motels. The Thunderbird hotel, which is an iconic hotel for the last 70 years here in Miami, we were making money there. That gave us the ability to wait.

Gil Dezer, president of Dezer Development, with his supercars

Gil Dezer, president of Dezer Development, with his supercars

You did something outlandish with the Dezerland hotel.

I was 19 years old, at the University of Miami. We had owned that hotel on 87th Street [in Miami Beach, now home to Terra Group’s Eighty Seven Park]. We found that one or two guys at the car rental desks at the airport were sending us a tremendous amount of business. So we said, well, if that’s working, let’s push that button.

I started going down to the airport. I’d hit all the rental car desks. I would meet all the agents and give them this pass that said, “Luxury for Less, Rooms for $69.” And all the guest had to do was hand over that pass when they came to the hotel. I was paying $5 per night commission to these rental car desk guys.

It was unbelievable, until their bosses started seeing what I was doing. I got thrown out the first time. Of course, that didn’t stop me. I went back, I got thrown out the second time. By the third time they said, “Listen, we know what you’re doing. If you come back, we’re going to arrest you.” That’s guerrilla marketing right there.

What’s the more refined version of that that you do now?

The car rallies. I’m meeting like-minded, well-heeled people who are as loud as I am, if not louder — I’m actually one of the quiet guys there. I’ve sold apartments on those rallies to Bugatti owners who love the idea of the car elevator.

What’s your superpower?

How do you answer that question without sounding like a jerk? I’m the guy who says, “Hey, I’ve been to the nicest hotels in the world and they have swimming pools in every one of their suites. How come nobody ever did that in Miami?” But I don’t just say, “Go put a swimming pool on the balcony.” I get involved in every single aspect, [such as] the sight line from the pool. What are you looking at when you’re sitting in the pool? I don’t want to put you in a pool and you’re looking right at your neighbor — that’s stupid.

One of your buyers at the Porsche Design Tower is soccer superstar Lionel Messi.

Here’s the best part: The guy paid cash. Meaning he didn’t start, “Give me this, give me that because I’m famous.” He came in and he liked the apartment so much, he paid for it. That, to me, is a pat on the back.

We talked about your dad being a big influence. Another one is Donald Trump.

It started off as a branding agreement. We were building a condo-hotel in Sunny Isles Beach, and we weren’t getting traction. When we heard that Trump was running around, looking for stuff, he was actually about to sign a deal [at the site now home to the Continuum in Miami Beach]. So we said, “Hey Donald, look, we have multiple towers for you, not just one or two.” And we were able to convince them to come to Sunny Isles.

I learned the value of placing a brand. Donald Trump was the real estate brand. I had the ability to get to know him. I went with him to Miss Universe a couple of times, and of course Mar-a-Lago [where Dezer got married in 2007] was right around the corner from us.

In 2009, when everybody was losing buildings left, right and center, we redid our loans on all the projects. By 2011, I was able to pay off $475 million of loans by selling the units one by one. [Trump] always gave us a lot of credit for that.

There was a mortgage burning [a ceremony to mark paying off the debt].

At the time, you opened the newspaper and this guy was bankrupt and that guy lost his building. So we wanted to let the world know, “Hey, we’re successful.” It got us a lot of notoriety, and more importantly, it got a lot of banks to start calling me to help them out with their problems.

Do you ever regret being so closely connected to Trump?

Not for a minute. I know the man, he is a great man. Some of the things he did, of course, nobody agreed with all the time. But his heart was in the right place. He wanted to put the country first. And I agree with almost all of his policies. It was a great moment when he became president, and I hope it happens again.

What about the whole story on the Russians buying in Trump-branded Dezer projects?

A lot of these writers are not qualified to be writing about business, unfortunately. Russians buy brands. The joke is, “When does a Russian get a new Mercedes? When the ashtray’s full.” They like brands.

Trump would have made the same amount of money from me whether the guy [buyer] is from Zimbabwe, China or wherever. A sale’s a sale. It wasn’t like he was grabbing Russians by the ear and saying, “Hey, go buy my building.”

Would you be interested in going into politics someday?

I don’t think I’d be in it directly. It’s like being on your condo board. You do all the work and nobody says thank you for it.

What’s your response to critics who say South Florida real estate is a magnet for dirty money from across the globe?

What’s the flip side of the conversation? “Oh, you’re Venezuelan? Oh. And you’re friends with Chavez? I’m not going to sell you an apartment.” It’s not like people are walking in with suitcases of cash. If you say no, you’re discriminating automatically, if he wants to make a stink about it. And we’re happy to make a sale, so we don’t say no.

The problem falls on the banking side. If this guy’s wiring money that he stole from Venezuela into Switzerland, and back to the Caymans, back to Miami, that’s where the problem is. We, unfortunately, cannot start saying who we want and who we don’t want.

When you were young, you made a lot of mistakes as a manager. You were considered aggressive — some people alleged you were abusive. Have you evolved since then?

Completely evolved. I have a top tier of seven executives that I speak to now. They don’t mind if I use foul language — they’re not sensitive — and that’s the easiest way. And they help execute for me. When I started, I was doing everything myself. I didn’t have a real company. I was a one-man show. I was young and stressed and made it happen. We had some employees who didn’t like it, but it is what it is. And now we have a real company. We have an HR department who teaches us what we can say and what we can’t.

Has fatherhood changed you?

I don’t get excited at smaller things anymore. Having kids [two daughters with ex-wife Lorena; the couple divorced in 2017] has been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I do homework with them, to the extent that I even know what they’re learning. I remember my parents saying, “Oh, the kids these days.” I’m starting to feel like that. The kids these days, they play Roblox [an online gaming platform], and to bond, you have to get it. But then your stockbroker calls you up and he says, “Hey, Roblox is about to go public. You want to buy some?” And I knew that’s probably going to be a good bet because I’m $40 a week into that thing.

Is there something you appreciate in a different way about your own parents now?

That happens the minute you meet your new child. You feel like such a piece of shit for all the bad things you did to your parents.

Are you a billionaire?

I am personally not, no.

Okay. Is your family worth a billion?

I’m not going to answer that.

What does success mean to you?

Success is not a number, because there’s almost nothing that I can’t buy today. When you complete on your word, when you do what you say you’re going to do, and come out with a new, beautiful baby — these buildings are my babies — that’s success.

What’s your biggest vice?

I’m a smoker. I recently gauged myself at a pack and a half a day. I went once for hypnosis, to quit. The hypnotist started talking to me and I started asking questions and she said, “I’ve never met anybody like you in my whole life.” She pretty much gave up on me.


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