October 26, 2020

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The Motwani family business's rise from motels to luxury hotels and condos

The Motwani family's first venture in Florida landed them in a fix — but ultimately on a trajectory they've ridden from mom-and-pop motels to luxury hotel and condo towers.

Mike Vogel | 5/27/2020

Back in Fort Lauderdale, a developer broke ground in 2001 on what’s now the Ritz-Carlton, signaling the arrival of luxury hotels and condos on the beach. By then, Ramola had built the family concern, Merrimac Ventures, to include 12 motels. Developers gravitated to her and her blocks of beachfront. She cultivated relationships with people who taught her how to position her assets for development, for example, by getting her real estate rights grandfathered in. “All obvious things if you have a $1,000-an-hour eminent-domain attorney or an $800-anhour land-use attorney, which is what we do now,” Nitin says.

His mother learned by being fearless about asking questions, he says. Until 2004, she lived in a family motel, the Gold Coast, before buying a home in Fort Lauderdale’s Seven Isles that's now valued at about $3.5 million.

Dev and Nitin say their eyes opened to the wealth their mother was creating when she began meeting with developers like Hilton and Donald Trump. “I didn’t know we had a real estate business,” Dev says. “I thought we had a motel business.”

Nitin obtained a master’s in real estate development at Columbia. He returned home in 2004 as president of Merrimac Ventures. The Merrimac itself was torn down to clear the way for, after many twists and turns, what’s today the Conrad Hilton. A favorite family story is that when the Motwanis first acquired the Merrimac property, Bob said how great it would be if one day it held a Hilton. Now it holds Hilton’s top brand, although the family is no longer involved with the Conrad.

Nitin diversified the family assets into offices, apartments and retail. Dev followed him in the Columbia program and returned in 2006, becoming president when Nitin moved to Miami to lead Miami Worldcenter, the huge, private master-planned urban development.

The brothers talk constantly, running deals and ideas past each other. Ramola is chairwoman. “I don’t interfere. I don’t question because they are so smart,” Ramola says. “Everyone should have their own wings to fly so they can fly as high as they want.”

Today, the family has stakes — not whole ownership — in $3 billion worth of real estate projects in Florida and the nation. As the Great Lockdown froze the economy, the Motwanis harkened back to their lesson in resiliency when Spring Break broke. “If we’ve learned anything as a family over the years, it is that the best long-term deals are the ones executed with strong, stable partners working toward a clear vision,” Nitin says. “Real estate by nature is full of ups and downs. There’s no question. The coronavirus situation is affecting every corner of the world, and no part of the economy is immune. Fortunately, our projects are well underway, our financials are solid, we’ve got A-plus teams in place and we are optimistic about South Florida over the long term.”

Back in Fort Lauderdale, Ramola remains active in the Broward Workshop business leadership group, sits on the Tourism Development Council that oversees the visitors bureau and is involved in the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Years ago, she advocated the creation in Broward of public high school hospitality education programs, which now are in 15 schools. In November, the 25th anniversary of Bob’s death, the family made a large, undisclosed contribution to establish the R. Motwani Family Academy of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Broward College and raised $300,000 at a first gala to support it. She hopes it becomes a model for other Florida colleges. “Giving back is not just saying 'thank you' to God,” she says. “We have to do something to be really thankful.”

The conversion of the beach strip from low-rise motels to luxury condo and hotel towers by the Motwanis and others is far along. The family also still holds a motel and other properties for eventual redevelopment.

“It couldn’t happen any better than this,” Ramola says, from a sales office on the beach with a view of the 26-story, 90-condo, 130-hotel room Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences rising across the street on the site of the old Tropic Cay. The family is co-developing the property.

The plaque honoring Bob will be placed there when the Four Seasons finishes in 2021. Says Ramola, “When it comes to the business part, Bob is happy and proud of all of us, especially our children."

 

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