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.”
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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.
“One of the things I admire most about Stanley and his family is that they’re very protective of the center,” said Wayne Hussey, senior vice president of real estate and store development with Neiman Marcus, who previously held the same position with Saks Fifth Avenue. “Stanley is a man of his convictions. He’s very forthright and candid. With Stanley, you know the playing field and where you stand. You have to respect him for that.”
Challenges to legacy
For decades, Whitman has fought to protect Bal Harbour’s unique position in the market. Now, that legacy faces what could be its greatest challenge.
For years the family argued there was room for only one luxury destination in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and used leases with “radius’’ clauses to discourage rivals. Now, the Whitman family has decided to take ownership in two other retail projects in South Florida. The Whitmans have partnered with Swire Properties on the retail component of Brickell CityCentre and are also part of one of the two groups bidding to redevelop the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Those moves came as a reaction to a changing retail marketplace that has the Bal Harbour Shops facing the stiffest competition in its history. Some of Bal Harbour’s most prominent luxury retailers — Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Hermes, Dior and Celine — have closed their doors in Bal Harbour and opened in the Miami Design District.
Whitman blames it all on the fourth richest man in the world. That would be Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of the French luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, whose stable of brands have lead the way in the departure from Bal Harbour. L Real Estate, a Paris-based investment fund backed by LVMH, is partnering with Craig Robins on the redevelopment of the Design District.
“Without [Arnault] there wouldn’t be a Design District,” Whitman said. “He wanted more space and we didn’t have it.”
Whitman’s son Randy and grandson Matthew Whitman Lazenby, who handled the negotiations, say they made every effort to work with Louis Vuitton and the other brands. Executives from Louis Vuitton and LVMH declined to comment for this story.
“They gave us an ultimatum: give us 20,000 square feet or we’re going to leave,” Randy Whitman said. “To kick out 10 to 20 tenants to accommodate them that just was not fair.”
Whitman’s ‘set of rules’
Yet, luxury retailers and others close to the industry say the story isn’t as black-and-white as what the Whitmans describe. For decades the Whitman family has had a reputation in the industry of being arrogant. They used their power to dictate how much space each retailer could have and who would get the choice first floor locations. Punishment meant exile to the second, less trafficked, level.
The Bal Harbour leases originally prohibited retailers from having another store south of Worth Avenue. In recent years, that was cut back to prohibiting another store in Miami-Dade County, unless retailers wanted to pay Bal Harbour a portion of the sales at the second store. The only exception was following the settlement of litigation related to the opening of the Village of Merrick Park.
“Stanley’s method of protecting his turf served him very well for quite a long time,” said Arthur Weiner, chairman of AWE Talisman, a Coral Gables firm that handles retail leasing and development. “He had a set of rules and he made those rules very clear. They may have been rude. They may have been limiting. They may have been distasteful, but he saw it as his job.”
The problem industry experts say: As Miami grew, the Whitmans were slow to adapt.
“The writing has been on the wall for a long time,” Weiner said. “They fought the good fight and fought it with blinders. They just assumed they could hold the line.”
A power shift
These days, the balance of power has swung and the luxury brands are the ones dictating the course. Based on the growth of Miami’s luxury market over the last decade, retailers see a need for expansion — either adding multiple stores in the region or more space to showcase their brand in a flagship store.
“[Bal Harbour Shops] will have some hefty competition now for the first time,” said Robert Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermes of Paris, which closed this month in Bal Harbour and opened in the Design District. “I’m sure they will continue to do well, but it will present some challenges.”
Facing those challenges directly won’t be Stanley Whitman, since his role in the company is more that of an advisor. At the helm is son Randy Whitman, who serves as managing partner and oversees the physical property upkeep. Grandson Matthew Whitman Lazenby is next in line as operating partner and responsible for leasing, the mall’s expansion and day-to-day operations.
As part of an estate planning strategy, Stanley Whitman divested his ownership in the Bal Harbour Shops more than a decade ago to Randy and his daughter Gwen Lazenby, Matthew’s mother. The other two-thirds of the mall are owned by the family members of Whitman’s two late brothers.
But even at 94, Whitman wouldn’t be anywhere else. If he’s feeling well, he comes to the office between three and five days a week, where he reads the trade magazines, signs checks and stays up-to-date on everything happening both in the industry and on the property. His quick wit and memory are still very much intact. While Randy Whitman, who at 69, is angling toward retirement, that’s not a word in Stanley’s vocabulary.
Whitman is still not shy about voicing his opinions. He doesn’t agree with the plan for the mall’s expansion that grandson Lazenby, 35, is proposing because he thinks it’s going to be too costly and take too long.
The plan, which has not yet been submitted to Bal Harbour for approval, would allow for the construction of another 225,000 square feet including more small luxury shops, a potential department store and maybe a luxury movie theater. The newest design creates a circular loop in the center of the shops, includes knocking down the existing parking garage, taking over the land now occupied by the Church by the Sea and rebuilding the church on some of the center’s existing property. The soonest an expansion could be ready would be late 2015 — and it could take until 2017, Lazenby said.
Whitman favors another design that would convert Bal Harbour’s linear layout to more of an L-shaped design. It’s similar to a plan Whitman began working on himself more than a decade ago. Ultimately, he says the decision will be left to his son and grandson.
“They’re going to live with the expansion, not me,” Whitman said. “I’ll be very happy if I live to see it. I don’t think a 94-year-old man has any business trying to control a business from beyond the grave.”
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?”