How Grant Cardone built a real estate empire with other people’s money
The sales guru and rising multifamily player has amassed billions of dollars of property — and his fair share of haters
“The average are doomed.”
“Don’t be a little bitch!”
It’s pump-up time at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida. Motivational messages flash across giant TV screens. A crowd of aspiring real estate moguls has braved piano renditions of pop hits for the last hour, and they’re ready for the star.
Three thousand acolytes roar as the curtain is pulled back. Grant Cardone struts through a cloud of pyrotechnics. Sporting a dark gray suit and a sharp red tie, he welcomes the audience to his annual three-day extravaganza, the 10X Growth Conference.
The 64-year-old sales coach promises to entertain the crowd with lessons from surprise guest speakers, one of whom is arguably the most controversial American alive: former President Donald Trump.
“I want to blur the line between art, business and politics,” Cardone tells them. “Some of you are probably like, ‘What the fuck did I just buy? I spent 20 grand on a fucking ticket and I gotta watch a guy bang out on a piano all morning?’ Here is the reality, folks: I am not a businessman. I am an artist pretending to be a businessman.”
Dazzling those in attendance, as well as more than 10 million social media followers, is part of a fine-tuned strategy that’s made Cardone an unconventional but increasingly hard-to-ignore player in multifamily real estate.
Although he insisted the March conference was not about recruiting investors, Cardone raised roughly $45 million from the attendees for multifamily deals in Miami and Houston, he would claim in a June interview with The Real Deal.
“Because I crowdfund, and this is not traditional institutional money, my investors are extremely patient, and they are grateful for the opportunity,” Cardone said. “My audience is a massive group of Americans who have never been given the chance to invest in a $100 million asset.”
Cardone Capital, the Aventura-based real estate arm of his business empire, claims on its website to own about $5 billion worth of apartments in five states. Nearly 10,000 investors hold interests in the Cardone Capital entities that own the properties, Cardone said.
Its most recent deal was a $100 million-plus purchase of a 346-unit apartment complex on the Miami River. The firm also made South Florida’s largest multifamily purchase of 2021: $744 million for a four-property portfolio with nearly 1,700 units in Broward County.
But as Cardone’s star has risen, detractors have sounded the alarm about the way he uses his pulpit to corral novice investors. A class-action lawsuit that was dismissed last year accused him of promoting exaggerated returns and not fully disclosing what his investors were funding. Other influencers have produced their own viral videos denouncing Cardone and his tactics.
“I love my haters because they want to be me,” Cardone said, in response to those claims. “Most of them don’t even understand real estate. They are just clickbaiting.”
For the ‘gram
Each day, Cardone posts short videos pitching investors, with glimpses of his lifestyle mixed in. Followers see him boarding a Gulfstream jet with his logo on the tail, bragging about paying $446,000 for a Rolls-Royce or playing with his two daughters inside the oceanfront Golden Beach estate he bought from Tommy Hilfiger for $28 million. In January, Cardone paid $40 million for a beachside mansion in Malibu, California.
He claimed to TRD that his personal net worth is $1.3 billion, though there is no way to substantiate that — he does not appear on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index or on Forbes’ list. His net worth claims have been questioned, and Cardone responded to them in a post on his website last year, writing that net worth calculations are “based on varying assumptions.”
Some of Cardone’s posts play up his humble beginnings, like one about a visit to the country club in Lake Charles, Louisiana, his hometown, where he worked as a busboy. He comes from a family of four siblings, including a twin brother, and lost his father when he was 10.
In his 20s and early 30s, Cardone worked as a car salesman and consultant, training other salespeople, he said. He dabbled in real estate, but did not become a serious investor until he bought an apartment complex in San Diego in the early 2000s.
“I made more money on that transaction than I had traveling the world doing consulting for eight years,” Cardone said. “That one deal made me a multi-millionaire, and I was forever hooked on investing in real estate.”
Along the way, he also became an unabashed member of one of the country’s most controversial movements.
In a May Instagram post showing off the lobby of a Scientology building in Clearwater, Florida, Cardone wrote that he was introduced to the church 15 years ago when “I was lost, burnt out, unhappy & curious about the meaning of life & what my purpose on Earth was.” He ended the post by inviting his followers to take a personality test used by the church to attract new members.
“I am open about Scientology because it has been good for me,” Cardone said. “It has provided my life with peace and harmony that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Today, Cardone’s portfolio contains nearly 12,000 apartment units across 36 properties. Among the Broward County properties his firm bought last year is Four West Las Olas, a 260-unit building in Fort Lauderdale completed in 2020 by Elevate Partners.
Elevate co-founder Thomas Vogel said there was nothing unusual about dealing with Cardone Capital.
“We were not planning on selling it, but he approached us,” Vogel said. “I think he finds assets he really likes in good locations and actively pursues them. He came up with a good number, and we cut a deal.”
Greg West, CEO of multifamily developer ZOM Living, did business with Cardone Capital for the first time last year, when his firm sold the nearby Las Olas Walk, a new 456-unit apartment building that West said received interest from institutional buyers.
“Cardone offered the best economics and fastest closing,” he said. “He was personally involved in the transaction. He was very clear and aggressive in his pursuit of this purchase.”
“His mission is to get the deals done,” West said, adding that he “would not bet against Grant.”
Of course, investor funds are not enough to cover Cardone Capital’s major purchases. The company does rely on leverage, taking out $277.5 million in loans to purchase the two Las Olas properties and a pair of three-year, floating-rate loans totaling $287.8 million to acquire two other multifamily complexes in Weston and Sunrise.
“[Cardone] and his team know how to identify low-risk, high-quality assets,” said Jaret Turkell of Berkadia, which represented the sellers of those properties. “Cardone Capital is a solid buyer with a super strong balance sheet. I take Grant very seriously.”
Small checks, big dreams
Rather than deep-pocketed hedge funds and family offices, Cardone raises cash for his deals from his social media fans and those who pay thousands for his in-person training sessions. He parlays his own fame — and his access to those with more fame or stature than him — to build credibility.
In addition to Trump, the 10X Growth Conference featured rapper Rick Ross, former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Robert Given, who oversees multifamily sales for Cushman & Wakefield in South Florida.
After appearing in the second season of Discovery’s “Undercover Billionaire” last year, Cardone announced that he’s launching a film studio that will produce six reality shows starring, well, him, of course. His other businesses include a sales training company, an online university and a health and wellness company. He’s self-published more than 30 sales training and motivational books and has done five others with major publishing houses, he said.
Since 2016, Cardone Capital has raised more than $880 million through 21 funds from more than 10,000 investors, according to Cardone. In the same time frame, Cardone Capital has distributed $210 million to investors, he said.
“As an investor, you are going to get a check every month or every quarter, depending if you are accredited or not accredited, for about 5 to 6 percent annual return,” Cardone said. “It will grow over time. I have deals that pay 23 percent a year on investment.”
It usually works like this: Cardone buys a property with his own money and bank financing, using an entity that then sells membership interests to investors. In the case of the Miami River deal, Cardone Capital raised $40 million in four days from 310 investors, Cardone said.
“I let people in at $5,000, but they can’t keep up with guys writing $400,000 checks,” he said. “It was a lot of retirement money and a lot of IRAs.”
When transactions fall through, like those in Miami and Houston in which the conference attendees invested, Cardone said most will let his company keep the money for future deals.
“We went under contract when we still had a pro-money interest rate environment,” Cardone said, referring to historically low interest rates. “I don’t think anybody wanted their money back. They trust me.”
Houston resident Mark Farley is a believer. In 2019, he invested $15,000 in a Cardone Capital fund that acquired five properties, including a 346-unit garden-style rental community in Delray Beach that reported more than $1 million in net cash flow for every quarter of 2020.
Farley said he’s received monthly distributions of between $50 and $56 for his investment and expects it to pay off when Cardone Capital grows its portfolio to between 25,000 and 50,000 units, which will make it a target for a larger real estate investment trust — or allow it to go public.
“Some people think it is a complete scam, some people think it is great,” Farley said of the Cardone model. “I am in the camp of people who think it is relatively great.”
On YouTube, a small legion of detractors has uploaded videos questioning Cardone’s tactics and his stated returns.
Dan Gaule, who works in acquisitions for a Dallas-based multifamily firm, racked up over 120,000 views for a Cardone takedown posted in April 2020.
“I just started looking at all the intricacies of Grant’s funds, his properties and how he unethically convinces investors to invest with him,” Gaule said in the 15-minute video. “He basically acts like they should be so lucky to invest with Grant and partner with him, even though he gives them an unfair split of the profits.”
Adam Levine, managing partner of New York-based private equity firm Levine Capital, uploaded a video in October 2020 claiming that Cardone’s pitches are geared to reel in novice investors.
In a recent interview, Levine said he and his partners were interested in setting up a feeder fund of between $1 million and $5 million to invest in Cardone Capital entities after he attended a conference in Las Vegas.
“I never met Grant in person,” Levine said. “But I heard him speak at his event. There was a lot of good energy in the room. It was very inspirational, and I was pumped up.”
Levine said he usually asks syndicators for a property’s pro forma numbers and other financial data, but “Cardone Capital just gave us a pamphlet with nice pictures of a beautiful-looking building.”
“They sell by making you think it’s a big deal that you are investing in this big asset with Grant Cardone,” he added. “I want to see actual numbers before making a decision. I looked at the deal, and the numbers didn’t add up. It seemed like a low cap rate going in, and there was no upside potential. It wasn’t for me.”
In a now-dismissed class-action suit, investor Luis Pino cited a September 2019 Instagram video in which Cardone claimed a $220,000 investment would result in a $660,000 position in a Cardone Capital fund, allowing investors to earn $12,000 to $15,000 a year in distributions.
The complaint alleged Cardone’s statements were “materially false and misleading,” and that “investors’ distributions have, in fact, been much lower than these amounts.”
Pino, who has an appeal pending but did not respond to requests for comment, also accused Cardone of failing to disclose that he would charge investors interest on loans he provided to the funds to acquire the properties. Cardone said Pino’s lawsuit was thrown out because the allegations were unfounded.
“It was so ridiculous,” Cardone said. “[Pino]’s still invested in the fund, by the way.”
Detractors don’t understand the intricacies of building a real estate empire, Cardone said, insisting that his investors are getting their money’s worth.
“There is not a single person on earth who can say I ripped them off,” he said. “There will always be haters. People making a few bad videos about me on the internet is nothing.”
To really make bank, investors have to stick with him for the long haul, Cardone insists, noting that as prices keep rising, more Americans will be forced to rent.
“For every person who complains about rents today, they will be amazed how rental rates will go up 10 years from now,” Cardone said. “The goal of Cardone Capital is to build a 100,000-unit portfolio of institutional-quality assets.”
Ultimately, he hopes his firm becomes one of the largest real estate investors in the country, and thus an attractive target for an institutional player.
“My endgame is not today or tomorrow,” he said. “My target is 2032, when one of these big groups wants to consolidate the apartment market. Or I continue collecting assets the way we are doing and we become Blackstone.”
I love my haters