When Stanley Whitman first set out to recruit tenants for the Bal Harbour Shops more than 50 years ago, everyone told him he was crazy. The industry’s leading economist suggested he would be better off building an apartment complex on the site.
But Whitman had a plan for turning the former German World War II prisoner of war camp into one of the country’s finest luxury shopping centers. He saw an opportunity to fill a void as luxury retailers were leaving Lincoln Road, where Whitman’s family owned property. Whitman, then a retired U.S. Navy officer, had been managing that property as well as using his family’s money to flip waterfront land and spec homes in South Florida.
Whitman took his blue eyes and his charm on the road, researching the best designs for shopping centers and visiting luxury retailers from New York to Los Angeles and Chicago to Dallas. When top executives wouldn’t meet with him, he hung out in lobbies, hoping to corner someone for five minutes and make his case.
“It was nothing to go and spend a half a day waiting for a big shot to come out,” said Whitman, who at 94 still comes into the office at least three days a week. “I was about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic. I got thrown out of more stores than anyone that ever lived. I wasn’t graciously thrown out; I was violently thrown out.”
The rejection didn’t faze Whitman. It took several years to line up tenants, secure financing and ultimately build what was then a $3.5 million project. At the opening in 1965, tenants included FAO Schwarz, Maus & Hoffman and Abercrombie & Fitch. By the time Neiman Marcus opened in 1971 and Saks Fifth Avenue in 1976, Whitman’s dream was well on its way to reality.
His success is now legendary. The International Council of Shopping Centers last year deemed the Bal Harbour Shops the most productive luxury shopping center in the world. The 450,000-square-foot mall in 2012 hit a record with sales of nearly $2,730 per square foot — more than six times the national average.
“Stanley is a visionary with a great sense of quality,” said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive of Bloomingdale’s. While Whitman never convinced Gould to open a Bloomingdale’s at Bal Harbour, the two have remained friends for more than two decades.
“He’s one of the unique guys in the industry who built a single individual center that makes you say, ‘Wow. He has done something special.‘”
In the beginning Whitman broke a lot of the industry rules. He paid too much for the land — $2 per square foot compared to 15 cents at Dadeland Mall or 163rd Street Mall. Whitman insisted on charging for parking because he wanted to ensure neighboring employees didn’t take up all his customers’ spaces. He put trees inside the mall, which industry experts decried because of the mess; his tenants tried to cut them down. He designed his rents with low flat rates and large percentage rents, so he shared in the retailer’s success.
The formula worked. Retailers and industry experts credit Whitman with putting luxury retail on the map in South Florida and creating one of the country’s premier destinations. Those who know Whitman say it was a combination of his attention to detail and strong-willed personality that made it happen.