Auto dealers are unexpected fuel for South Florida luxury

Trophy buyers beat out hedge funders, tech bosses and media moguls for records

Alan Jay Wildstein and Jill Green with the Porsche Design Tower
Alan Jay Wildstein and Jill Green with the Porsche Design Tower (Alan Jay Automotive Network, Jill Green CC, Google Maps, Getty)

An April residential sale made Palm Beach history and placed a perhaps unexpected character at the top of the wealthy enclave’s trophy market. 

When an oceanfront estate sold for $170 million, it marked the most anyone has ever paid to call the island home. The trade took the crown from cosmetics heir and longtime Palm Beacher William Lauder, who nabbed it from private equity titan Scott Shleifer

But the buyer didn’t have Hollywood, Wall Street or Silicon Valley to thank for reaching record-holder status. 

Luxury car dealer Michael Cantanucci was the deep-pocketed buyer who paid Green Mountain Coffee Roasters founder Bob Stiller and his wife, Christine, almost six times what they bought the 1.6-acre property for in 2014. 

Cantanucci owns New Country Motor Car Group, which calls itself one of the largest independent car dealerships in the country. It has sites in New York, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It sells Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lexus, Maserati, Porsche, Mini and cars from other makers.

Cantanucci is just one top buyer who rode the particularly lucrative road of car dealerships to real estate riches. The automotive bosses bring in big bucks, not from owning the lots or selling the cars, but from financing and add-ons that fuel expansion for their dealership empires.

And they spend in a style of their own. Alan Jay Wildstein bought his second Porsche Design Tower condo in July, dropping $14.4 million at the Sunny Isles Beach building. The head of Alan Jay Automotive Network has spent a total of $20.4 million on units in the tower and is in contract to buy a condo in the planned Bentley Residences. 

“He was a major pain in the ass,” said Nelson Gonzalez, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices EWM Realty who represented the seller in the deal. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. He was crazy, crazy meticulous.”

Wildstein was an apt representative of a stereotype the broker said was common to the industry centered on well-oiled machines. 

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“Car guys are different than regular people,” Gonzales said. “They are very, very detail-oriented.”

For some, the focus on details has translated to top-dollar deals: Car dealers have claimed their fair share of trophy properties in recent years. 

Terry Taylor, the country’s largest car dealership owner, bought the 9,900-square-foot condo in the Tiffany & Co building on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue for $18 million. He also made headlines in 2019 for buying fellow Palm Beacher Tommy Hilfiger’s Plaza Hotel penthouse for $31.5 million.

Jill Green, who leads her family’s portfolio of car dealerships in the Midwest, sold her waterfront North Palm Beach mansion for $10.9 million in November, shortly after completing an 11,000-square-foot waterfront mansion in Palm Beach Gardens. 

The subset of luxury buyers appears to break from the cliches that rule the top of U.S. trophy markets. 

On the West Coast, media moguls and newly minted tech billionaires dot the headlines on pricey trades from Malibu to Napa. On the East Coast, whether Palm Beach, the Hamptons, or New York City’s most notable towers, it’s titans of finance, banking and business –– hedge funders, private equity investors and venture capitalists — spending the fortunes they made, often abroad. 

The Larry Ellisons, Oprahs and Ken Griffins of the world dominate the narrative of luxury real estate. But there are endless ways to build gargantuan fortunes, most of them not thought to be as sexy as Wall Street, Hollywood or Silicon Valley. 

Take Adam Weitsman, who bought a Jade Signature condo in Sunny Isles Beach for $23.5 million in March last year. He made his money recycling scrap metal. Giovanni LiDestri just sold his South Beach Portofino condo for $8.8 million. He made his millions in sauce –– yes, sauce –– after starting out as a protégé at Ragu. 

At the end of the day, moguls by any maker fall in line with their fellow ultra-luxury buyers, brokers said. It doesn’t matter how you made your money — just that you made it and you’re looking to buy. 

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