Jay Kislak turned 95 the first week of June, and he celebrated in style, with a big party on an aircraft carrier he flew off while serving as an aviator during World War II. The festivities, attended by hundreds of people, celebrated a man who has been a fixture in the real estate and mortgage community for nearly 65 years: the patriarch of The Kislak Organization.
Kislak comes into the Miami Lakes headquarters of The Kislak Organization almost every day when he is in town. He spends his summers in Maine. Kislak has remained chairman of the family-owned business many years after he appointed a protégé, Thomas Bartelmo, as president and CEO.
The organization originally was formed by Julius Kislak in Hoboken, New Jersey, more than a century ago. Jay Kislak moved to Miami in 1953 to grow the mortgage business. When his father became ill, Jay took over the New Jersey operations, too. In 1970, the family merged New Jersey and Florida. Today, its primary lines of business include multifamily and commercial real estate ownership, asset management and brokerage, and tax lien certificate investment funds. It has about 100 employees total in New Jersey and Florida.
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Over the years, The Kislak Organization has steered through the real estate cycles. It divested pieces of the business, including the insurance agency and a $10 billion mortgage-servicing portfolio that the company parceled out among four banks. At one point, the Kislak family even controlled two banks of its own: Skylake State Bank and Kislak National Bank, which eventually merged and were sold to Banco Popular.
Like many real estate companies, Kislak struggled during the recent recession, losing equity in a few of its projects. However, with demand for rental housing strong, Kislak also used the downturn as an opportunity and bought rental housing from banks, boosting its apartment holdings, which are now vast in Texas as well as Florida. Along with multifamily, Kislak also put together funds of property-tax certificates for investors that have provided a good return in a low-interest environment.
Beyond the challenge of overseeing the real estate company, Kislak has been a lifelong collector of rare books and historic artifacts focused particularly on Florida and the Caribbean, exploration, navigation and the early Americas.
In 2004, he and the Jay I. Kislak Foundation donated more than 3,000 rare books, maps, manuscripts and objects to the Library of Congress (estimated to be worth more than $150 million). In January, the Foundation announced its books collections would also have two new permanent homes in South Florida — in the Special Collections Division of the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library in Coral Gables, and at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower in downtown Miami. Assembled over many decades, the Kislak collection includes original source materials related to the history of the early Americas and represents a valuation of about $30 million.
The Jay I. Kislak Foundation and the Kislak Family Foundation have funded and donated books and maps to other institutions as well. Among other things, his family provided key support to a real estate program at Florida State University.
Kislak is a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, World War II naval aviator, patron of the arts and education, and student of history. He continues to read and collect, enjoy life and work — and share his wisdom.
Q: What has changed the most about your industry since you first started The Kislak Organization?
A. My father started the company over 100 years ago, in 1906, and it’s still about the same. Real estate is still location, location, location. We continue to operate the business my father started out of New Jersey.
In our operating business in Miami Lakes, we own apartments all over the county and some small shopping centers. We are either principals, general partners or partners. It has been a good business. We have given away so much of it. We have made hundreds… millions… maybe over a billion. It is a smaller business today.
Q: How has your company evolved to keep up with the changes in the industry and in South Florida overall?
A: It hasn’t. The real estate business is still the same. The mortgage business is a little different because it depends on interest rates and depends on judgment, but in real estate, what counts are the same characteristics: three important things, location, location, location.
Q: Isn’t there more competition today?
A: No, we always had competition. Miami is a magnet for competition.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge in running a family business?
A: The family. They are the biggest challenge.
Q: Did you work with your father?
A: That opens up another situation. Yes and no. I worked some with my father and with my sons. I think that family relations, especially father and sons in a business together, is extremely difficult, and in most cases, not necessarily logical because there are too many feelings involved. There is often — I don’t know when it occurred with me — a competitive relationship which is lurking in the background. It’s a difficult subject.
Q: What have you done right that has allowed your company to survive so many years?
A: I did a lot wrong, and then I spent the rest of time trying to clean it up. The most important thing is to work hard and keep your nose clean. Hard work is the answer to all these questions. To make sure your company continues to do well, you have to work harder than the next guy.
Q: What is the key to managing your company through the cycles in real estate?
A: I don’t know how we did it, we just did it. You have got to deal with where you are every day. Don’t try to plan for a cycle. Take the day and what exists and find a way to deal with it.
Q: How do you bounce back from a mistake?
A: Hard work is the answer to everything. Put in time, listen and select the best the response.
Q: Which of your children are involved in the business today?
A: All of them are on the board. They are all stockholders. Jon on and off ... He was an accountant and the inside man for the mortgage company as its president until 1989.
Q: What has changed the most about Miami-Dade while you have been here?
A: The name has changed, for one thing. Also, I live in a high-rise at 69th [Street] on the bay [in Miami]. I can look at downtown Miami. That’s really changed and they are still building more down there. Where are all those people coming from and what are we going to do with all the cars? Already downtown Miami is a parking lot.
Q: I understand you are a big collector of books. How did you get started collecting?
A: I like books. When I collect enough, I give them away as a group. I won’t give away individual books. I like to collect books because I think I will read them some day. I have read most or glanced through them. The kind of books I like best are biographies or nonfiction. I am not sure how I got interested, but it was probably a woman, maybe one of my girlfriends or wives. I have been married several times... it was probably one of my wives.
My favorite biography is “Hamilton.” [He said he was going to see the show the next day.] I have read the book. I have the discs and the video.
Q: How do you decide where you want to donate your books?
A: When I became involved with Library of Congress, I realized there was nothing more important than books. I gave a bulk of my books away years ago. Of course, I am about to give another couple of thousand each to Miami institutions. I’m thrilled that Miami’s top two institutions of higher education will be using our collections to reveal the importance of Florida in world history.
Q: How much time do you spend reading?
A: Any spare time I have I read. I have two or three books in every bathroom.
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
A: That I’m here. That I am still around. Most of my peers are gone. I spend three or four months a year in Maine when it’s too hot here, but I spend most of my time in Miami. I always planned to do that.
Q: How often do you come in to the office?
A: Almost every day. I never thought of doing anything else. What else would I do during the day? I gave up golf few years ago because I’m too old. I come in the office, and I write letters and answer letters. I dictate them to my secretary. She takes shorthand. I’m still involved in deals.
Q: What is it about real estate that you enjoy?
A: I don’t enjoy it. I try to make money out of it. I don’t dis-enjoy it.
Q: You had your birthday party aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York City?
A: I flew off the carrier once when I was on active duty with the Navy. ... The Intrepid is enormous and has different decks. It holds about 300 people and today it is a museum in New York Harbor.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.
Jay I. Kislak
Title: Chairman, The Kislak Organization. Established in 1906, the company’s primary lines of business today are multifamily and commercial real estate ownership, asset management and brokerage, and tax lien certificate investment funds.
Years in the industry: More than 80 years. (He began working with his father in the business as a youth.)
Foundations: Two independent foundations, The Kislak Family Foundation Inc. and the Jay I. Kislak Foundation Inc., endowed by Jay I. Kislak and his family to carry out active philanthropic and educational programs.
Education: Degree in economics from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, graduated early to enlist in the Navy as an aviator in 1942.
Current certifications: Certified real estate broker (Florida and New Jersey).
Personal: He has been married to Jean for 32 years. Children are Jonathan, in South Florida; Philip, in Arizona; and Paula, in California.
Hobbies: Collecting rare books, maps, manuscripts, paintings, prints and artifacts related to the cultures and history of the early Americas, and polar exploration; collecting contemporary art; travel; flying.