Gil Dezer on Branding, Bentley and His Favorite Car
The South Florida developer fuses condos with brands such as Trump, Porsche and now Bentley
A Porsche literally hangs on the wall of Gil Dezer’s Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., home.
The custom-built pad on a barrier reef island just north of Miami Beach also features a 29-car garage and a glass wall that looks out onto a perfect spectrum of turquoise ocean.
It’s on the ground floor of Trump Palace, one of 10 condo high-rises that Dezer — the son of real estate investor Michael Dezer, a Trump partner, a Gumball 3000 car rally winner, and the inventor of a car elevator that bears his name — built along the Miami waterfront.
Originally from Queens and raised in New Jersey, Dezer started buying property in Sunny Isles Beach in the 1990s, when the island was a seedy no man’s land and no one could have guessed it would become the coveted destination of today’s class of Gatsbys.
Dezer first licensed the Trump brand in the early aughts, when, as an unknown developer, he was having trouble selling the condos he’d built. The Trump brand, then at its ‘Apprentice’-fueled height, changed everything for Dezer, who quickly understood the power of branding and leaned into it.
In recent years, he’s built the Porsche Design Tower and Residences by Armani/Casa, and is now building the Bentley Residences, a 62-story tower on Sunny Isles Beach that will be Miami’s tallest building and the tallest oceanfront high-rise in the country.
Dezer is known for his love of fast cars, good times and unapologetically enjoying his wealth, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about the business. When asked if he wanted Bentley to be the tallest tower for bragging rights, Dezer said no.
“Shorter is easier, cheaper, faster,” he said. “It was about fitting in all the available square footage that we could sell in the tower.”
Commercial Observer sat down with Dezer late last month (over Zoom) to hear more about how he got his start in the business, his plans for the Bentley tower, and his favorite car.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Commercial Observer: Your reputation precedes you a little, but let’s start with a 60-second intro.
Gil Dezer: I’m a real estate developer. I’ve been doing this now for 24 years, here in South Florida, responsible for building about 10 buildings already so far on the ocean — six of them with our old president, Donald Trump. That’s what got me into the branding world, where we’ve since done brand deals with Porsche design as well as Armani/Casa, and now our latest with Bentley tower with the Bentley Motors car company.
Your next big project is the Bentley Residences. Where are you in the development process on that?
We finally are ready to go. The scale model is under construction, the sales office is under construction. We should be open by December/January, and then we’re gonna hit the ground running and start making sales.
The tower will have 821 parking spaces and 216 apartments — a ratio of more than 3 to 1, so clearly being Bentley-branded, the car element is huge. Tell me more about the car aspect of the design.
With the Porsche Design Tower, we went ahead and patented what we call the Deservator, our patented car lift system. And the reason it’s called the Deservator is they said, ‘Hey, we need a name,’ and I just threw a name and it stuck. So, it’s a patented car lift system that automatically takes the passenger inside the car up to his unit and out into basically his parking space, adjacent to the unit.
People loved it. We loved it for the cool factor, but what we really found out was the majority of our buyers love it for the privacy and convenience. You don’t have to call a valet, there’s nobody sweating in your car, moving the seats, etc. And also the privacy factor — nobody knows when you’re coming in, when you’re going, and all these doormen and valets are typically in your business in these buildings. Our owners prefer to have a little bit more privacy.
That led to, at the end of the day, we got a ton of celebrities in the building, because they liked the ability of coming and going and not being seen and not being bothered. So now, with Bentley — at the Porsche Design tower, we did two parking spaces per unit — and at Bentley, we’re going to be doing four parking spaces on the oceanfront units and three parking spaces on the west side.
We found that in a three-bedroom apartment, you can have three or maybe even four drivers, if the kids are old enough. Two driver kids and the husband and wife, so you might need the four cars.
Going back to when you first licensed the Trump brand in the early aughts. At the time, were you the first to license the Trump brand?
Then, do you take some credit for Trump’s success? His licensing is where he gets most of his money.
I mean, well, he was doing licensing on products before we got into licensing. So, he did his mattresses and steaks and things like that, but we got involved with him, and he initially wanted to be a partner and we said, ‘Hey, it’s better to just pay royalties.’ So, that’s how we figured out the business; we just worked out a royalty payment.
And what it did for us was, I realized the power of it. The royalty fees that I paid were nothing compared to the amount of press that we got, and the press is what helped make the sale. We were getting free advertising every Wednesday night when [Trump] was on ‘The Apprentice.’ We realized that tagging along with a brand is very powerful, and it gets you worldwide recognition in a way that, financially, you couldn’t get yourself.
And it’s also about the worldwide reach that these brands have, and especially to their customer base. We’re expected to sell at least half the building to existing Bentley customers in the Bentley tower; almost everybody in the Porsche tower owned a Porsche. They don’t necessarily have it here — they might drive the Rolls Royce here in Miami — but they own one in their second home or first home, or wherever.
What was the Trump brand at that time?
At the time, it was location and luxury. His Trump Tower brand was on 57th and Fifth, right there in the middle of the world in New York City. Donald Trump was, at the time, the real estate guy that people would listen to, and they did.
We were in Sunny Isles at the time, where not much was going on here. We needed that extra oomph to put us on the map and, with the Trump-branded buildings, it really did that. It put Sunny Isles on the map.
This notion of lifestyle branding for condos, first with Trump and now with these other brands, I see that people are imitating that now. There’s the Aston Martin Residences in Downtown Miami, and other car brands doing it as well. Do you think they’re imitating you or was it something you picked up on that was already happening?
I wish I could say they’re imitating me, but they’re not. It almost bothers me a little bit, because we really immerse ourselves with the brand and we make these buildings really brand-centric.
The other car companies that just kind of slap their name on a building … the building doesn’t have any kind of significance about the brand, it doesn’t look like the cars, it doesn’t have any modules about the cars. They put one car in the sales offices and they slap a brand on it.
What are the Bentley brand elements in the building?
The cars have this diamond stitching, diamond patterns and stuff like that, so we did this diamond pattern on the exterior glass, so it’s unmistakably Bentley from when you drive up the street. That’s for starters.
Bentley has things where every touch point in the car has this special metal feel to it, like a metal knurling. So, we’re following that into the apartments, so the door handles, your faucets … we’re actually manufacturing our own faucet handles, just to have that Bentley knurling, and door handles. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So, what’s going on with, not just Sunny Isles, but the South Florida condo market at the moment?
It’s on fire. It’s unfortunate that I personally have nothing to sell at this point, until we open up the Bentley sales office. We’ve sold out of Armani. We had about 63 units left, right as the pandemic started. And then came November , and everybody from New York ran out of there, and they bought up my 63 units by March. It was pretty amazing.
Traditionally, Miami has had a lot of condo buyers from Latin America. But throughout the pandemic, those buyers have kind of been less present, whereas a lot of domestic buyers have come in. Is that what you’re seeing? Who do you expect to be the buyers at Bentley?
You got to look at it in two ways. First of all, I’m waiting for the borders to open up and the South Americans to come back in, because they are our market; they’re definitely our market. And why? Because after everything opened up again, there was no pre-construction, everything was standing inventory. Construction wasn’t shut down — it’s considered essential — so everybody was finishing their buildings at that time. And we all kind of waited until everything got normal. And then, that November date, everything started getting crazy here in Miami.
At that time, there was no new pre-construction, and the pre-construction buyer is the South American, because the American doesn’t put down 50 percent deposits. He’d rather go and buy it when it’s ready, even if he has to pay more, unfortunately. Yet, the South Americans, that’s how they’re trained to buy. Typically, in South America, they’ve given the developer 90 percent of the money before they close. We’re not allowed to do that kind of stuff here.
That’s why we’re waiting for the South American buyers. We think that there’s a lot of pent-up demand because they haven’t been here for two years. But we think that being locked down in their country shows them that they need to have a second home here in America.
We can’t discuss the condo market without mentioning the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside. Is there anything about the way that you’re building or marketing that’s changed?
What happened there was a tragedy, no question. But, from a construction standpoint, when you start looking at all the different various things that were happening at the same time there, you can tell it’s a one-off issue; it’s not something that you’re gonna see every day.
A building that was designed in the `70s, and built in the `80s, not using computers, not using the local inspectors the way we have it, and not using the current methods that we do — I mean, it’s a whole different animal.
You can’t really compare what was going on back then, in the days of the Cocaine Cowboys in Miami, versus what goes on today. I’ve heard all kinds of theories of what happened, from they didn’t put enough steel in the building to they didn’t follow the architect’s advice, to the building next door moved the ground a little bit and caused it. So, who knows.
The ground settlement issue to me is something that I can understand, because our pilings typically go down a third of the height of the building. And so, if that was a 12-story building, you had pilings going down 40 feet. And, if you’ve got pilings going down 40 feet, then they’re in the sand, they’re floating in the sand. They’re not touching anything. Our pilings go down 130 feet to 160 feet, to hit the topmost upper crust layer of the Earth. So, we actually drill our piles into rock.
Didn’t you sell the plot next door to David Martin, where he built the Eight Seven Park condo?
Yes, we did.
What was there before?
There was a Dezerland hotel that we had for many years. That was the first hotel that we bought in Miami in 1985. And that’s kind of what brought the family down here.
We owned that hotel and we had an opportunity to buy the Intracoastal Mall, a 30-acre mall that’s right here on 163rd Street. So, when David Martin approached us to sell this hotel, we did a 1031 exchange and bought the Intracoastal Mall. And over there, we currently got 2,000 units approved, 500,000 square feet of retail, eight buildings, hotels, a canal that we’re gonna be digging out. Monster project.
What other projects do you have coming up?
We got a lot of plans. We have property across the street from Bentley that we’ll be working on also. We also have the three sites next door to Bentley, three oceanfront sites that we’re not in any rush to build. We’ll do them one at a time. We got enough work on our hands for the next 20 years without buying another site. We also have projects outside Miami, in Orlando and Hillsboro Beach.
Yeah, the South Florida condo market is insane right now, but what was it like when you first started buying land in Sunny Isles?
We started buying land in `97, `96, and it was all little rundown motels, little mom-and-pop operations. [Sunny Isles] itself was not a city in `96 — they incorporated in 1997 — which means that they didn’t have their own police department.
To get a police officer here, you had to call from unincorporated Miami-Dade, so a police officer took 45 minutes just to show up, which allowed a lot of bad things to happen on this beach. There were drugs, prostitution — I mean, you name it, it was going on.
So, we were able to buy these hotels, clean them up, and the city changed. It became its own city, they did their zoning code and they started allowing high-rise buildings, and that’s why we came.
Where were you at when the recession hit and how did it affect your business?
Oof, it was a nightmare. It was a nightmare. It was a nightmare. We had just finished the Trump Royale building, 384 units. We had sent out closing notices on Monday. And that Wednesday or Thursday, Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was like, we just didn’t know what the fuck was gonna happen tomorrow.
I owed the bank $265 million on the building. This is October, and I had to pay it off by December. And I had nobody closing. Worse, there’s nobody at the bank to talk to anymore. I’ll never forget flying up to New York to meet with the guy at Bank of America. I go to this tower, to the 40th floor of this beautiful office building. We get off the elevator, there’s a bullpen of cubicles … a sea of cubicles, huge floor, maybe 10,000-square-foot floor — one guy. There’s one guy there. It was an awakening, like this is really fucked up what’s going on here.
Anyway, I had Trump Royale [in Sunny Isles Beach] and I was also partners in Trump Towers with Related Group, and we had two more towers delivering later on that year. Bottom line is, nobody came to close. Of course, they had 20 percent deposits, they all walked away; maybe 10 percent of the people bought. We had to sit down and hustle, and sell the units. The Brazilians saved us.
It worked out, but it was scary. I woke up every morning and I realized that the real estate isn’t going anywhere. You know, it’s just about buyer sentiment. But, if you wait for buyers to have a little bit more confidence, prices will come back up and that’s what happened.
Skipping ahead to today, you still have the six Trump-branded towers. After his presidency, is the Trump brand seen as a liability or as an advantage? What’s the currency of the Trump brand at the moment?
The currency is still there. Don’t forget half the country loves him, you know. Resales in the buildings are strong and at great prices.
At the Trump International Hotel [in Sunny Isles], we’ve had to pivot, because we did a lot of group business. Groups, in general, just died — not necessarily because of the brand, but because of COVID. But, even before COVID started, there were some brand issues, where a group would rather just go to a non-branded hotel, rather than have to have to talk to their invitees, and explain or not explain. That did hurt initially, but we got through that and we pivoted to more social events.
Has delta slowed the hospitality industry at all, with travelers from outside of Florida being more reluctant to come, or not really?
I gotta be honest, everybody here in Florida is pretending like there’s no coronavirus; everybody walks around like it’s over. I’m putting on a mask, just because I don’t want to catch anything, but you don’t have to. It’s not required, and vaccination is not required, no vaccine cards. It’s becoming a utopia within America.
I don’t know if this is like asking you to choose your favorite child, but what’s your favorite car at the moment?
My favorite car at the moment is … I have a Porsche 918 Spyder and I love it. It’s a limited-edition car. They made 918, and my number is 305, because that’s the Miami area code. And it’s just an awesome car to drive. I love driving it. I have a bunch of cars, a bunch of cool cars, but that’s my favorite.
I thought you were going to ask me which is my favorite building that I’ve done, which one of those babies.
Good question. Which one is your favorite?
I love the Porsche. It’s definitely my favorite so far. Armani was spectacular, but it’s definitely Porsche for me.