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Cover Story: 20 Good Questions

Donny Soffer
Donny Soffer at the annual Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce Gala in 2009 at the newly renovated Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach. (Photo courtesy of Katie Winter/Aventura Business Monthly).
Donny Soffer
Without mincing words, there would be no Aventura if not for him. It was 1967 when he purchased a neglected and submerged chunk of land in northeast Dade County and quickly went to work developing it. Fast-forward to the present day, and that parcel is home to some of the world's choicest properties, including: a premier shopping destination that attracts more than 24 million annual visitors (The Aventura Mall); a world-class resort that serves as a getaway for scads of professional athletes, Oscar Award-winning actors, and business tycoons (The Fairmont Turnberry); and numerous luxurious high-rise condominiums (Porto Vita, to name just one, where penthouses currently start in the eight-figure price range). Donny Soffer is the visionary who first conceived Aventura, but it was hardly his first real estate venture. Soffer erected his first shopping center, South Hills Village, in a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s and hasn't stopped building since. To date, his company, Turnberry Associates, has amassed a jaw-dropping portfolio worth more than $7 billion, the crown jewel of which could well be the famed, historic Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach, which he purchased, massively renovated, and reopened two-and-a-half years ago.

Q11: Is the fact Jeff is following the path that you blazed something from which you derive much satisfaction?
A father surely has a certain pride in his son, but at the same time, he still feels there's a certain job to do and to make sure the son learns the right things. A father isn't always the most pleasant guy in the world the son enjoys talking to. Sometimes you have to criticize because he has to learn. You learn more from your mistakes than from your successes, so we're going through that process.

Q12: Overall, how did you get along with your father?
My dad and I had a good relationship. But we had different business philosophies. He went through a depression and if you bought a house for $5,000 during the Depression and you owed the bank $300 and you didn't work and couldn't pay them, they took your house. So he always wanted to pay everything off, whereas I like to keep cash flowing and continue developing. If you see a picture of fans at a football game or a baseball game back in the 1940s, everyone wore a shirt, tie, and hat. They wanted to show that they weren't poor anymore. The younger generation didn't grow up like that.

Q13: What were some of the lessons you learned from him?
My dad taught me that the shopping malls were the thing of the future. In my hometown, a small steel town of 10,000 people, on Main Street before World War II, there were no parking problems. Then after the War, all of the GIs had cars, and they would drive into the city and park to go shopping. So meters were put in because guys would stay there all day. My dad was the one who said that didn't make sense. He said, 'They all have automobiles, and they're having a tough time parking. Why don't we buy some vacant land on the highway out where they live and put in a supermarket?' The first shopping center I built had 180,000 square feet with two supermarkets, a W.T. Grant, a Woolworth's, and a bunch of other stores.

Q14: What did you admire most, business-wise, about him?
My dad had good foresight, and I would do all the work. He could see. And what I tell the young people is to try discovering a trend and jump on it, capture it. Like bottled water. I sat with the president of Perrier back in 1978 and I asked him what he does. He said that he sold bottled water. I said, 'Who the hell is going to buy bottled water when you can get it right out the tap?' Nowadays, with all of the health concerns, I don't have to tell you how many different brands of bottled water there are.

Q15: How did you end up at Brandeis in Massachusetts after growing up in Western Pennsylvania?
Brandeis was a new school in those days. If you wanted to go to Harvard or Yale or the better medical schools, they only took so many Jews. So after the war, the Jewish community said, 'Screw it, we'll have our own best universities,' and they started Brandeis. One of the ways they were going to raise money was to have a football team. They hired this coach, Benny Friedman, who was an all-star Jewish professional football player, a legend at Michigan, and gave him carte blanche to bring in any players he wanted without any qualifications in terms of grades. Brandeis was a very tough school to get into, academically, and I had never taken a written exam in my life. I had a C-plus average and never had a foreign language. There was no way I could have gotten into Brandeis without football.

Q16: I understand you were good enough to have had the chance to play professionally. Do you regret turning down that opportunity?
No, I don't regret it at all. I played in junior high school, high school, and college, and then I got a letter from the San Francisco 49ers asking me if I'd play if they drafted me. I asked how much money they were going to offer me. They said $6,500. It was 1955, and in those days, Sam Huff was an All-Pro linebacker for the New York Giants and he was getting $5,500. I was pretty good, but I really didn't want to play professional football. I was an offensive guard and a middle linebacker in college. We had to go both ways.

Q17: Is it fair to say football had a big effect on your developmental years?
I was the only Jewish kid to ever play football at my high school, Duquesne High School, in Western Pennsylvania. I was called a "dirty Jew" until I was 16 years old. We had a great team at Brandeis. We were the top small school in the country, and we played Miami in a postseason game. We lost, 13-7. The problem became that we had to take the same classes as the rest of the student body, there was no basket weaving like there is today. Out of the 60 guys who were brought in, 35 kids flunked out in the first semester. They couldn't keep them in school. Maybe only 25 percent were Jewish.

Q18: What are your general thoughts about the condition of Florida's real estate market?
I think Florida is probably the best place to invest in real estate. We're too close, so we don't appreciate it. If you look around, you've got the water, you've got the weather. I just came from California, and it's cold and it's damp, like the song says. You don't have better restaurants anywhere. It's all because of the environment -- the weather, the beach, the ocean, you're close to the Bahamas and the [Florida] Keys. And we're close to South America. You've got all of those emerging countries down there, and those people are traveling here. They love Miami. Not only that, but they speak the language. The only reason the value of properties has dropped is because there was stupid overbuilding caused by the banks. The banks just want to push out money. It's now just a matter of the demand catching up to the supply. And the image has to go away, the image that everyone's in trouble.

Q19: I'd guess that with access to these great golf courses you're pretty good at the game. Is that so?
Maybe I play once every two weeks. I mostly play tennis. I used to be a pretty handicap, like a four or a five. Now, I'm about a 14 because I don't play that much anymore. I get a better workout from tennis and it's quicker. Not only that, the truth is that I used to like to gamble on the golf course, for a lot of money, and there's no one around to play with anymore. I sold the [Fairmont Turnberry] to the Kuwaitis, and then my son bought it back about six or seven years ago.

Q20: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about the Mall, which your daughter, Jackie, oversees. The last expansion brought phenomenal new tenants like Ferrari, Nordstrom, and Equinox. Is more growth in the works?
We're going to get more upscale merchants. We have Louis Vuitton and Chanel coming but they are going to replace existing stores. There isn't going to be any new construction. There are always inquiries and discussions. Jackie handles the "micro" and Jeff handles the "macro," so Jackie worries how much a table is going to cost and Jeffrey is worried that it's not big enough. They work together and they argue and fight, but they settle things themselves. Usually, I'm part of the fight.

Archive: 20 Good Questions
Best & Brightest: June 2011