Aggressive, intense and hardworking are the three words Miami’s Terranova Corp. chairman and founder Stephen Bittel would describe himself as.
“I never felt I was aggressive, but everyone says I am and need to smile more and I’m very focused. I’ve always been overly intense. As a kid, I was always overly intense. I’m very focused on whatever the goal is in front of me, and I’m very prepared. I think being hard working has really defined and created my success professionally,” Bittel said.
Bittel founded Terranova without any capital in the 1980s and said work-life balance was never something he thought about until meeting his financial goals.
Before founding the commercial real estate agency, Bittel attended Bowdoin College, a private liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine. He took the opportunity to study abroad in Europe for a year after receiving a scholarship, and during his year away he wrote a bi-weekly column for the Daily Business Review, applied to law school and received a scholarship to attend the University of Miami Law School.
The Miami native’s father and grandfather were both attorneys.
“Everyone presumed that I would follow in his footsteps, and take over his practice. While we had a great intellectual and emotional connection, after my year in Europe, it was clear I was never going to practice law,” said Bittel.
Bittel’s plans changed because he wanted a more active role with capital. Rather than taking care of it for other people, he wanted to direct it.
“The people I was the most engaged with there were in control of their own capital, and it made me think back about the many dinners back home with family and friends, and all of my parent’s friends talked with excitement and vigor about their real estate investments. None of them were full-time real estate investors because they were doctors, lawyers, mortgage brokers, insurance people and professionals, but they really thought the way to make a difference and build wealth was through real estate,” said Bittel.
In October, in Bittel’s second year at law school, he started what is now known as Terranova Corp., hoping to start working in real estate young so he could do it full-time.
“I graduated with seven employees, and by that time had acquired two strip shopping centers. We had the benefit of those shopping centers. I had borrowed the deposit and raised the equity from one large investor from Germany, and a number of friends and family-type investors locally. We got acquisition fees on the transaction, which then we called just brokerage commissions. We retained a portion of the equity, and also the management leasing, so for the first time, I had regular cash flow,” said Bittel.
Starting a company with no capital was a challenge at first, but Bittel said it came from hard work and determination.
“I was way too young to be doing what I was doing. The first acquisition was for $1,900,051, which in today’s dollars is probably $8 million or $9 million. I was only 24 years old and, of course, I had never owned or operated anything. I persuaded people I was honest and would work hard and make an investment myself, and I would do everything I could to make it successful, and they believed,” Bittel said.
‘The Real Secret’
Bittel’s key to success? Elbow grease.
“The real secret is I have outworked everyone really from my first day of college until today. In college, I developed this unending work stamina which I think really has to do with my success more than anything else.”
Results didn’t come without their lessons, Bittel said.
“I’ve become a much better risk manager on the investing side of the business. 100% of the debt on our portfolio today is non-recourse. That was not always the case, so we’ve learned to operate with less leverage and more equity. That’s enabled us to have a very forgiving capital structure so we can weather the storms of downturns in the economy,” Bittel said.
He also had to learn how to manage his balance sheet.
“We try not to make long-term commitments on the expense side while having short-term commitments on the revenue side. When the market turns, you can get clobbered in the investments. We’re very focused on having a diversified set of revenue streams both in and out, and also a multiplicity of asset classes within the real estate industry,” Bittel said.
Passionate About Giving
Not only is Bittel passionate about building his business, but he loves giving back his time and money to people who need assistance.
“Today I’m on the board of Fairchild Tropical Gardens. The garden is accomplishing great things in research and education plus being a place of beauty,” said Bittel.
In addition to being a board member for Fairchild Gardens, Bittel spearheaded and funded the orchid project on Lincoln Road where 1,000 orchids were planted along the pedestrian street’s trees between Meridian Avenue and Jefferson Avenue. The orchids, which more than a century ago blanketed oak and mahogany trees throughout South Florida, were attached to the Road’s existing trees as part of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s The Million Orchid Project.
With the support of Bittel, the Parkinsons’s Foundation has funded eight centers of excellence and Bittel is now working to get one of its institutions to build a quality brain, fitness or neuroscience center in Miami-Dade County. Bittel and his family also prioritize public services not only by writing a check but also rolling up their sleeves and encouraging others to do the same.
“For most of my life, all of that giving was done anonymously. I don’t think you’re supposed to get any praise for reinvesting into your own community and helping less advantaged people,” Bittel said. “When we get this neuroscience center, we do think we’ll take a more public role in that, but there have been great opportunities to help others.”
Outside of his work, Bittel describes himself as a huge foodie who loves to travel and spend time with his wife, children and grandchildren, who live close by.
“I have a significant wine collection and I’m very passionate about that marriage of food and wine. It’s a marvelous place to share food, company and ideas. In my backyard, I have an orchid collection that numbers close to 2000,” Bittel said.
No matter what industry someone goes to, Bittel advises attaching yourself to the smartest and the most hard-working person you can and try it for a year or two first to get experience.
“Entry-level costs a lot more today than it did back then. At Terranova, we accomplished a lot because we had tools that others didn’t have because of our size. We tried to associate ourselves with the best professionals we could early on in the hopes they would help lift us up, and we think they did. It’s not nearly as easy today to start out on your own as it was back then,” Bittel said.
Once you’re in a good financial place, then Bittel believes it’s key to contribute on a material level if there’s an opportunity to participate on the equity side.
Born: July 1956, Miami
Spouse/Partner/Family: Married to Sabine Bittel, father of three, grandfather to four
Education: Bowdoin College, 1978; University of Miami Law School 1982
Experience: While in law school, Stephen formed Terranova in 1980
Hobbies: Avid non-fiction reader, a fan of the Miami Heat, orchid collector and enjoys fine wine, pescatarian food, and music (when he can find the time.)