Real estate´s rising stars

Oct.October 01, 2014 07:00 AM
From left: Nitin Motwani, Liliana Gomez, George Helmstetter and Alexandra Lehson

From left: Nitin Motwani, Liliana Gomez, George Helmstetter and Alexandra Lehson

The experience of navigating through the devastating real estate market collapse of the last decade and the past few years’ revival has defined the careers of many in South Florida’s real estate industry, particularly those relatively new to the business.

The Real Deal talked to dozens of local real estate experts to get a sense of who in the 35-and-under crowd is flourishing in a reinvented industry. Several of the names that emerged, including Jon Paul Perez, Daniel de la Vega and Raymond Fort, represent the next generation of prominent South Florida real estate families who are carving their own paths within the family business. Others, like Liliana Gomez, relocated to the area to pursue new opportunities and found their own paths.

Read on to learn more about what makes these industry leaders stand out.

Nitin Motwani, 35
Miami Worldcenter Group/Encore Housing Opportunity Fund

Nitin Motwani and his brother, Dev, grew up living and working in Fort Lauderdale Beach hotels owned by their parents. The Motwani family is credited with helping transform Fort Lauderdale Beach through the development of family-oriented hotels and resorts during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Nitin Motwani now hopes to have a similar impact on a blighted neighborhood north of downtown Miami called Park West.

A Duke University graduate and Columbia University master’s degree recipient, Motwani is the point-person for the massive Miami Worldcenter mixed-use project that is a decade in the making. Motwani, Encore Housing Opportunity Fund principal Art Falcone and other project partners hoped to build Miami Worldcenter before the recession, but the economy’s collapse thwarted those plans. After turning down offers to sell off pieces of the Worldcenter site in recent years, the group is moving forward with a development that includes nearly 1,100 condos, a 1,800-room hotel with a 600,000-square-foot convention center and a 765,000-square-foot mall anchored by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.

“Art and I joke that from 2006 to 2008 people said we were crazy, from 2008 to 2011 people said we were stupid and ever since the market turned, people said we were lucky,” Motwani said. “Art reminded me to have conviction in what you’re doing and persistence and belief in yourself when others don’t.”

Worldcenter is not the only project Encore has in its sights. In a full-circle moment for Motwani, the firm picked up a former Howard Johnson’s hotel site in Fort Lauderdale Beach in spring 2013.

“I used to go to that HoJo as a kid,” he said.

Liliana Gomez, 33
ISG World

Liliana Gomez came to Miami from her native Colombia in 2000 with a desire to work hard, but no idea where to start. “I had no contacts and didn’t know anybody,” she said.

Gomez studied business at Florida International University and got a real estate license in 2003. A chance meeting with commercial real estate broker Lyle Chariff led to a job with his firm.

“Lyle taught me the basics of real estate,” Gomez said. “At the time, the market was so hot, but he didn’t have anyone to take all of the leads coming in for residential real estate.”

For much of her three years at Chariff’s firm, Gomez ran the residential side of the business. A one-year stint at brokerage Prodigy International followed, before Gomez joined TSG Realty, an arm of the Camilo Lopez-led The Solution Group.

During the recession, Gomez said, nothing was moving besides short sales, foreclosures and real estate owned properties. “The company was acquiring all of these properties from banks.

We would buy the properties, rent them out and sell them to international buyers.”

As the market recovered and distressed opportunities dwindled, Gomez looked for the next step in her career. She met ISG World principals Philip Spiegelman and Craig Studnicky when their firm took over TSG Realty’s inventory. They created an international sales department and tapped Gomez to lead it at the beginning of 2013.

Since then, Gomez has built an 11-member department and opened satellite offices in several South American nations. She estimates 80 percent of ISG’s inventory is sold in South America.

“The biggest markets we are working on are Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela,” she said. “China is an interesting market. It should open up for Miami little by little.”

George Helmstetter, 31
DevStar Group

When George Helmstetter was about to graduate from Bentley University in 2005, he wavered between staying in Boston, finding a corporate finance job in New York or stoking his interest in real estate somewhere new.

The Syracuse, N.Y., native ended up applying for an analyst position at LNR Partners, the Miami Beach special-servicing giant.

Helmstetter said the structured finance side of real estate appealed to him, along with the location. “Why not move down to Miami Beach as a single 22-year-old?”

The most important learning experience for Helmstetter involved LNR’s real estate owned division, where foreclosed properties were handled. He said he “got to touch and feel real estate and learn how deals went bad.”

After two years with LNR, Helmstetter returned to Boston to take a job with iStar Financial. After the crash, “the finance markets seized up,” he said. “We turned into a specialty workout group.”

In 2009, Helmstetter returned to South Florida with colleague Anthony Burns to oversee iStar’s regional portfolio. They led the repositioning of numerous projects, including Paramount Bay in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood and Ocean House South Beach.

By 2012 they had worked through iStar’s South Florida portfolio, and decided to launch the DevStar Group, which is co-developing the 468-unit Marina Palms Yacht Club & Residences in North Miami Beach.

“Marina Palms was an asset we knew very well and were confident we could execute it with the right partner in place,” he said. “We like Miami and believe in its long-term growth.”

Lauren Levrant, 31
Pinnacle Housing Group

As a kid who spent countless hours creating model cities from Legos, Lauren Levrant knew her future would involve construction on a much larger scale.

The Miami native studied civil engineering at Northwestern University in Illinois. Afterwards, interning at Miami-based affordable housing builder Pinnacle Housing Group gave Levrant an education in all facets of construction.

“I worked as an engineer for a year after I graduated,” Levrant said. “I found early on that I wanted more diversity in my day-to-day dealings.

At Pinnacle, I don’t have a single day that is the same as the day before.”

Levrant became an assistant project manager at Pinnacle in 2006. Early in her tenure, Pinnacle’s top executives, including David Deutch, Mitchell Friedman and Michael Wohl, gave her a crash course in the affordable housing sector, which depends on government subsidies and tax credits to fund projects.

“There really is so much to learn, since our niche is so specialized,” Levrant said. But “the learning curve works both ways. I bring to the table ways we can do things better and more efficiently.”

Levrant is now a senior development associate at Pinnacle. In that role, she oversees everything from initial project design to construction to management and leasing. She is still the company’s youngest employee.

In 2010, amid the slump, Pinnacle opportunistically snapped up a vacant site west of Miami’s financial district. The company is now building Brickell View Terrace, the city’s first mixed-income development, on the property. The project will include 100 affordable housing units and 76 market rate apartments when completed next year.

Jon Paul Perez, 29
the Related Group

The son of the Related Group founder Jorge Perez, Jon Paul Perez essentially had a continuous real estate internship throughout his childhood.

“On the weekends, we would visit my father’s sales centers and leasing offices,” Perez said. “From the beginning, it grabbed my interest.”

A 2007 University of Miami graduate, Perez saw the city transformed through feverish construction during his college years. He lived at Related’s One Miami complex in Downtown when the area didn’t make the radar of college kids and young professionals.

“There was no Brickell scene, no great restaurants,” he said. “You were forced to go to South Beach or Coconut Grove.”

After graduation, Perez spent five years in New York for the Related Companies, the parent of his father’s company, where he was involved in financial modeling, construction management and project design. He considers Related president Bruce Beal a mentor who helped shape his professional approach.

“Bruce took me under his wing and taught me the numbers side” of the business, Perez said. “It was an eye-opening experience. I was Jorge’s son, but I was not treated like that in New York.”

Now back in Miami as a Related Group vice president, Perez is overseeing several local projects – including Paraiso Bay in Edgewater and The Manor in Broward County’s Plantation. He frequently travels to India to check on the company’s developments there. Perez is also pursuing an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

Michael Nunziata, 32
13th Floor Investments

In 2009, Michael Nunziata was in Miami scouting acquisition opportunities for a New York investment firm, when he met 13th Floor Investments managing principal Arnaud Karsenti.

“It was a tough time to get deals done,” Nunziata said. “I kept reading about Arnaud and decided I had to meet this guy. I emailed him at 6 a.m. and he responded by 6:30, which I loved.”

When he was a child, Nunziata’s family ran a small Orlando-area mortgage company and owned a three-tenant commercial building. He would do odd jobs around the property during summers. While meeting with Karsenti, Nunziata was drawn to 13th Floor’s entrepreneurial approach, which reminded him of his family’s.

Nunziata, who graduated from the University of Florida and earned a master’s degree in real estate from Columbia University, joined the company as an associate in December 2009. With South Florida’s residential market in a downswing, 13th Floor aggressively pursued low-cost properties that could be repositioned to generate substantial returns.

One of the sites 13th Floor picked up during the recession was a former golf course in Broward County’s Tamarac that was tied to a political corruption scandal. Nunziata, now a principal at 13th Floor and president of company’s Central Communities division, is overseeing the redevelopment of the site into the 253-home Central Parc. A second phase of 174 residences is planned.

The project, as well as the creation of Central Communities, represents the evolution of 13th Floor, which in the past would buy land, get it entitled and sell it to a builder, according to Nunziata.

“We saw Central Parc as a great opportunity to expand our platform,” he said.

Alexandra Lehson, 32
Bilzin Sumberg

Alexandra Lehson knew she would end up going to law school from the time she was a teenager. But unlike many prospective attorneys, who fantasize about winning over juries with passionate closing statements, Lehson had little interest in litigation.

“For me the most exciting part of working on a deal is making it happen,” she said. “I love the fact that with real estate there are visible, tangible results. I can point to the Miami skyline and pick out deals we handled.”

She graduated in 2007 from the University of Florida’s law school, and began a three-year stint in the Miami office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. A first year spent primarily handling loan originations gave way to the financial collapse.

“The recession hitting one year into my career was one of the best things to happen to me,” Lehson said. “I got some of the best training possible in knowing how to draft documents, then spend years picking them apart during workouts. I learned the things you have to pay attention to, particularly as the market heated up and we did more loans and transactions.”

Lehson joined prominent law firm Bilzin Sumberg as an associate in 2010. She has worked on numerous significant and complex transactions, including July’s sale of a long-term ground lease for the Bahia Mar Resort and Marina in Fort Lauderdale, and a $75 million development and construction loan for the Flagler Station business park in June.

When she’s not hammering out intricate transactions, Lehson volunteers as a co-chair of the Social Action Network of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

“Hands-on volunteering puts everything in perspective for me,” she said.

Daniel de la Vega, 32
One Sotheby´s International Realty

Daniel de la Vega helped his mother, Mayi, launch brokerage One Sotheby’s International Realty in December 2008, right in the middle of the economic collapse.

“We were trying to grow market share at a time when people were retracting,” de la Vega said. “It was scary, but we were able to make the right investments and surround ourselves with the right people.”

Today, de la Vega oversees nearly 400 agents and nine South Florida offices as One Sotheby’s president.

De la Vega spent two years working at Miami-based Delant Construction while studying at Florida International University. After that, de la Vega got his real estate license and began working at Stewart de la Vega Group, his mother’s previous firm. Mayi handled the high-end residential inventory, while Daniel focused on commercial real estate and development.

Since he was much younger than many of his employees, de la Vega felt a need to prove himself. “I had to stay later than everyone else and earn the respect of agents older than me,” he noted.

“The art of the deal is really what I love,” de la Vega said. “I found the development side of things very intriguing.” He continues to handle the development-related matters for One Sotheby’s.

Susie Glass, 32
Douglas Elliman Development Marketing

As an executive vice president at Douglas Elliman Development, Susie Glass oversees sales and marketing efforts for the firm’s $3 billion portfolio of luxury projects in Florida. She served a similar role at Cervera Real Estate, with an emphasis on social media and online marketing.

Glass started her career at Tony Cho’s Metro 1 Properties. In more than five years at the firm, she helped position Metro 1 as a sustainable real estate specialist and obtained a LEED professional accreditation.

In December, while working full-time, Glass also earned a master’s degree in real estate development from New York University. Before joining Elliman in August 2013, she worked remotely for Miami-based Cervera Real Estate while attending school. The move to Douglas Elliman meant she had to split time each week between Miami and New York.

But Glass says the hectic lifestyle was worth it.

“If you’re going to learn real estate, learn it in New York,” she said. “My professors at NYU were repositioning Rockefeller Center. The degree has already paid for itself.”

Glass is aiming to take the lessons learned from more than a decade working for several real estate firms and apply them to eventually develop buildings herself.

“I’ve got a couple of ideas of what I want to do,” she said. “I’ve learned some of the highest returns come from developing super-luxury, since you are doing the same amount of work to sell 40 units versus 200. I would want to do something that is completely sustainable and have everyone in the project be local.”

Raymond Fort, 26

At the ripe young age of 26, Raymond Fort is already making his mark on Miami by designing two projects in Edgewater, one of Miami’s fastest growing neighborhoods.

A Cornell graduate with a master’s degree from Columbia University, Fort doesn’t have to look far for inspiration when starting a new project. His parents, Arquitectonica founders Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear, designed more than 40 projects in Miami since the mid-1970s. (See related story, page 68.)

While details of the Edgewater projects haven’t been released yet (beyond the fact that one is an office building and one is residential), Fort said he tries to “fall somewhere in the middle” of his parents’ different architectural specialties.

“My father likes to put together big concepts, with a mix of large and small projects,” he said. “My mother is focused on the landscaping side and is very thoughtful about the details of a project, how the spaces are put together.”

Fort’s influences are not limited to his family. While in New York, he interned for Cornell Computer Graphics director Donald Greenberg, considered a pioneer of 3D modeling in architecture. Fort also spent a summer interning for the industrial design department of Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s Paris-based firm.

Back in Miami since June 2012, Fort said he is blown away by Miami’s vast construction pipeline since the recession. “It’s busier in this city than anywhere else in the world right now, except maybe China,” he said.

A lack of reliable transit and onerous parking requirements are holding Miami back, according to Fort.

“I’ve been working with a couple of people to try to get the parking requirement eliminated for small buildings,” he said. “At this rate, building eight-story garages is creating dead zones of up to 100 feet. To make Miami a nice urban city, we need to get people in public transit.”

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