by Mike Vogel
Updated 2 yearss ago
Miami’s storied Graham family created the city of Miami Lakes, home to 31,000 people. It produced a publisher of the Washington Post as well as governor and later U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. Yet, now, as one of the most influential families in Florida begins developing its last major chunk of land, it’s almost an afterthought in the public debate. “We’re kind of the caboose on the train,” says Graham Cos. CEO Stu Wyllie.
The train, in Wyllie’s analogy, is the parcel next door to the Grahams’ acreage where Triple Five, a Canadian developer owned by Canada’s Ghermezian family, wants to build 6.2 million square feet of mall and theme park space plus 2,000 hotel rooms.
For all Wyllie’s modesty, the Graham property is hardly a caboose — its plans call for 4 million square feet of buildings and 2,000 apartments, as many apartments and as much square footage as it already owns.
The collaboration of the two families began in March 2013, when Eskandar Ghermezian and Triple Five principal Robert Gorlow arrived unannounced at the Graham Cos. office on Main Street in Miami Lakes. Ghermezian had an audacious plan, all the more so since it depended on the Grahams’ selling a parcel of land — something they don’t do — to complete the site he was amassing. “In the beginning we weren’t sure this would be good,” Wyllie says. “Our net worth is tied up in Miami Lakes. We’re very, very careful about the things we would be a part of.”
The Graham family’s history in the area goes back to the 1920s, when mining engineer and businessman Ernest R. “Cap” Graham came to Dade County to manage Pennsylvania Sugar’s sugar cane operation. Graham eventually acquired the company’s acreage and facilities there and opened a dairy farm that became one of Florida’s largest. One son, Phil, became publisher of the Washington Post. Bob went into politics. The third son, William — along with his brothers and a sister, Mary — led the development of the farm into the Town of Miami Lakes. Long before master plans were common and sustainability and livability became buzzwords, the Grahams in the 1960s built a 3,000-acre city that still stands out for its integrated land uses, parks, tree-lined streets, town center, quality of life and adaptability to changing times. When the Grahams say a project will be good for Miami-Dade, it carries weight.
“We build in a way that anticipates we’ll own it forever,” Wyllie says. “We eat our own cookie. We all live in Miami Lakes. We want to make money, but we want to be proud of it, too.”
After “a lot” of internal meetings and tours of Triple Five’s other projects, the Grahams agreed to sell Ghermezian the land he wanted contigent on pending approval of the mall. “When we compared the alternatives, what this brought not just for northwest Dade but for all of south Florida was a pretty exciting prospect,” Wyllie says.
The Graham Cos. also rethought the future of its remaining 340-acre parcel south of the mall site, land designated by the county for industrial development. The family came to believe it would be an ideal place for mall employees to live and for neighborhood-supporting retail and businesses. Putting both projects through the government approval process at the same time offered an advantage to the Grahams and Ghermezians and the county — a thought-through plan for 500 acres rather than piecemeal development.
The day Wyllie was interviewed, he was working on the privately held Graham Cos.’ annual report. Revenue and income are up from the previous year, a pattern that’s continued for several years. Growth is steady and leverage low, which “lets us sleep at night. We’ve been able to be profitable even in the bad years.” Three members of the family’s fourth generation now work at the company.
Wyllie says he initially thought the Graham project depended on the progress of the Ghermezians’ project but now thinks it “perhaps” could go forward alone. The Grahams plan to build in phases. “This is long term,” Wyllie says. To underscore the point, he notes the family company still has several years of development left within Miami Lakes. “When my father-in-law and the senator and their brother started Miami Lakes in 1962, they told everybody it was a 10-year build out.”