Dev and Nitin Motwani grew up in motels. Their parents, Ramesh and Ramola Motwani, had immigrated from India and moved from St. Charles, Mo., to the bright lights of Fort Lauderdale Beach in 1986 — buying the Merrimac Beach Resort motel with an intention to capitalize on the voracious spring break crowds that regularly descended on the resort town at the time.
A month after they moved, in a bid to reposition Fort Lauderdale into a more family-friendly tourist destination, the town decided to end its hosting of such bacchanals. While chaos — and foreclosures — ensued for many business owners in the wake of the repositioning, the Motwanis decided to move forward with the town and be part of its next, more grown-up iteration.
The influence of their parents’ approach to development wasn’t apparent to the Motwani brothers until later in life, when they left Wall Street jobs to pursue their own careers in real estate. Just as their parents once did, they’ve brought a community-first focus to the path they’ve forged as adults, and an unwavering determination to see projects through.
Today, the brothers’ resume already includes Miami Worldcenter, a $6 billion mixed-use project comprising retail, office, hospitality and residential buildings, and the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences Fort Lauderdale. That’s just the start, though, for their company Merrimac Ventures, whose portfolio and forthcoming projects read like a wish list for investors eyeing the South Florida market today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Commercial Observer: Your parents owned motels when you were growing up. What was it like growing up in a real estate family?
Dev Motwani: The joke between Nitin and I is that we never actually realized we were in real estate. We lived in motels, so we knew we were in the motel business, which — when we were young — was interesting, maybe even cool. We were on Fort Lauderdale Beach in the ’80s during spring break, and it wasn’t until we were in our teens that we understood what those crazy college kids were doing.
We had moved from the Midwest, from outside of St. Louis, and we lived in the business. Our living room growing up was connected to the front desk, so anytime a desk clerk didn’t show up, we were working the desk. If a maid said they couldn’t come in, we were making the beds. If the maintenance guy couldn’t come in, we were changing TVs. I joke that I have a bad back today from carrying around heavy TVs as a child.
I think that’s why when we both went away to college, we never thought about coming back to Florida and working in the family business, because we didn’t want to run motels. We saw how hard our parents worked. They had a 24/7 business and, when our dad passed, Mom stepped in and did it all with the same amount of hours in the day. I don’t know how she managed, but she did.
Nitin and I went off to Duke University, then we both worked on Wall Street, and it wasn’t until we started working on our first developments that we realized it was a real estate business that our parents had, more so than just a motel business. Our parents had a much broader vision around what to do with the land they acquired, and they redeveloped a lot of Fort Lauderdale Beach. It was a vision that they shared, and kind of a crazy vision to have back in the ’80s — when all it was all spring break motels — but they were committed to it. We were fortunate that as we got older and the market matured, it was time to take advantage of the real estate component, and we were of age where we could step in and help Mom with that.
Nitin Motwani: We moved here as immigrants, lived in these motels, and our parents paid a premium to close [on their motel acquisition] in time for spring break, only to be told a month later that was the year Fort Lauderdale had decided to end spring break. But, while everybody was getting foreclosed on and losing their properties and yelling and screaming and cursing at the city, our parents took a different approach — asking “If spring break isn’t what you want, what do you want?” although trying to define it as a future destination for Four Seasons was not even in the cards at the time. It was more like, “OK, let’s try to get a Hilton.”
Watching our parents go through that didn’t make sense as children, but it certainly got into our DNA when we both came back from New York. It wasn’t just about building projects. It was about being a part of the community and rolling up our sleeves. We’ve seen that approach in the work my brother’s done to finish my parents’ vision in Fort Lauderdale Beach, and then what we’ve done with Miami Worldcenter. It’s not just a business for us. This is our home, this is our community, this is where I’m raising my kids. So we want to be a part of it in a holistic way.
When did the penny drop that you wanted to follow in your folks’ footsteps?
Nitin: The cool thing about working at a New York investment bank is they gave you a business card that didn’t include a title. When my mom traveled to New York to meet with developers or hotel flags, I’d show up and put down my Goldman Sachs card and they would take me seriously, even though I was 22 years old and had no idea what they were talking about. But, through that process, we started to understand what our business could be, and it was very intriguing for us — the idea of creating something that outlives you and helps with community building. That’s what prompted me to quit Wall Street and go to Columbia to get my master’s in real estate — to better understand this industry before committing to it. In New York, we didn’t have access to capital and didn’t grow up in a traditional real estate family or have relationships with institutions, so the barriers to entry were just too high. I didn’t want to work for a real estate company, so I moved back in 2004 to start trying to figure out how I could play in that space.
Dev: The moment I realized what could be was when Mom called us — Nitin was at Goldman, I was at Credit Suisse — and said, “I’m coming up next week for a meeting. Can you get off for lunch?” We both worked on the trading floors and said, “Mom, we don’t get lunch off. Why do you want us to leave the desk? What’s the meeting?” And she said, “Well, I’ve got a lunch scheduled with Donald Trump and I thought you might want to join.” This is going back 20 years, so pre-”The Apprentice,” pre-politics. But the fact the door was open to us told me that there was something there. All the big developers at the time were in New York, but they were all starting to look at Florida, so having assets down there put us in a good position.
Nitin: One of the things about growing up in the motel business, as Dev said, was we did everything. There was no difference between us and all the people working there, except they got paid — we provided child labor [laughs]. I think that gives you an appreciation for how hard people are working day to day. Then, obviously working on the trading floors and being around these incredible huge deals and opportunities, we realized how big the world actually is — which was an eye-opener initially when we got to Wall Street.
When we came back, we approached it a different way, which is why we — after being in the business 20 years — are still meeting with neighbors in the community to make sure we’re doing what is desired, and asking what can be helpful and productive. Same with elected officials, contractors, subcontractors and investors. It’s almost like being a chameleon: We can fit in anywhere because we’ve interacted with all types of people. For me, that’s been an incredible gift that I didn’t really appreciate until I matured in the industry.
In terms of you forging your own path, what did that look like in the early days?
Nitin: When I moved back in 2004, our parents had assembled one full city block — which is now the Conrad Fort Lauderdale — and they had started to acquire the second block next door. Unfortunately, that’s when my father passed away. So when I moved back, I finished acquiring that site — which is now the Four Seasons — and my brother did all of the heavy lifting to make it what it is today.
I was introduced socially to Art Falcone, who has been a partner of ours for 17 years now. He had just finished selling a homebuilding business and was looking to get into urban mixed-use development. For two years, we got to know each other, and then, in 2006, he said: “I’ve got to decide if this is something I’m going to pursue, and I need to do it with someone who understands it.”
So I got involved with what was called Park West at the time. From 2006 to 2008, we finished the assemblage, we got the entitlements. The challenge was, it was November 2008, so we had all of these sovereign funds and institutions interested in investing subject to entitlements, but we were in the middle of a financial crisis. From 2009 to 2011, we restructured the project, and in 2011 we brought in CIM as a partner and we ended up going from 19 acres to 27 acres. Fast forward to today, it’s a $6 billion project [Miami Worldcenter], $3 billion of which is completed or under construction, another billion getting ready to start ,and we’re 90 percent leased on the retail — but it was a very big roller coaster.
In 2020, I finally saw the chance for me to start doing other things, because, up until that point, I had devoted my entire life to Miami Worldcenter. I had a conversation with our partners at CIM and said, “I’ll finish Miami Worldcenter, but I’m also going to start exploring other options.” My brother and I spent a lot of time talking during COVID, and decided it was time for us to take Merrimac to a new level.
Dev: I came back in late 2006, so a couple of years after Nitin. He handed the baton of Merrimac over to me and he went to Miami to focus on building Miami Worldcenter. And, so, for the first year or so in 2007, we started working on entitlements for what’s now the Four Seasons, and everything was looking great. Then 2008 hit, and we had to go from playing offense to playing defense, protecting the assets the family had.
From 2008 to 2010, I learned a lot. I spent a lot of time working with the banks figuring out what their issues were, what their challenges were and working through our portfolio. We were very fortunate and kept everything that we had. Starting in 2010, we started looking at new projects and trying to buy properties. The challenge was, there was no debt available at the time so you needed all cash, and we were very invested already in real estate. So, we had to look for outside capital.
Where did that capital come from?
Dev: I got lucky and met a couple of high-net-worth investors out of Canada that were interested in investing in Fort Lauderdale. We were bidding against each other on sites and they beat me out on a site, but didn’t know what they were doing — they were finance guys, but they really wanted to be in real estate. So, they became my investors. Losing that deal to them was probably the best thing that ever happened [laughs]. To this day, one is still a partner with our family on many deals, including the Waldorf Astoria we just announced in Pompano Beach. So it’s a lifelong relationship with many deals behind us.
From 2010, until about 2015, we used that pocket of capital to go out and buy a bunch of assets around the Greater Fort Lauderdale area. We also put together a portfolio of single-family rental homes in Atlanta, buying over 500 houses that we still own. I used to fly up with a bag full of cashier’s checks and we’d buy houses on the courthouse steps — all the stuff you read about at the time. We expanded the business in an entrepreneurial way, not only to different markets, but also different asset types. Our parents taught us to buy good land — all their motels were facing the ocean — so we focused on good pieces of dirt, some of which had challenges and hair on them like zoning issues we had to resolve. That was the next jump forward for Merrimac, using that opportunity to not only expand geographically, but also to different asset types.
Your portfolio is impressive. I don’t want to suggest Worldcenter is your baby, Nitin, but is it your baby?
Nitin: It’s now my teenager.
A well-behaved teenager, I hope?
[Laughs] In 17 years, you go through a lot of roller coasters. It’s been a marathon of sprints with no downtime. The acquisition was complicated, the GFC was complicated, recapitalizing it was complicated, working on the retail front, initially as a mall, and then getting Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s was incredible — until it wasn’t. Then pivoting and starting construction on $2 billion of development with a new team that we had put together, to then having to lease retail at a time where retail was not doing well, nationally, was complicated.
But now, we’re 92 percent leased on the retail front with extraordinary tenants from all over. We’re doing an apartment building right now with Art Falcone and with Adam Neumann’s family office, then we have the Crosby, which is 450 condos we’re doing with Related that’s under construction and sold out, and 600 Miami Worldcenter with Aria, which is 606 condos. The reason I mention that is, these numbers are much bigger than we would have expected, and our sellout was much faster. As much as we tried to tell the story of our vision at the start, it was really hard. Now, people can see it and feel it. I walk through it every day with a smile on my face, and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s evolved.
What did the initial blueprint for Worldcenter look like?
Nitin: We wanted to create a pedestrian-friendly environment that stood in a circle in the confluence of arts, culture, entertainment and transportation. When we started, no one cared about public transportation — now everybody does. No one cared about resiliency and being at the highest elevation in the city — which is why Henry Flagler originally brought the train tracks there — now everyone cares about that. We spent $100 million on infrastructure before we went vertical — no one cared about that. And so all of these themes that we talked about are coming to fruition.
Dev, how about you? Do you have a baby — or teenager — that you’re especially proud of?
Dev: I have two. One is Merrimac’s Four Seasons Fort Lauderdale. It was really a family affair, everyone was involved. Our parents bought in October of ’94, my dad passed away in November of ’94, one month later, so he started the acquisition with my mom, and then Nitin came home and finished the acquisition of the block and most of it. Then I came home and worked on the zoning and the entitlements, and then eventually brought in Four Seasons and our partner and oversaw the development. So we were all involved in that project, and it was also the cherry on top of the transformation of Fort Lauderdale from a spring break motel destination to a luxury, family-oriented destination. The arc of Merrimac and our family business was really that same arc of Fort Lauderdale Beach, and so to be a part of that project and have all our hands on that, contributing was, from my perspective, very cool.
On a personal level, it’s still somewhat in its infancy, but we have a Four Seasons in Telluride. We’re breaking ground in the next year, and starting sales. It’s in a new market, Colorado, and when I started I had zero relationships there. So, it was a way for me to use what we do as a family and what we’ve done down in South Florida, and take that to a new market — still applying the same values in terms of meeting with the community and understanding what people want and what’s viable.
That started in 2018, and we had to go through COVID and stay with it. It’s been a long road. Getting approvals in the ski towns is challenging, especially as an outsider, so for me it’s a special one. We’re not done with it yet — we’ve got to build it — but we’ve cleared a lot of hurdles and shown that our reputation now travels with us in terms of what we’ve done here and how we do business.
Telluride is a long way from South Florida. How did you pick it?
Dev: I joined a group called YPO [Young Presidents’ Organization] and I went to a tech conference because I wanted to learn something different. They were hosting their international tech conference, and while I was there I was telling someone that we were building the Four Seasons Fort Lauderdale. The gentleman next to me was the CEO of the Telluride Ski Company, and he said, “You’re building a Four Seasons? I’ve got a site. Would you come and look at it?” I said, “Sure.” I’d never been to Telluride, but that’s how it started.
What’s your experience been like transacting through this volatile market?
Nitin: What’s transpired is really interesting, because based on the way we have structured our business — knock on wood — financing is very readily available. I say that with humility, but we just did things differently. On the apartment side, we have ultra-high-net-worth families as partners, so we have the equity in place, and we actually have debt in this environment at very good terms. We have partners that trust us, that we trust as well, so there’s no pressure on the financing side there. It’s available based on our cost structure basis and the amount of equity we’re putting in our deals.
On the condo side, both Crosby and 600 Worldcenter are 100 percent sold out, and, when you have a 100 percent sold-out condo building, you’ve completely de-risked it. The joke from some of my friends on the debt side was, “You took all the meat off the bone! The only reason we don’t want to do this deal is we get paid for the risk!”
What’s keeping you busy as we close out the year?
Nitin: We just opened two apartment buildings, one in Dania Beach and one in Plantation, and so we’re focused on getting those leased up. Thankfully, they’re both performing exceptionally well. We’re also advancing the ball on four other projects that we have on the apartment side.
On the condo side, the Crosby is fully financed and under construction, fully sold out. On 600 Miami Worldcenter, we’re sold out and we’ll be closing financing by year end and have started construction as well. Then, we just launched the Waldorf Astoria with Related Group in Pompano. It’s an incredible project — the first ground-up Waldorf Astoria pure residences, the first-ever stand-alone Waldorf Astoria residences. Being entrusted with a special brand like that is wonderful. My brother has been in [Pompano] for over 10 years, and we set a record on the apartment project that he built there, and we aim to do the same on the condo side. Similar to how the Four Seasons was really the culmination of pure luxury — the highest standard Fort Lauderdale Beach could get — the Waldorf is certainly proving that for Pompano, too, which is really exciting for us.
We also have these two large projects we’re involved with: One is the Watson Island project we acquired with BH3 Management earlier this year. We’re making a lot of progress there and every day is a new adventure, getting through 23 years of history and turning it into what will be an extraordinary project for our community. Then, Four Seasons Telluride. We recently had a great family vacation with my mom and my kids and my wife, and everyone just fell in love with Telluride.
Cathy Cunningham can be reached at email@example.com.