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Stronger International Markets Buoying Florida

Foreign buyers and investors in Florida real estate have had as rough a time as the homegrown variety in the past three years. For proof, witness Miami’s Everglades on the Bay, an 849-unit condo project built by Mexico’s prominent Cababie family that’s in bankruptcy court. But anecdotal evidence indicates foreign interest may be strengthening.

Roy Barquet
Foreign nationals, says Foley & Lardner partner Roy Barquet, still want to buy real estate in Florida. [Photo: Daniel Portnoy]

Florida has led the nation for years in purchases of homes by foreign buyers — one in four of the national total. According to a July survey by the National Association of Realtors of its members, foreign buyers accounted for 32% of home sales in Florida in the prior 12 months, up from 29% in 2008.

Credit opportunism. One in five of the members surveyed said the recession boosted buyer interest. A weak dollar makes already discounted real estate even more of a bargain. Cold cash helps too. Nationally, 93% of home buyers take out a mortgage. Foreign buyers, in contrast, used a mortgage only 32% of the time in Florida, according to the association survey. That’s in sharp contrast to the survey in 2007, when 62% borrowed to buy. Savvy foreign buyers use their ability to pay cash as a negotiating tool, says Roy Barquet, a partner at Foley & Lardner in Miami and chair of its immigration practice. They tell developers in Miami’s overbuilt condo market, "I don’t need a mortgage. I don’t need to prequalify. I don’t need to talk to your Freddie Mac person. I’m ready to wire the money right now."

Foreign Buyers of U.S. Real Estate
Top States’ Share of Foreign Buyers ?
Florida’s Share of Foreign Buyers
United Kingdom
Latin America
International Buyers in Florida by Region
Latin America
Western Europe (excluding U.K.)
United Kingdom
Eastern Europe
Market Share of Foreign Buyers in Florida
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-
Miami Beach
Bradenton- Sarasota-Venice 11
Tampa-St. Petersburg- Clearwater
Cape Coral-Fort Myers
Naples-Marco Island
All other areas in Florida 32
Source: National Association of Realtors
Latin America, whose recession has been less severe, is providing relatively more buyers in Florida this year. The association survey sees a higher relative percentage of foreign buyers from Latin America and that’s translated into more demand for southeast Florida property than the rest of the state among foreign buyers.

In southeast Florida, Argentina displaced the United Kingdom in the top three countries of origin for buyers while Mexico displaced Ireland in Orlando. The percentage of buyers from Latin America increased in Miami, Orlando, Bradenton-Sarasota and Tampa Bay.

Foreign buyers are even making a dent in Miami’s condo inventory. Barquet points to recent news reports about several Brickell condo buildings selling out or nearly selling out as primarily foreign nationals paying cash snatch up units on the heels of drastic price cuts by developers.

There’s good news for a real estate industry increasingly dependent on foreign demand. Barquet, whose immigration clients are at the high end in terms of wealth, education and investment potential, reports no drop in interest in living in the United States and its desirability as place of refuge economically, socially and politically.

? Exporting

Sizzling Overseas

Through the internet, Jerry Pierce has built a sizable restaurant equipment exporting business from Orlando. But like any good salesman, success comes down to personal contact for him — and storytelling. Just get him going about his days in the printing industry when he landed the job printing 6.5 million Farrah Fawcett posters that became the ubiquitous wall decor in teen boy bedrooms. "There’s a lot of people who have opportunity in front of them and don’t seize it," Pierce says.

Jerry E. Pierce
Jerry E. Pierce
Restaurant Equipment World / Chairman / Orlando
[Photo: Sándor Fizli]
He’s had a hold on cooking equipment opportunity since 1976, when he began selling restaurant gear in Ohio. Several years later, he read "MegaTrends," realized he was in the wrong state and moved to Florida. Early on, international business meant the Telex and static-filled phone calls. Now, he has Skype and e-mail. He has done so well internationally that when a customer wants a pizza oven in Melbourne, he has to ask whether the customer means Melbourne in Brevard County or Melbourne, Australia. His 50-employee company has sold equipment in more than 100 countries from more than 185 websites devoted to everything from waffle irons to panini grills. He won’t disclose revenue.

"To me, it’s as much a technology business as an equipment business," says Mario Fidanzi, director of Stetson University’s Family Enterprise Center. (Pierce chairs the center advisory board.) "It’s a story of continuous reinvention."

 Booming international sales are offsetting a sluggish domestic market.

International sales, which account for 25% to 30% of his business, are the only reason Pierce has a cheerful outlook at present. "Skyrocketing," he says. "We currently have a sizable order in Dubai that came out of the blue." If his business was solely domestic, "I would be extremely negative," he says. Demand is down, and he says measures proposed in Congress and by the Obama administration treat small businesses — his customer base — as unlimited "cash machines." Says Pierce, 68, "We need to focus on helping companies grow."

Pierce’s son, Brad, runs the company day to day. One daughter, Patty Nuzzo, is a vice president while another, Barbie Boyd, does marketing part time. Pierce himself spends more time volunteering with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which named him "Small Business Champion of the Year" in 2006. His civic work includes past-president of a veteran’s group — he was a 1st lieutenant in Korea — that successfully pushed for a new Veterans Administration hospital for Orlando and chairman of another group that wants to build a Veterans Memorial Park.

He’s still active at Restaurant Equipment World, however, and still believes in sales truisms and people-to-people contact. His company depends on the internet, but all phones are answered by a person. "It’s high tech and high touch combined together," he says. "It’s also a lot of personal selling."

? Small Business

An Advocate Waits on a Lost Year to End

Neal Asbury, president of Greenfield World Trade and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s National Champion Exporter of the Year in 2008, has 80 employees, a business that sells in 130 countries, $50 million in revenue and offices in Dubai and Hong Kong along with his base in Weston. One other thing he has is a pulpit — a weekly radio show broadcast in seven cities nationally in which he advocates for free and fair trade and small businesses.

Neal Asbury
Neal Asbury
Greenfield World Trade President / Weston
The Neal Asbury Show Radio host
» Coming up: Asbury will have a book, “Conscientious Equity,” out next year that he says will illuminate trade inequities and describe how the world can work together to cure social ills.
[Photo: Eileen Escarda]

Asbury, 52, started in international trade in lower Manhattan just out of college, before moving to Singapore to be a sales manager at a trading firm there. He spent 25 years in Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai before coming to Florida in 2000. First hand, he says, he witnessed the artificial barriers put in the way of American products. "It really tore me up," Asbury says. "I know Americans can compete. We’re just not given the opportunity to compete. The world trading system is corrupt and skewed against us."

That said, Asbury describes himself as a "fair and free trader." He supports NAFTA and notes the Clinton administration’s promotion of American exports as proof that free trade isn’t a partisan issue — just after he bashes the Obama administration as the "most anti-trade, uninspired administration since World War II."

“The world trading system is corrupt and skewed against us.”
- Neal Asbury

Asbury says worthy federal programs, such as Small Business Administration and Export-Import Bank loan guarantees on foreign trade receivables, need to be broadened to cover trade with more countries and expanded to cover larger loans. The nation’s $700-billion trade deficit represents at least 5 million jobs, Asbury says. If American products had a level playing field, "we would unleash an age of prosperity like we’ve never seen before," he says.

Asbury says his firm is the largest exporter of commercial food service equipment in North America, with manufacturing in Harrisburg, Pa., and Fort Pierce. For the first nine months of 2008, foreign trade was on a tear and propped up Florida’s economy. Then the credit crisis hit, locking up trade financing. The recession migrated to the developing world, hitting Mexico, which accounts for half of Asbury’s Latin America market, particularly hard. Early 2009, "was really dismal, about the worst I’ve seen in my 25-year career in international trade. The recovery of Mexico ... hasn’t occurred," Asbury says.

Beyond that, he says, business seems to be improving. Says Asbury, "2009 will be the lost year. I think we’re all hoping 2009 goes away."


Optimistic about Financing

Manny Mencia, the international trade guru for the state’s economic development group, Enterprise Florida, isn’t given to moaning about the tough times. So you have to read it as an understatement when he says trade financing of late has been "a bit of a challenge."

That challenge means a big headache for Florida exporters, who for the most part are small and medium-sized companies, exactly the kind that rely on trade financing. Last fall, lenders built liquidity in the credit crisis in part by slashing trade lending. That helped toss trade into the recession basket.

Manny Mencia
“Despite the fact we’re a small company-driven export economy ... we have fared relatively well.” — Manny Mencia [Photo: Eileen Escarda]

Total Trade

July ’02 YTD July ’09 YTD
$56.9 billion $39.8 billion
Miami’s share
77% 72%
Tampa’s share
23% 28%
Still, Mencia sees a bright side. Of the 25 states that make up most of the nation’s exports, Florida has declined the least, he says. And that comes after a period of high growth. "Florida, despite the fact we’re a small company-driven export economy, despite the fact that smaller companies tend to be more vulnerable than larger companies to economic downturns, the fact the bulk of our exports are to the Third World which tends to be more fragile in downturns, we have fared relatively well," Mencia says.

Pierre Dulin
Lenders eventually will migrate to other companies and other sectors in search of opportunity. “That’s going to happen faster than people think.”
— Pierre Dulin
Meanwhile, says Pierre Dulin, a regional manager at Bladex, the credit crisis is over for select companies in select sectors. Indeed, as lenders concentrate on the preferred few, spreads on lending to them have fallen, Dulin says. More good news: Latin America has proved more resilient than other regions, and banks are returning to lending there. Lenders eventually will migrate to other companies and other sectors in search of opportunity, he says. "That’s going to happen faster than people think," he says, while acknowledging that for now, "it is still very slow."

Miami Trade — Market Share?
Top 10 Countries

July 09 YTD (billions) Market Share 7-Year Share Change
$6.1 13.8% -8.9%
3.0 6.9 27.9
2.7 6.1 32.5
Dominican Republic
2.2 5.1 -39.7
2.1 4.9 76.4
2.0 4.6 47.3
1.8 4.0 -39.8
1.7 4.0 721.7
Costa Rica
1.7 3.9 -38.7
1.2 2.8 35.2
Market Share of Top 10 56% ?
Source: WorldCity

? Trading partners

Trade Trends

Ken Roberts, president of WorldCity, a Miami media company that tracks global trade, sees the following trends in Florida customs data:

 Brazilian trade is down because fewer Brazilian-made Embraer jets have been coming into Fort Lauderdale, where Embraer has its U.S. headquarters.

> As oil prices fell, Venezuela had less money to spend buying tractors, cell phones and computers so its trade out of Miami is down.

> With so many people trading their gold for cash, trade with Switzerland is up as scrap precious metals leave here for there.

Jacksonville/Tampa Trade —
Market Share? Top 10 Countries

July 09 YTD (millions) Market Share 7-Year Share Change
$1,410 10.9% -51.1%
1,012 7.8 25.3
801 6.2 -1.3
693 5.3 -67.7
618 4.8 -29.4
554 4.3 346.4
Saudi Arabia
525 4.1 195.0
508 3.9 740.0
United Kingdom
396 3.1 -17.0
Colombia 362 2.8 145.4
Market Share of Top 10 53% ?
Source: WorldCity
> The part of Florida that makes up the Jacksonville/Tampa customs district was second only to the U.S. Virgin Islands this year in the percentage drop in the dollar value of its trade. "What becomes readily apparent in looking at the data is how terribly the Jacksonville/Tampa customs district is suffering relative to not only its history but also the rest of the country. All customs districts are getting hammered, but not like Jacksonville/Tampa."

> Copper is off at Panama City, which is the nation’s leading copper port.

> Motor vehicles and fuel are off in Jacksonville.

> Miami, meanwhile, the nation’s only customs district to have a trade surplus for 15 straight years, is "holding up relatively well, under the circumstances." Its strength in exports and a less severe recession in Latin America kept exporting at a "moderate clip." In total dollar value of trade, Miami, through July, is having its worst year since 2006 while Jacksonville/Tampa hasn’t been this low since 2004. Miami is off 15% through July while Jacksonville/Tampa is down 46%. With Jacksonville/Tampa down and Miami less so, Miami’s share of Florida trade is at a high — 77% of Florida’s $56.9 billion total, he adds.