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Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

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Publisher's Note: With the Bisnow editorial staff now covering 27 cities coast-to-coast, we're excited to bring you our latest longform report. Based on exclusive interviews, our Los Angeles colleague Michelle Hofmann has prepared this Bisnow Special Report on three Hispanic titans of the industry: Related chairman and CEO Jorge Pérez; NorthMarq executive chairman Rodrigo López; and McKinley CEO Albert M. Berriz. You can read past longform articles, including pieces on the founding family of General Growth Properties here; the remarkable Goldman family here; Alter Group chief Michael Alter here; and the tale of the Barclays Center shakeup here.

You don’t have to be a math wizard to recognize that as the fastest-growing ethnic group in the US, Hispanics are destined to have a significant impact on all aspects of the commercial real estate industry. According to the US Census Bureau, Hispanics make up 17% of the nation’s population, topping 55 million in 2014 and up 1.2 million over 2013.

Yet in analyzing data on 166,554 employees across commercial real estate sectors, a NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Diversity Report found white males dominate every job category, except for clerical workers.

Clearly, when it comes to diversity and commercial real estate, there is room for improvement. The industry is big business, contributing more than $747B to the US GDP, fueling $236B in personal income and creating close to 6 million jobs, according to the Commercial Real Estate Development Association.

Against a backdrop of mainstream success stories, relatively few minorities are commercial real estate giants. Still, the landscape is shifting. Here’s how three Hispanic titans broke into the industry and what they see for the future.

A View From The Top

Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

Rodrigo López is founder of Nebraska-based AmeriSphere Multifamily Finance and executive chairman for NorthMarq Capital Finance, one of the nation’s largest commercial mortgage banking companies.

He came to the US from Colombia at 17, and rather than getting a big city start, Rodrigo, the current chairman-elect of the Mortgage Bankers Association and immediate past chairman of the MBA Commercial/Multifamily Board of Governors, landed in Superior, a small town in Nebraska, in 1971.

I came here with nothing," he says. "I didn’t speak English. And I was the only Latino at Superior High School.”

Learning to communicate was tough at first, but by the time Rodrigo finished the one-year program, he had become part of the small community, passed his college entrance exams and got into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and later completed an Executive MBA.

While in college, Rodrigo returned to Superior every summer to work on a farm. As he completed his undergraduate degree, he was one of the few in his class to get offered a job in Omaha. “I used that opportunity to extend my visa. And I’ve been here ever since,” he says.

He spent his early career designing buildings. When he was an architect for a life insurance company, the client asked him to join its mortgage loan and real estate investment group. He took the gig, staying on for a decade, gaining experience in lending, managing mortgage loans and real estate.

Still, he couldn’t shake his drive to start his own company. So with support from his wife, Mary, whom he met at business school, and deepening roots within his civic and business communities, Rodrigo founded AmeriSphere Multifamily Finance and started offering commercial mortgage banking services in 1997.

“Having managed a large mortgage real estate portfolio, I decided there was an opportunity to broker loans in the Omaha area and the surrounding regions,” he says.

He was the only employee for the first three years and worked out of a bedroom in the home in which he and Mary still live. His early relationships were with life insurance companies, but a growing interest in advocacy and ties to the Mortgage Bankers Association provided an opportunity to meet Fannie Mae executives looking to originate more loans in the middle of the country.

“They asked if I would be interested in becoming one of Fannie Mae's delegated underwriting and servicing (DUS) lenders [authorized to underwrite, close and deliver loans] for multifamily housing in the Omaha area,” Rodrigo says.

Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

Luck, timing and hard work paid off. The Omaha business grew. But Rodrigo wanted to increase his national footprint, so he partnered with NorthMarq Capital in 2005.

The pairing worked, and when Rodrigo sold AmeriSphere to NorthMarq last year, the Colombian’s brainchild had 55 employees, loans in 39 states, a portfolio worth close to $6B and a reputation as one of the nation’s largest financiers of multifamily properties.

NorthMarq is headquartered in Minneapolis, has 36 offices, more than $13B in annual production volume and a serving loan profile of more than $45B. He will remain executive chairman of NorthMarq through 2017.

But he’s not quite ready to clean out that home office; Rodrigo and his wife of almost 34 years recently founded a new venture, AmeriSphere Properties. The firm closed on a land acquisition in downtown Omaha in January and plans to break ground on a mixed-use project called Capitol Place in fall.

The $25M development will include 27k SF of commercial space, about 75 market-rate rental housing units and a penthouse that will become a new home for the López family.

“This is the second re-enactment, and we’re still in the same house. So we can say that we’re starting another company from scratch, a different version of AmeriSphere,” he says.

Rodrigo says the barriers to enter commercial real estate (accumulating capital and breaking into the industry) haven’t changed much from when he started. Yet he sees growing opportunities for Hispanics.

“The sheer force of the demographics over the next decade or two will change things,” he says. “So a Hispanic loan originator is going to be far more successful in a Latino community than someone who does not understand the culture or perhaps doesn’t speak the language.”

To serve this new wave, he says, the industry has to become more inclusive, raise awareness among minority audiences about the broad range of career options, actively recruit and mentor, encourage ethnic gains in advocacy and leadership, and start viewing diversity in the workplace as a business opportunity. 

Education, he says, is critical. If the 2010 census is any indication, the pool of Hispanics with bachelor's degrees or higher is growing fast. Still, in order to make an impact, Rodrigo says industry owners and leaders need to do it deliberately.

“To achieve diversity, you have to be inclusive, not only with the people that we hire but in the customers we seek," he says. "And that’s going to take a paradigm shift."

To remove barriers and have balanced Hispanic representation, firms need to move beyond standard business practices and develop diversity management strategies with dedicated recruiting, mentoring and leadership programs.

“It’s really easy to hire young, white graduates that are very smart right out of the local university," Rodrigo says. "But if you do that, you’re not pushing to go outside of your comfort zone. Seek out those stars that have a different ethnic background, a different national background and think differently."

Workforce Housing Giant

Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

Like many Cuban immigrants caught in the wake of the communist takeover that nationalized business interests, Albert M. Berriz and his family fled their home country in January 1959 and headed for Miami.

At the time, the Florida haven was a relatively small town populated by immigrants. But the enclave solidified and grew in numbers and power. The cultural influence was so pervasive that Albert, age 3 when he left Cuba, didn’t start to learn English until he was 7.

“The requirement that I had to speak English was because my first school was a Catholic school, and the American nuns said, 'You’re going to talk English,’” he recalls. The nuns had the edge while Albert was in school, but in his Cuban household and within the local community, Spanish remained his dominant language until he went to college.

Fleeing Cuba was hard. Albert says his father, a successful real estate investor in Havana, represented the classic immigrant story.

“He was an example of an amazing and powerful immigrant who had everything taken away from him at 43...and was starting from zero from one day to the next day,” Albert says. “He worked more than 100 hours a week at times and took a lot of jobs to get us through school.”

It paid off. His siblings, one brother and a sister, thrived. And Albert grew up to become CEO and co-owner of Ann Arbor, MI-based McKinley, a real estate investment company with an annual revenue of $500M and 1,600 full-time employees. The company owns and operates more than 55M SF of multifamily and commercial assets, including 35,398 apartment units in 33 states.

Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

He didn’t start on top, of course. After earning a bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Miami, Albert got a job in banking and moved to Chicago in 1978 to complete an MBA in marketing and finance at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management. The journey hasn’t been without challenges. Breaking into Wall Street as a minority in the '70s was tough.

“At the time, not a lot of people in Chicago and New York knew what a Cuban was, so that was certainly different,” he says.

But McKinley’s co-owner, Ronald Weiser, who founded the firm in 1968, understood a thing or two about differences.

“[Ronald] was a young Jewish boy from Michigan who had a lot of family in Miami...and knew a lot about the Cuban community and Cuban history," Albert says. "So he and I hit it off well. He was instrumental in my success and saw potential in me."

The two met while Albert was working at the bank in Chicago in the early '80s. At the time, Ronald was building apartments in Florida, most of which the two still own. Albert moved to Ann Arbor to partner with Ronald in the 1990s and became a co-owner in 2001.

“I started with his Rolodex. I was able to do a lot of things with him that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own, like raising capital,” he says. “He made a lot of mistakes ahead of me and was able to advise me in those areas early on.”

Holding a unique space as a family-owned, privately held business in an industry dominated by public giants isn’t easy.

“I always tell people that the real estate investment business is not a microwave business. It’s a slow-bake business," Albert says. "Accumulating capital in this business can be hard. It has taken years to build this business to what it is today."

Albert and Ronald's kids are now in the family business, helped by seeing their fathers' hard work every day.

“People chuckle when I say this, but Hispanics do a good job of running their businesses from the dining table at home," he says. "Our boys started working in this business when they were still in high school. I always say that if you take care of your business, the business takes care of the family."

Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

His heritage has worked in his favor on many levels; affirmative action enhanced his educational opportunities. But despite his success, in the back of his mind, he always knew he was a poor Cuban kid from Miami.

“And that made me want to work harder than everybody else," Albert says. "So I did.”

Today, times have changed. McKinley is the largest apartment owner in the Interstate 4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa.

“The majority of my employees are Hispanic, and the majority of my customers are Hispanic," Albert says. "So I think in today’s world, it’s a huge advantage to be an Hispanic-run organization.”

The firm specializes in redeveloping distressed properties and is currently doing high-end historic rehabs, turning century-old buildings into classic apartments. McKinley's core and most profitable business is centered in serving the housing needs of 100,000 people who work at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.

“We’ve been in Orlando since 1982. Other people have come and gone, but we stayed and continue to buy and build there," Albert says. "It was always clear to us that Disney was unique and wasn’t going away. Those employees need a place to live, and our properties are right across the street."

Albert's best advice for budding developers and entrepreneurs is simple: just get started and don’t let anything hold you back. After all, he describes himself as a "classic immigrant" from a classic immigrant culture.

“There’s no reason for any Hispanic not to be successful in today’s real estate climate,” Albert says. “Whether they’re going into finance, development, property management or any part of this business, you can get in and shine pretty quickly. And people like me will notice you.”

The Renaissance Man

Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

At first glance, Jorge Pérez appears to be all business. As chairman and CEO of the Related Group, Florida’s leading developer, Jorge has been working at the forefront of South Florida’s commercial real estate industry for more than 30 years.

His firm, one of the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned businesses, has more than 50 projects in the pipeline and a development portfolio in excess of $15B. When asked about his favorite project, Jorge is quick to answer: “My favorite one is my next one,” he says, laughing. But if his history is any indication, Pérez is less businessman than Renaissance Man.

Born in Buenos Aires, Jorge came to the US from Bogotá, Colombia, to go to school in 1968. The plan was simple: finish his undergraduate degree in economics and head back to Colombia. But life has a way of changing plans, and during a vacation to Europe in 1973, Jorge fell in love.

“I went to Europe for holiday, and I loved it," he told Bisnow. "I fell in love with the architecture and stayed for a year, bumming around. And when I came back to the US, I decided I didn’t want to go back to Latin America. I wanted to become an urban planner. I didn’t think of myself as a businessman or a developer. I wanted to make city living better."

After securing a master’s in urban planning from the University of Michigan, he worked as an urban planner in government residential housing for the City of Miami from 1976 to 1978; did a brief stint as a consultant, doing real estate analysis, from 1978 to 1979; and started Related in 1979. He was 28.

“I love what I do. I love the creative part," he says. "I get the biggest thrill from actually putting the deal together and creating and working with the architects and the designers."

Although he’s twice made the cover of Forbes and landed on Time magazine’s top 25 most influential Hispanics in the US, Jorge doesn’t covet the “Hispanic developer” moniker.

“I was always an overachiever. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did, whether it was Hispanic or non-Hispanic," he says. "But I still don’t like to be called a great Hispanic developer. I’m a great developer.

"I’m very proud of being Hispanic," he continued. "And I have a great capacity to work. I started my business and worked seven days a week, 20 hours a day. And that’s what it takes in this country to achieve the results."

Bisnow Special Report: How 3 Of The Country's Most Successful Hispanic Real Estate Titans Got Their Start

Jorge (pictured speaking at our 2016 South Florida Forecast event) felt that his heritage neither held him back nor helped him succeed.

“I found that people treated me as a person as opposed to a Latino,” he says. Still, he knows everyone is not so fortunate.

“If you look at the statistics, the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing," Jorge says. "And Latinos and other minorities are actually losing ground in many ways to the richer majority. So as one gains political power and the numbers, you would hope that there will be a unity within those groups to make sure that there is access to better education and better jobs."

To stay ahead, Jorge says Related evaluates market changes, studying population shifts, income trends, and supply and demand across various neighborhoods.

“There’s an extreme amount of quantitative and qualitative research that not only myself but everybody who works for me at the senior level is doing,” he says.

Some of Related’s state-of-the-art condominiums and developments allow the developer to get premium rents in the market. “We are doing the largest high-rises in Miami right now and partnering with Giorgio Armani on a project that is 800k salable square feet with a value of over $1B,” he says.

In addition to Hyde Resort & Residences Hollywood Florida, a 40-story beachfront tower with 40 condominium residences and 367 condo hotel units set to complete later this year, Related is working with city government to rehab entire neighborhoods, creating affordable and market-rate houses and taking some of Miami’s first public housing jobs and turning them back into Art Deco buildings.

“That is always a thrill,” he says. Looking to expand its reach, Related has moved overseas and started working in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Panama and the Bahamas. “We are not afraid to take a risk. We have learned some good lessons. We don’t put all of our eggs in one basket. We spread our expertise around and are exploring places where we think we can find great investment opportunities,” he says.

He says his almost fully bilingual staff gives Related the capacity to move to Spanish-speaking regions and generate significant partnerships. Still, in the highly competitive commercial real estate industry, he says accessing capital can be difficult.

“And if you’re a minority, that’s even harder,” he adds.

There’s an element of luck, too, he says. “You need a lot of luck in finding people that believe in you and put their trust in you. And then you have to deliver. If you do that a couple of times, the rest is easy.”

For budding developers, he says, consider affordable housing; it’s always in demand, rewarding and requires less seed money to get started.

“My greatest advice is that if you don’t have the passion for real estate, don’t do it," Jorge says. "Life is difficult. If you find something that you really are very, very passionate about, the long hours become a lot shorter. You’ll enjoy life more. And typically, you are going to be much happier and more successful.”

Michelle Hofmann can be reached at Michellehofmann@earthlink.net or on Twitter @realestatewritr