Despite his success, Whitman still lives in the same three-bedroom house in Miami Shores that he built in 1949. Only in his 50s did he trade in his trademark Ford car for a Mercedes.
“He’s kind of like Sam Walton, only he doesn’t drive a pick-up truck,” Randy Whitman said.
Passing the torch
Before Stanley allowed any of his family members to join him in the business, he made them go out and get other real estate industry experience. When he joined his dad after working for about three years leasing office space for the Allen Morris Co., Randy Whitman admits they had their share of disagreements.
One of the classics came when Randy Whitman suggested turning a sunken seating area in the mall’s interior courtyard into a fish pond. Whitman vehemently dug in his heels and fought his son over the project for five years.
“I just wore him down until he finally gave in and told me, ‘Put in your god damn fish pond,’ ” Randy Whitman said. “Then when I put it in he liked it so much, he put in another one at the other end of the center.”
When Lazenby joined the business in 2003, after working in retail leasing at the Taubman Co., he found himself playing referee between the two.
“Whatever I said, I would make one of them happy and piss off the other,” Lazenby said. “I always had to be careful because I never wanted to have too many opinions that sided with one of them and not the other.”
The only one who was known to be able to keep Stanley in check was his late wife Dorothy, who died in September 2008 about three years after suffering a stroke that left her bedridden. The two were college sweethearts who met at Duke University and were married for 66 years. Stanley was by his wife’s side when she died in their Miami Shores home.
“My mother had to be one tough bird,” Randy Whitman said. “The battles in our house were unbelievable. My mother was the only one that could tell him he was full of bologna, which she did often. He wouldn’t take it from anyone else. We used to say he was afraid of her.”
A diagnosis of Spinal stenosis a decade ago has put an end to Whitman’s tennis and golf game. He’s frequently confined to a wheelchair or using a walker to get around. But he still makes his assistant push him around the property and stops in to say hello to long-time tenants like Todd Rauchwerger, the owner of J.W. Cooper. Whitman always calls Rauchwerger “son,” and asks him how business is going.
“He’s makes a point to visit, and that’s what impresses me more than anything,” Rauchwerger said. “Most mall executives or owners, they don’t give two minutes to the guy in the retail store, especially the independent. It’s unbelievable.”
Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, says he feels a sense of loyalty to Stanley Whitman for recognizing the need for a local bookstore at Bal Harbour and allowing the store to remain without paying top dollar for the space.
Kaplan looks forward to lunches with Whitman, who loves an audience to talk about the history of Bal Harbour, “Miamuh” and retailing.
“Being with Stanley is like being with a walking history book,” Kaplan said. “I like to hear him talk about the early days of retail. He’s lively and interesting. In many ways he’s someone to emulate. Stanley Whitman is one of the giants in retailing, because he is in our midst, a lot of people might not realize that.”
Craig Robins certainly does. When he started on his plans for the Design District, Robins went to meet with Whitman. He walked away impressed and hoping that one day they could find a way to collaborate.
“Stanley is one of my heroes,” Robins said. “I have tremendous admiration for him. Stanley proved the value of staying focused and perfecting something.”
Will Robins put a dent in the legacy of his hero? Time will tell.
Whitman acknowledges the Bal Harbour Shops may lose some sales to the Design District. But he’s not in the least concerned about his property’s long-term future.
“I’m firmly convinced we will remain No. 1 in the world,” Whitman said. “The Design District is overblown. If the Omni couldn’t be a threat, Mayfair wasn’t a success and Merrick Park didn’t hurt us, then why should the Design District?”