Business Monday

Q&A with Donna Abood: Traffic, finding office space major ‘issues’ for Miami

Beacon Council Chairwoman Donna Abood on Oct. 21, 2015.
Beacon Council Chairwoman Donna Abood on Oct. 21, 2015.

Donna Abood tricked her way into a life in Miami.

Her father, a residential developer in the Tampa Bay area, wanted Abood to work at his company back home. But after she graduated from college in 1981, she said she wanted to live in the Magic City, just for a year, to learn business in a big city.

“After one year, I told my father that I would stay for one more year,” Abood said. “One year led to another year, and another, and another. Miami had gotten under my skin.”

Abood worked for others in real estate before starting her own company, Abood and Associates, which focused on the office market, in 1989. She merged with competitor Michael Fay’s firm in 2002 before being acquired by Avison Young, a company with global reach, in 2014.

Abood has since become part of the fabric of Miami’s business community, rising to the post of principal and managing director at Avison Young and serving as the 2014-2015 chair of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade’s public-private economic development arm.

She answered these questions from the Miami Herald via email. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why did you take on your role as 2014-2015 Chair at the Beacon Council? What did you hope to accomplish?

A. I was one of the original members of the Beacon Council when it was founded in 1985, so it is especially significant to me to be part of the organization, and to have served as its Chair, on its 30th anniversary. Looking back over the past three decades, being part of the Beacon Council has been the best investment I’ve made.

Through the organization, I’ve seen firsthand the tremendous impact we have contributed to over the years to Miami, bringing thousands of new companies into Miami and growing existing businesses. I have watched these very companies create more than 100,000 jobs and invest over $4.5 billion dollars into our local economy.

These and other empirical facts point to the success of the organization, however, I also wanted under my tenure as Chair to capitalize on a less quantifiable but equally impactful part of the organization: the intrinsic and unbiased questions the organization has raised over the years. Our ability to raise issues and concerns to better our community as proudly as we celebrate its success and progress allows for the Beacon Council to take an important seat at the “Miami” table.

I led a charge to make a difference in the stability of our newest growth cycle. Through this, I helped with the discourse of numerous issues that will effect change for years to come, and I am proud of the legacy I have stamped. However, I continue in earnest as a member of the organization to further brand itself in Miami. I will contribute my time to gain a higher level of support of private businesses through participation and funding, as well as an uptick in member engagement.

Q: What do you think are the problems that businesses in Miami face? During your time as Beacon Council chair, how did you address them?

A. I believe that Miami is dealing with “issues” rather than “problems.” Every city across the country has issues, and especially ones experiencing growth. My viewpoint on issues that Miami faces are a reaction from all the amazing attributes our region has been able to cultivate over the past couple of decades. I will concede that better foresight and planning for our city’s growth could have been implemented, but since life is about moving forward, I took my role at Beacon Council to focus on progress.

The prevalent recurring issues raised under my tenure were traffic and infrastructure. I took the opportunity early on to establish an ongoing dialogue with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez. This discourse, focused primarily from a business perspective, led to the creation of the Beacon Council’s Transportation Panel this past September . . . which brought the issue front and center in an open dialogue with community members and business leaders.

Its result was a commitment to bring the community, its industries and sectors and organizations, together to have one agenda and one goal of creating a master plan for transportation. The Beacon Council reached out to, and partnered with, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Latin Builders Association. We have already impacted change together, and our questions will continue to make inroads.

Q: Why has the Beacon Council chosen to focus on the seven industries that are part of the One Community One Goal project? What gains have been made?

A. The Beacon Council has long played a role in addressing and influencing underlying concerns and rectification. Through our “One Community One Goal” initiative, we are committed to diversifying Miami-Dade’s economy by targeting seven industries poised for growth: Aviation, Banking & Finance, Creative Design, Hospitality & Tourism, Information Technology, Life Sciences & Healthcare, and Trade & Logistics.

This initiative was started in the late ’80s by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and was broadened to a community-wide initiative by the Beacon Council. Within the seven target industries are seven committees dedicated to a specific industry. This allows each sector to have focus and clarity, goals and accountability. It also has allowed us to remember we not only have an overarching goal but remain committed to the communities we serve.

Over the past year, we worked with the presidents of Miami-Dade-based universities to create academic programs and curricula focused on educating students with the skills needed for positions within the seven sectors of growth, all of which are above minimum wage level.

The tangible results of this effort can be seen at FIU. A comprehensive website has been created to match internship opportunities at businesses throughout Miami-Dade that mirror the growth industries to students with applicable skills. The portal, hosted at FIU but available to all students throughout Miami-Dade, will hopefully boost Miami’s numbers of interns who receive permanent positions above the national average of 65 percent.

Q: You’ve expressed concerns in the past that Miami is focusing on luxury condo development at the expense of new, class-A office space. How big of a problem is this, and do you think it is preventing businesses from moving downtown?

A. The lack of new, class-A office product could be a significant problem in Miami if our economy continues to be robust as it is. Over the past year, 44 new companies have entered the Miami-Dade market, and existing companies have expanded. This has resulted in 1,936 direct jobs and $412.5 million in capital investment.

Today, the overall vacancy rate for office space is 11 percent in Miami. Historically, when a city experiences single-digit vacancy rates in office space, it stunts corporate growth due to lack of large blocks of space for new-to-market businesses and little room for existing businesses to expand.

The economics of building new office assets in key markets in Miami are not favorable for developers, as available land is being acquired for prices that can only be recouped through building luxury condos. This inhibits businesses, and in turn workforce, from moving into our urban core.

Q: Wages in Miami are low compared to housing prices. What are the best ways to raise local wages?

A. Various parts need to move in concert in order to be effective. From the perspective of bringing above minimum wage positions to Miami, the Beacon Council continues to drive growth of new-to-market businesses and advancements within businesses already in Miami within the seven sectors. It’s not enough to say, “Build it and they will come.” For lasting impact to occur, we need to focus and fund the intellectual infrastructure necessary to fill the need for skilled labor. To accommodate this need, our focused efforts with universities will serve to prepare students for meaningful jobs in the workforce, further attracting more students (and potential future residents) to our area.

Donna Abood

Current position: Principal and managing director, Miami, Avison Young

Born: Detroit, Michigan. Moved to St. Petersburg Beach when she was 3.

Education: Graduated from Florida State University in 1981 with a bachelor of arts degree in Marketing and Management.

Personal life: Not married; daughter, 17.

Hobbies: Running, music, reading, visiting her condo in Jensen Beach, and enjoying the sound of the ocean

Charity work: Abood is a board member of the following institutions: Miami Light House for the Blind; School of Business-Florida State University; Real Estate Advisory Board- Florida State University; School of Architecture and Urban Design-University of Miami; the Beacon Council.