Stroll past the colorful window displays at Aventura Mall, or bask in the marbled surroundings of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Beyond the marquee venues’ beautiful vistas, a family’s life’s work is on display as a second generation of Soffers builds on the multibillion-dollar legacy of their father.
Siblings Jeffrey and Jackie Soffer are expanding Turnberry Associates, adding on to the company’s signature projects: Aventura Mall, the Fontainebleau and Aventura’s Turnberry Isle Miami resort. At the same time, aggressive plans — revealed here for the first time publicly — are under way to develop a 52-story, 150-unit luxury condominium tower, Turnberry Ocean Club, in Sunny Isles Beach. Other major projects are on the roster in Nashville and elsewhere in Florida as the company pours hundreds of millions of dollars into new development.
The tumult, litigation and tens of millions of dollars in losses related to the bankruptcy of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas are now largely in the past. Amid the economic recovery, Turnberry Associates, the real-estate business founded by their father, Donald Soffer, is steaming forward.
“I think we have some of the best assets in the world,” said Turnberry Associates Chairman and Chief Executive Jeffrey Soffer, nattily dressed in an expertly tailored suit while sitting in his Aventura office. “We’re in a great city. It’s cheap compared to the rest of the world. And [Turnberry is] well situated in South Florida in having the properties we have.”
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Soffer, 46, has also long had his eye on expanding the empire beyond Florida, building condo towers and hotels in Las Vegas, Nashville, Arlington, Va., and the Bahamas. Before the Great Recession, he worked to bring casino gambling to the Fontainebleau Miami Beach and expand the Fontainebleau resort brand globally.
Now those goals are back on track for one of South Florida’s largest private owners of real-estate assets, with $700 million in annual revenue.
A diversified developer of more than $7 billion in commercial and residential projects, Turnberry’s assets are among the top in their categories. The 2.6 million-square-foot, majority-owned Aventura Mall, whose annual sales volume reaches $1.7 billion, is the fourth largest mall in the country in size, according to figures from the International Council of Shopping Centers. The 1,504-room, iconic Fontainebleau Miami Beach, which reopened in 2008 after a $1 billion renovation, ranks as the largest resort in South Florida, drawing conferences, as well as families and scores of celebrities, offering 12 restaurants, 10 pools, a spa and nightclub. And the 407-room Turnberry Isle, with two 18-hole Raymond Floyd-designed golf courses, attracts wealthy families and avid golfers.
Other assets include Destin Commons, a lifestyle shopping center in Destin; Fontainebleau Aviation, a fixed-base operator at Opa-locka Executive Airport; seven other hotels and two office properties, all in Nashville, Orlando and South Florida.
“Through the recession, we had our set of problems, but our assets, from an operational perspective, always performed,” said Jackie Soffer, 48, Turnberry Associates’ principal, whose oversight includes all retail projects. Aventura Mall, she said, witnessed double-digit sales increases each year, even during the downturn.
Indeed, although the economic crisis derailed and disabled scores of other developers, Turnberry, with large stakes in the hard-hit resort sector, was able to survive with those assets intact, said Miami hospitality analyst Mark Lunt. (That’s aside from losing the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, which was still under construction.) Far more capital-intensive than other types of lodgings, the resort sector “has been through the ringer in the last cycle,” as such properties tend to have larger grounds, spas, tennis courts, more food and beverage facilities and require a great deal of maintenance, he said.
“Many sophisticated, well-capitalized players lost assets in the downturn,” said Lunt, who leads the hospitality practice at Ernst & Young in Miami. “It’s commendable that they were able to hang on to the Fontainebleau and Turnberry [Isle]. You have to be a deep-pocketed player and savvy investor to have ridden out this cycle and be able to recapitalize and retain assets as they have done.”
Jeffrey Soffer sees the big picture: “Whatever I lost in Las Vegas,” he said, “I did well in Miami.”
Explosion of growth
Turnberry’s roots are embedded in the former swampland of Aventura. Donald Soffer, a developer from Pittsburgh, bought 785 acres of submerged land in northeast Miami-Dade County in 1967 and jump-started the creation of the now-bustling city of condo and townhome residences, with a shopping mall that now attracts 28 million visitors a year.
“The Soffer family is one of the real pioneers of development of South Florida,” said Jack McCabe, chief executive of McCabe Research & Consulting in Deerfield Beach.
Donald Soffer created the Turnberry brand, borrowing the name of the luxury Scottish golf resort on the Ayreshire coastline, to convey a luxurious, country club lifestyle.
He started with the Aventura Club in 1970, changing its name to Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in 1980 and opening Turnberry Yacht & Racquet Club, and, in 1983, Aventura Mall — at that time less than half the size it is today. In the 1990s, Porto Vita’s luxury townhomes, mid-rises and condos were launched, and other nearby residential projects followed. Aventura Mall undertook its first expansion. And plans began to build the condo tower Turnberry Place Las Vegas.
Since 2000, much more expansion has come. The company built condo towers at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach and later bought the hotel for $325 million from Stephen Muss. Destin Commons, the first major mixed-used lifestyle center in Destin, opened. New condo towers in Las Vegas were completed, as was a mixed-use lifestyle center on the Las Vegas strip, and plans were announced for the Fontainebleau Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Aventura Mall underwent more expansion, bringing in a two-level Nordstrom and 30 high-end retailers, including Missoni, Façonnable and Herve Leger.
With Jeffrey Soffer at the helm, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach underwent a four-year, $1 billion renovation, with reopening festivities in 2008 that included a concert by Mariah Carey and Robin Thicke and celebrity guests including Gwyneth Paltrow, Paris Hilton and a bevy of Victoria’s Secret models. Yet, mounting costs and financial pressure led Turnberry to sell a 50 percent stake in the hotel to a resort company owned by the Dubai government. Jeffrey Soffer used $200 million of the $375 million in proceeds to cover cost overruns.
Still, the Lehman Brothers collapse led creditors to stop funding construction, and by 2009, the Fontainebleau Las Vegas filed for bankruptcy protection. Turnberry also entered arbitration with Fairmont Hotels, and in 2011 ousted it as a management company after claiming it had mismanaged Turnberry Isle.
In December 2013, a settlement agreement with creditors for the Fontainebleau Las Vegas was approved by the bankruptcy court. Turnberry also bought back the government of Dubai’s stake in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach for $370 million.
Jeffrey Soffer blames the bankruptcy on Lehman Brothers’ collapse and the banking industry’s ensuing tailspin, which caused lenders to stop funding his construction. At the same time, consumers reduced spending on non-essentials such as vacations and gambling. Average annual consumer expenditures on travel for pleasure peaked at $1,462 in 2007 and fell to a low of $1,273 in 2009, before rising again, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
Soffer now views the Fontainebleau Las Vegas’ bankruptcy — considered one of the biggest busts of the U.S. real-estate crisis — as a bump in the road, the type that many developers have faced in their careers.
“You win some, you lose some,” he said, referring to the losses, which he will only peg at “tens of millions of dollars” from the 70 percent-finished Fontainebleau Las Vegas. The remains are now in the hands of investor Carl Icahn.
“Any big developer has gone through their share of hard times, but it is how you get through them that makes you stronger.” he said.
“You learn from your mistakes,” he added. “It’s all an experience.”
The $178 million settlement approved by the bankruptcy court in Miami gives contractors about $85 million, with construction lenders recouping most of the balance. The settlement money comes from $93 million in proceeds from Icahn, $33 million from title companies that backed the project, and a $50 million completion guarantee funded by Jeffrey and Jackie Soffer.
Claims are still being paid as they are verified, said Soneet Kapila, of Fort Lauderdale-based Kapila & Co, the bankruptcy trustee on the case. He calls the settlement “a huge success for many of the creditors.”
“It’s a very sophisticated and complex case with very complicated financial structures for the debt,” Kapila said. “And as a result, it has taken a long time to bring the competing constituencies to consensus.”
Not everyone was pleased.
“We felt cheated, of course,” said Henry Marinello, attorney for Tracy & Ryder Landscape, in Las Vegas, “because my client was owed $1.8 million, and many of the creditors were owed substantial money and were left hanging.” He said his client’s claim is still pending, but he does not expect the landscaping contractor to get more than 20 cents on the dollar.
Meanwhile, other litigation continues. Kapila said he is pursuing bankruptcy avoidance actions, as well as a directors and officers liability case against Jeffrey Soffer and other directors and officers of Fontainebleau Las Vegas, seeking multimillions of dollars. And Jeffrey Soffer said he is still in litigation with Five Mile Capital Partners, a Connecticut-based mezzanine lender on the Fontainebleau Las Vegas.
Additional litigation, related to $60 million in contractor claims for renovations at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, is closed, and the contractors have been paid, the company said.
Still, another high-profile suit is still pending, related to a 2012 helicopter crash in the Bahamas that killed Jeffrey Soffer’s friend, Lance Valdez, and injured Soffer. Valdez’s wife, Daria Pastouhkova Gogoleva, has sued Soffer, saying that he piloted the helicopter. Soffer has maintained he was not at the chopper’s controls.
“I deny all the allegations. I was a passenger,” Soffer said. “I feel terrible. But I was not flying.”
Turnberry Associates bases its headquarters in an office building in Aventura, near the resort and mall. There, Jackie, the more conservative, detail-oriented of the sibling principals, handles all retail operations, including Aventura Mall. She joined Turnberry after getting her bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Colorado and teaching ski school in Aspen for two years.
“My father called me and said, ‘I did not send you to college for four years so you could teach ski school. You need to work.’ ”
So despite a love of the mountains, she came home to the family business, where she focuses on improving and upgrading the company’s assets. She sees the role as a commitment to both her family and to the community.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” she said of the family legacy. “There are a lot of siblings.”
In fact, Donald Soffer, 81, who recently married his fifth wife, Michele, at the Fontainebleau, has fathered seven children. One son, 32-year-old Rock Soffer, just a few years ago discovered that he was part of the billionaire family. He now works in the family business and has an office in Aventura.
Such is the soap opera fodder that often lands the family on the gossip pages. Don Soffer even had a role in the 1987 Gary Hart scandal. He co-owned the 82-foot “Monkey Business,” the yacht in which presidential candidate Hart was photographed with model Donna Rice sitting on his lap.
And Jeffrey Soffer, for his part, is cemented in the realm of tabloid and entertainment news after marrying Australia-born supermodel, television personality and lingerie-line owner Elle MacPherson last year in Fiji.
Jeffrey, an aggressive developer and risk-taker, studied one semester of community college in Gainesville. An avid boat racer, he started running his own boat dealership in 1988, backed by his father. By 1993, he had turned his attention to real-estate development, building condominiums in Las Vegas. He now oversees everything from hospitality to residential and new development.
A pilot, Jeffrey often jets between homes in Indian Creek Village off Miami Beach, the Bahamas and Aspen, pursuing hobbies that include skiing and fishing.
Though perhaps lower-profile, Jackie is also linked to a high-profile partner. She lives in Miami Beach with Dacra President and CEO Craig Robins, who is redeveloping Miami’s Design District. Both are major art collectors, and Jackie has brought 10 world-class art installations to Aventura Mall, including Jaume Plensa’s Florida’s Soul and Louise Bourgeois’s Eye Benches.
Another sister, Brooke, owns various retail stores at Turnberry properties, including Philipp Plein at Aventura Mall and all the shops at the Fontainebleau.
Leonard Abess, the former owner of City National Bank of Florida, has known the Soffers for decades and said he has long been a fan of the family.
“It was a privilege and a pleasure to do business with them. They are a lot of fun. They are very generous people with their friends and their time. They are just really good people,” Abess said.
“Other people see the flash and the Fontainebleau, visions of playboys,” he added. “That is just people who don’t know them.”
Besides Aventura Mall, the Fontainebleau and Turnberry Isle, Abess cites as groundbreaking the Porto Vita project, which sold not just units but a lifestyle in Aventura, as well as properties in Nashville. He lauds Jeffrey Soffer as a pioneer in Las Vegas, building the first four high-rise condo towers.
“They were diversified in real estate, so when the crash came, they weren’t concentrated on any one thing,” Abess said. “So that is why they were able to get through it. And what happened in Las Vegas [the Fontainebleau Las Vegas bankruptcy] was a one-off thing.”
Planning the future
Indeed, the Soffers have fared well in Miami, a coveted hospitality market that ranks in the top five U.S. cities for revenue per available room, Lunt said.
“Miami is one of the only urban-resort destinations other than Honolulu where it is a vacation resort getaway, with diverse market segmentation between corporate, group and leisure business, and 50/50 between domestic and international,” Lunt said. “It all comes together to make Miami highly sought-after. And Miami was one of the first cities to bounce back quickly after the market dipped in 2009.”
The Fontainebleau, in particular, has paid off.
“They made a big bet on the Fontainebleau, positioning it as a Vegas hotel without the casino, and it works really well: marquee restaurants, a club everyone wants to be at, and just a good vibe,” Lunt said. “But it opened right into the recession. Numbers were not showing up and they had to rejigger away from trendy hipsters that they wanted to the more family-vacation and group demand, and they did that well.”
Lunt sums up the company: “They fly under the radar and they go about their business very quietly, aggressively, and they make big bets. And we will continue to hear interesting things from Turnberry.”
In fact, the next few years will bring a host of new projects as the company invests hundreds of millions of dollars on development, with its own equity and financing from a group of national lenders. On some of the larger deals, the company said it partners with international private-equity groups while maintaining the role of managing partner.
A third, 241,000-square-foot, three-floor addition to Aventura Mall is planned that will extend from the area where Sephora is now, on the first level, and where the food court is on the second level. It will add about 30 more retailers to the 300 existing stores. A smaller, more upscale food court will replace the existing dining space. Plans are still in the works, and construction is expected to be completed by 2016, Jackie Soffer said.
“The direction is to upgrade the mall, increase the quality of tenants and cater to our customers,” she said.
Aventura Mall, one-third owned by Simon Property Group, has a mix of 60 percent domestic and 40 percent international customers, with half of those foreign customers coming from Latin America. And it has seen its demand build for more retailers. In the past year or so, the mall has added such luxury retailers as Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Rolex, Brooks Brothers, Sandro, Red Valentino and Longchamp. Tiffany & Co. will open in June. Although leases have not yet been signed, the mall’s new space will have a mix of new and relocated tenants that will include more luxury brands, Jackie Soffer said.
Retail analyst Cynthia Cohen calls Aventura Mall “a very significant mall both in the South Florida area, as well as in the country.”
“Aventura is important because of the volume that it does and also the number of visitors that it gets,” said Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, “because it really gets a tremendous amount of out-of-state and out-of-country travelers. So a retailer recognizes that its brand is represented to more than just the local population.”
Cohen expects new tenants might include Saturday, a new concept by Kate Spade, and UNIQLO, a popular Japanese brand that is rapidly opening stores in the United States, with 17 shops currently and five more opening by this summer. Zara, which was previously at Aventura Mall, would also be expected to return, while new food options would likely be added, Cohen said.
Nationwide, super-regional malls like Aventura are running 94.6 percent occupancy on average. And as the recovery unfolds, mall owners with access to capital or credit are reinvesting in their facilities, said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers.
“We are in a period of redevelopment — that is absolutely a trend,” he said.
Keeping an “eclectic” mix of tenants is key, as is offering more sit-down dining and entertainment options, he said.
“Shopping is about access and the experience you can give a shopper,” Jeffrey Soffer said. “We have everything from the Gap to Louis Vuitton, and everything in between.”
In addition to the new expansion at Aventura Mall, Turnberry Associates’ Destin Commons is also undergoing a $50 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion anchored by the region’s first H&M, to be completed in July.
Other growth is coming at Turnberry Isle, which will undergo a $60 million renovation and 200-room expansion that will also include 15,000 square feet of meeting space. Work is due to begin in the summer of 2015. The hotel also will add a new, as-yet-unnamed restaurant, in partnership with celebrity chef Scott Conant of Scarpetta, this fall.
“I call it refining,” Jeffrey Soffer said. “My focus is to refine what we have.”
Fontainebleau Miami Beach, which just closed its Gotham Steak restaurant, is also set to expand. Jeffrey Soffer is planning to add new suites to the top of the iconic resort designed by Morris Lapidus, which first opened in 1954. Today, year-round occupancy is 81 percent, and average rates top $300, he said. The resort contributes $17.55 million to the city of Miami Beach in bed taxes.
Soffer now plans to add at least two more stories of large hotel suites, with private elevators and butler service, atop one of the hotel’s towers. The expansion would be completed in 2015 or 2016. A private theater for concerts would come later, he said.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the resort, which still retains much of its mid-century glamor, was bustling, with a mix of vacationers and conference attendees. Below the lobby, where four miles of corridors connect an underground tunnel linked to all the restaurants, preparations were under way for what executive chef Thomas Connell said is the largest Passover program in the country, cooking for 2,000 people over 10 days.
Outside, sun worshipers frolicked by the pools. Jenny Isenbarger and her family, from Zionsville, Ind., were on day two of a six-night stay.
“It’s fun,” said Isenbarger, 54, an account executive at a regional magazine company. “It’s a complete change of pace from the Midwest.”
As another step toward expanding beyond South Florida, Jeffrey Soffer is planning, in Nashville, an as-yet-unnamed $300 million hotel-residential high-rise project, which he said is the first mixed-used property in city’s downtown area. The 3.5-acre site will have 250 condo residences. Preconstruction sales will begin next year, with construction slated to begin in the first quarter of 2016, Soffer said.
‘The next level’
Back in South Florida, amid the surge of new condo construction, Jeffrey Soffer said he plans to launch a new luxury condo tower. Turnberry Ocean Club, the company’s 13th residential project, will rise on land the company has owned for more than 30 years. As Soffer pulls out renderings of the 52-story building with 150 units, designed by Carlos Zapata, he says that sales are expected to launch in fall of this year. Condos will be priced from $3 million to $22 million. Groundbreaking is scheduled for early 2015.
It’s another move for Turnberry in Sunny Isles Beach, where the company was among the early luxury condo developers, building Oceania Island Tower V in 2003 and selling out Turnberry Ocean Colony’s two oceanfront towers in 2006.
Turnberry’s newest condos in Sunny Isles Beach will join about 28,000 new units under development in South Florida — more than half of which are in Miami-Dade County. On the stretch of oceanfront in Sunny Isles, Turnberry’s new project will compete with other luxury towers like Jade Signature and the Mansions at Acqualina.
Yet McCabe, the analyst, said the combination of high demand in the area and Turnberry’s record of quality construction are positive factors.
“They have an excellent reputation that bodes very well for their future development,” he said.
Even more Turnberry empire-building is in the works, although an attempt last year to move Miami-Dade County’s western Urban Development Boundary — to make way for Soffer and its partners to develop an entertainment, recreation and retail center — was withdrawn, and plans are on hold.
Among other ventures, Jeffrey Soffer has his sights set on constructing a 300,000-square-foot office building on the west side of Aventura Mall, facing Biscayne Boulevard.
And Soffer also is planning a $20 million expansion for Fontainebleau Aviation’s seven-hangar FBO at Opa-locka Executive Airport, where he will add 60,000 square feet and a new facility.
The seemingly endless array of new projects are all part of the strategy of improving the company’s assets and growing organically, he said.
“What I am most proud about as a company is what we have created, what my father did,” Jeffrey Soffer said, “and how we have taken it to the next level.”