Stephen Bittel is the chairman and founder of Terranova Corporation, one of the leading commercial real estate firms operating in South Florida. Heading the firm’s ownership and operation of a significant portfolio, Miami native Bittel has also found time in his busy schedule to remain active in his local community, working with a number of non-profit and political organizations toward the betterment of the greater Miami area and the country.
Bittel has expressed with pride his long connection to his hometown of Miami. Born in the public hospital Jackson Memorial, he went on to attend school in the Miami-Dade County public system for his entire primary and secondary education. Upon graduating high school, he traded the balmy Florida heat and palm trees for maple trees and crisp fall air, moving up the coast to a small town in Maine where the prestigious private college Bowdoin College was located. After graduating from the university magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics, he was awarded the Watson Fellowship and spent a year studying abroad before returning to Miami and enrolling in the University of Miami School of Law.
Both Bittel’s father and grandfather were lawyers, and although he initially intended to follow in their footsteps the pull of entrepreneurship sparked by his time abroad proved to be too strong. He made the decision to found Terranova Corporation while still in his second year of law school, and worked tirelessly to build the company out of his home office while still attending law school and eventually passing the bar exam. Navigating through over 41 years of economic cycles and ever-shifting trends, Bittel’s ability to predict trends within the market has seen the business grow to hold a property base of over eight million square feet. It has served as the exclusive agent for more than $5 billion worth of commercial projects and represented notable clients/partners such as Morgan Stanley, Blackrock, Bank of American and New York Life.
In addition to his successful entrepreneurial career, Bittel has sought to maintain an active role in his communities.
He has served on the Boards of the Chapman Partnership, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, Teach for America (TFA), Fairchild Tropical Gardens and the Jackson Memorial Hospital Foundation. Bittel also has served as a trustee member for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Miami-Dade and Temple Beth Am. He has led the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Washington Mission in 2009 and 2010 and is an active supporter and currently serves on the Advisory Board of Achieve Miami.
Where did the idea for Terranova Corporation come from?
While I was a senior at Bowdoin College I was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. It is essentially a grant that enables graduating seniors to pursue a year of independent study outside the United States, or to undertake a “wanderjahr” –– a wander year of travel to study the topic of your own choosing. I decided to research the motivations behind European investment in the United States, a project that followed up on a previous paper I had written while working at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C. on the tax treatment of non-resident investors. A meaningful part of my study involved regular meetings with investment advisors and bankers throughout Europe, and I was struck by the private banking model which provided a one-stop personalized service to high-net-worth individuals. My goal was to replicate this kind of service for offshore investors focused on the United States.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I tend to wake up very early, grind my own coffee beans, make my coffee, read for a while and then exercise –– all before 9 a.m. I am usually communicating with our team continuously after 7:30 a.m., getting us all focused and ready to face the challenges of the day. Our portfolio spans many different operating companies in different industries across a broad geography, so I will mentally scroll through each of the companies to generate questions on the status of pending matters. I next jump on the phone in the morning to take calls before heading to the office in the late morning. Lunch is a time for sharing ideas with our team, usually in the office or at one of our restaurant tenants –– one of our favorites is the Lincoln Eatery Food Hall just off Lincoln Road. The afternoon is usually filled with meetings, more calls and internal reviews of new investment opportunities. The work day typically ends with dinner, where I always try to bring the wine from our home cellar, but not before a disciplined decanting process in the office beforehand. After that it’s usually lights out between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. to ensure I am properly ready for the next day –– after a lifetime of sleeping four to six hours a night, I have matured to enjoy a more normal night’s sleep.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I read like crazy. There are usually several books within my reach at any given time –– some in my study, some by my bed— I am surrounded by books that are waiting to be read, and they are all non-fiction. I also start each day by reading numerous news sources both in print and online, trying to figure out where the world has been and where it is going. I’m a big history buff, so I constantly try to discern trends from the past that can impact our investing and lives. All this exposure to ideas leads me to ask lots of questions –– both internally to myself, and externally of the most knowledgeable people I can find –– on whatever topics I’m probing. Our whole team usually wakes up to find their inboxes filled with articles on topics for them to consider, and they tease me saying that I am their human clipping service. Regardless of the joke, they know that our goal is to have the most educated team in the industries, so we are active in our pursuit of knowledge so we can make the most informed decisions.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Applying scientific and technological advancements to our decisions in every single industry just makes so much sense, but so many people think that just because they aren’t a tech company they don’t need to pay attention to these changes. For example, we started transitioning to double-pane hurricane-proof impact glass on our properties long before building codes required it, which may have seemed costly at the time but has saved us in the long run. Similarly, we switched to LED lighting and added motion detectors 18 year ago. These ideas are becoming more commonplace today, but when we first implemented them we were years ahead of the building codes. After Covid-19 became our new reality we changed the mix of recycled/fresh outside air from 80/20 to 50/50 and upgraded our air conditioning filters from MERV 7 to MERV 13 to create a safer environment for our team. While cost-cutting measures may seem smart in the short-term, they ultimately end up costing you, so I am always looking for the technologies that are the smartest way to run my business, rather than the cheapest.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I have always been a lifetime learner. I fell in love with self-education as a freshman at Bowdoin College where I was taught to be working towards bettering yourself in everything you do, and I have never stopped. My kids always teased me that I was an intensely competitive Scrabble and Monopoly player –– I was not the parent that just let them win because they were children –– and I guess I’m intensely competitive at everything I do, whether that be business, charity, or politics. I have always played to win and can’t imagine doing it any other way.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I probably could have been a much more engaged father when our now adult kids were younger. I was consumed with growing our businesses, always wanting to be in more industries so no one could say I just got lucky in commercial real estate.
Working seven days a week and while on vacation seemed normal back then. Balance was never a lifestyle for me. It was something that happened in a bank account if you were really good at your career. When I learned balance, it was more about developing a team of leaders internally, to do many things I previously did, so I could free up time to make a difference in our local and national community.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. Winners consistently win at whatever they apply themselves to, so we look to invest in people with a history of winning, counting on their need to succeed to motivate them. It is people who are driven to win that are able to constantly reinvent themselves in order to achieve their goals, which we then try our best to align with our goals. I have been criticized in the past for being overly intense and driven, but I came this way and was nurtured by parents, family members and teammates who loved joining on the path. Look at any successful person and you will see that while their paths, industries and even personalities may differ from one another, the single trait they all have is an unrelenting drive. Without that urge, that desire to win, to persist in the face of difficulty and diversity, you will never have the determination and grit to surpass others who do.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Manage your balance sheet, not just your profit and loss statement. I started with a negative net worth and was whatever is less than undercapitalized, which was a necessary evil but difficult nonetheless, and I learned early on that managing your balance sheet as well as your cash flow was critical. The simple fact of the matter is businesses fail when they run out of money, so we are constantly reviewing our assets to think about which we want to hold onto long-term and which are right to move on from. Similarly, we constantly manage debt maturities and costs to match up income and the ability to service them. We try to be good risk managers every single day.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We try to think about how our society is changing and how that will impact living and investing trends. We want to make informed bets on the future, identifying trends, and how they will impact and change the way we do things. Gambling happens in casinos, not in our investing activities where we insist on a thesis to support every idea that we can test and then find a trade based on the test results. The only constant in our world is change, and in today’s modern world thanks to digitization and exponentially evolving technologies that change is happening at a faster and faster rate. That is why it is imperative to keep your finger on the pulse of society no matter what industry you are in, because a change can mean a risk for a company if the market changes and there is no longer a need for one of its products or services.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Oh there have been lots of failures over the years, but the key is to identify them quickly and then move on from them. Good money after bad to try to prove yourself correct is always a losing strategy. For example, we moved on from unanchored strip shopping centers to anchored ones early as a risk-mitigation strategy, and it worked. Next, we moved out of big-box anchored properties to urban retail to avoid what we thought was a coming collapse. On our urban strategy, we retired almost all of our debt to create a more forgiving capital structure which has been a blessing during the coronavirus pandemic. The key is to pivot and readjust.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Surround yourself with the smartest people you can find and never stop asking for their ideas. Pepper them with questions and listen. I take notes on everything to keep them talking and to keep me from talking. I have spoken about my love of reading and how I am always seeking to learn, and I have found that one of the best ways you can make sure you do that is to learn to be a good listener. My father always told me that when you are talking you’re merely repeating something you already know, but when you are listening you have the opportunity to learn something new. I am still working on getting better at this, but it’s a practice that any business owner or leader should consider developing.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I am overtipping everywhere I go these days. We have a substantially destroyed service economy and while I cannot bring it back myself, I am doing my best with as many $100 tips as I can push out. We all have to help those in need and now more than ever. I’m a big believer in working toward the betterment of your communities, and those who work in the service industry are members of that community.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use Duck Duck Go as a web browser to maintain privacy while searching for information and answers on so many subjects. I am never without a device or two with different carriers so I can stay informed on a real-time basis.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
When Tom Peters’ book In Search of Excellence was first published back in the 1980’s I was so struck by it that I purchased the book for my entire leadership team and took them to hear him speak. At the time, most management books and education presented the idea that business is all about rational behavior and numbers. Peters’ book was one of the first to identify that people want more than tangible rewards such as money or things –– they want meaning and purpose as well. Businesses have the ability to give that to them, whether that be as customers or employees, and while the narrative today is much more understanding of this idea I still recommend it as a seminal exploration that was revolutionary in its time.
Being the bibliophile I am, I can’t recommend just one book, so I would also like to mention Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Time by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a detailed explanation of how civilization evolved, and while it requires a focused, attentive reading it is worth it. We study history so that we can learn from it, and I can’t think of a better way to gain an understanding than through a comprehensive study of where we came from.
What is your favorite quote?
At this moment in time I find myself saying all the time: “Never waste a crisis,” a quote that is often attributed to Sir Winston Churchill. Tough times separate entrepreneurs from the pack and it’s a moment to think more deeply, care more about the results, and fight for what you believe to be important in the long run.
- Make learning a lifetime focus.
- Think ahead.
- Surround yourself with the smartest people you can find and never stop asking for their ideas.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.