Real estate baron Jay I. Kislak discovered a Fountain of Youth of sorts that springs from an inquisitive and acquisitive mind.
At 90, Kislak is wheeling and dealing in real estate, and he’s exploring history and art with the fervor of a man generations younger.
The patriarch of The Kislak Organization marked 74 years in real estate this year, 59 spent in Miami.
While he has long since appointed a protégé, Thomas Bartelmo, as president and CEO of the diverse family-owned real-estate businesses, Kislak remains chairman. And he is a regular at the headquarters in Miami Lakes.
That is, when he’s not off to Maine for the summer.
Or busy chairing a blue-ribbon commission named by the U.S. Interior Secretary to orchestrate the 450th anniversary in 2015 of the founding of St. Augustine.
Or jetting off to evaluate a possible acquisition. (Kislak recently looked at the potential for real estate development in North Dakota, booming with shale oil, but decided to pass.)
Kislak’s empire has gone through dramatic changes over the years. He built — and eventually sold — commercial banking, mortgage servicing and insurance firms.
Today, with annual revenue in excess of $28 million, his organization focuses on the commercial brokerage business started by his father, Julius Kislak, in Hoboken, N.J., more than a century ago; on owning a portfolio of apartments and other property (Kislak is on the prowl for more), and on managing funds of property-tax certificates, a niche created by the economic downturn.
Looking out his office window at a bustling interchange recently, Kislak mused: “I remember when they built the Palmetto Expressway and you could drive down it and never see another car.”
“The same thing with I-95: There was hardly any traffic,” said Kislak, a slender man with a signature mustache and a thick Hoboken accent that never faded.
Kislak moved to Miami in 1953 to grow the mortgage business, but his world view hardly dates to 1950s Florida. Already a book lover, he began pulling on a thread of Florida history, soon broadening his interest to the early Americas.
Over the decades, Kislak, bankrolled by a stream of brokerage commissions, mortgage fees and apartment rent, grew into a prominent collector of rare books and maps, manuscripts, artifacts and art to feed his fascination with the pre-Columbian era and the European exploration of America.
His wife Jean Kislak shares his passion for collecting. They met at a party for Andy Warhol; it would be her second marriage, his third. Their quest for art, history and collecting has taken them to all continents, even Antarctica.
“We don’t quit [collecting]. But we are going to quit,” said Jean, a former corporate art director. “Acquisition has always been a part of my life. I don’t know if it’s a sickness.”
In 2004, Kislak gave away much of the treasure. His foundation donated more than 3,000 rare maps, manuscripts, paintings and artifacts to the Library of Congress. The gift, estimated to be worth in excess of $150 million, is housed in the ornate Thomas Jefferson building in an exhibit that bears his name. Kislak also funds fellowships for studies of the collection, part of his diverse efforts over the years to support education. Among other things, his family foundation endowed the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J., and has provided key support to a real estate program at Florida State University.
Kislak chose the Library of Congress over other institutions because he saw it as the best place where the prized collection could be mined by scholars.
“It’s a wonderful collection,” said Dr. John B. Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy at the University of Maryland and an expert in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica who taps the Kislak collection regularly in his studies. “He was successful in this legacy. The world is full of people with money. A lot of them don’t do much with it. In the end, some people give back to their culture. Others just continue to take.”
Kislak is more pragmatic about his philanthropy:
“It has to be somewhere when we’re gone,” he said. “And we ran out of space.” He said a lot of the larger items were in storage in downtown Miami.
Kislak’s philanthropy and collecting are enabled by his business success, but like many, his enterprise took its licks during the recession. His business emerged better than most.
“We weathered the downturn because we had our projects spread out and we were relatively conservative,” said CEO Bartelmo.
Kislak lost its equity in a multifamily project in Las Vegas and “gave it back to lenders,” Bartelmo said.
Another bad deal unfolded in the company’s backyard: Kislak joined developer Weitzer Communities as an equity partner in Tao condominium towers in Sunrise, only to have unit buyers walk away from contracts in the downturn.
“We lost our equity,” said Bartelmo.
But the downturn also brought opportunities. With demand for rental housing strong and rents on the rise, Kislak’s company in January bought three apartment complexes in Pensacola from Ocean Bank, which had taken over a soured condo conversion. Kislak fixed up the distressed properties, some 481 rental units, and owns and manages them.
“Kislak got a good business deal, but we worked hard at it,” said Bartelmo.
In July, the company bought a 192-unit apartment project in Pinellas Park, boosting its apartment holdings to about 2,800 units. Kislak is in the hunt to buy more apartments, but large institutional investors willing to accept lower returns have outbid Kislak.
“Multifamily is a sector that’s got a lot of money chasing it,” Bartelmo said. “We’re a family business. It’s family money. We’re going to require a bigger return, a little more yield.”
In another adaptation to the times, Kislak has put together funds of property-tax certificates for investors. The funds of tax-lien certificates, acquired by paying delinquent taxes to local property tax collectors, have provided a good return in a low-interest environment.
Kislak is cautiously optimistic about the outlook for real estate.
“There are signs of a recovery. But I don’t know how you can have a real recovery with the shadow market hanging out there,” he said. “Until you get rid of that, you really cannot have a recovery in the housing market. I don’t know how far off that is.”
As for South Florida: “I still think there are a lot of opportunities here,” he added.
Kislak, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, was born into real estate. In 1906, his father started the brokerage business, which is big in commercial real estate in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Kislak served as a Naval aviator during World War II, spurring a love for aviation. He keeps a private jet.
His move to Florida in 1953 after founding the mortgage company proved pivotal, and the business took off.
Kislak teamed with some big names in South Florida development including F&R Builders, which later became Lennar Corp.
“He meets people well,” said Martin Fine, an attorney at Holland & Knight and long-time friend.
“He’s very smart and has high standards of ethics,” said former U.S. senator and Florida governor Bob Graham, whose family developed Miami Lakes. “People deservedly have confidence in him as a business partner.”
After his father took ill, Jay was drafted to take over. In 1970, the family merged the New Jersey and Florida operations into J.I. Kislak Inc., with Kislak, by then a confirmed Floridian, drawing the line on its headquarters:
“I said, ‘No way, I’m coming up there,’ ” he said.
In 1972, when South Florida got a new Congressional district, he made an unsuccessful bid for Congress.
“He ran against my advice and better judgment against Bill Lehman,” said Fine. “I always admired Jay for running.’’
“With the exception of that Congressional race, I associate him with success,” said Graham.
He never again ran for elected office, but he is an active political contributor, largely to Republicans, but occasionally to Democrats, such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who chairs the Democratic National Committee. He is close to former President George H. W. Bush, sharing a bond of Navy experiences in World War II. (“He’s an old Navy pilot,” Kislak said.)
On the current debate on taxes and budget, Kislak said he favors raising taxes on wealthy folks to avoid the fiscal cliff.
“I don’t mind paying higher taxes as part of making a deal,” he said.
By 1996, Kislak divested some major pieces of the family empire. He sold the insurance agency. And facing rising competition from giant banks, he sold a $10 billion mortgage-servicing portfolio, parceling it out among four big banks.
The Kislak family controlled a bank of its own, two in fact: Skylake State Bank and Kislak National Bank, which merged in 2000. By 2004, Kislak National Bank had burgeoned to about $1 billion in assets, with a niche in lending to South Florida homeowner associations. Kislak sold it to Banco Popular for $167.5 million, a full price.
Kislak suggests it was more luck than skill that his company dodged the mortgage crisis and never got in to subprime lending.
“We got out before the subprime bubble burst. Would we have been drawn in to it? Probably,” he said.
Two of his children, Dr. Paula Kislak, a veterinarian, and Philip T. Kislak, a management consultant, serve on the company’s board of directors. His son, Jonathan I. Kislak, a partner at Antares Capital, a venture capital firm, previously held various key executive positions at Kislak entities and is now a consultant to Kislak businesses.
The Kislaks live in a high-rise Miami condominium with an unobstructed view of Biscayne Bay. Their place stretches across three floors of the building and is home to Emma, a lucky stray dog rescued by Jean Kislak in the Bahamas some years ago, and a 21-year-old deaf cat, Noel, also a rescue.
Their home houses a magnificent and eclectic collection of art: Diebenkorn, Toulouse-Lautrec, Diego Giacometti, Delacroix, Picasso, Diego Rivera, pieces from the Tang and Han dynasties, and from Egypt and Japan, to name but a few.
Jean Kislak has built her own collection around a fascination with Emma Lady Hamilton, the mistress of British naval hero Admiral Lord Nelson. Paintings, letters, books, even the crib of the daughter of Emma and Lord Nelson. Jean Kislak obtained permission to have an obelisk erected in Calais, France, to memorialize Emma’s unmarked grave. Her collection was exhibited at The Grolier Club in New York.
“The crib is in storage. Even the dog wouldn’t sleep in it,” she said.
The Kislaks’ walls are lined with ample bookshelves filled with fine volumes. Jean Kislak once expressed an interest in cookbooks and one day soon afterward, “Jay said, ‘Your cookbooks are here,’ ” she recalled. There were 1,000 of them.
But most of their acquisitions have been painstakingly sought out, piece by piece.
“They work at their collecting. That’s one of the hallmarks of a connoisseur,” said Arthur Dunkelman, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection and director of the Kislak foundation.
Kislak obtained a rare 1516 wall map, the Carta Marina, regarded as the first nautical map of the world. He acquired a 16th century manuscript sent by a Dominican priest to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to advocate for human rights for Indians.
“When we meet on St. Augustine, he brings a depth of background and knowledge as to the historic period,” said Bob Graham, who also sits on the commission planning the city’s 450th anniversary.
With Kislak’s knowledge of collecting, President George W. Bush appointed him to the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. But while chairing the committee from 2003 to 2008, Kislak grew frustrated and didn’t seek to stay on with the group, which deals with controversial issues of regulating the importation of cultural and historical artifacts.
Later, at a Washington, D.C., seminar in March 2011, Kislak called the advisory committee “useless.” According to a transcript, he criticized the group for holding closed meetings and fumed that its recommendations were ignored by State Department staff.
Kislak, by way of introduction, told the gathering: “I’m just a lowly mortgage peddler from Hoboken, N.J., who is trying to make his way through life.”