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

Before buying their first, small motel on Fort Lauderdale Beach in 1986, Bob and Ramola Motwani quizzed local real estate pros and motel owners. They were told the annual spring break boom made for a can’t-miss market. “You just work for a few months — you can almost close and go on vacation,” Ramola recalls being told. “Everyone just raved about it.”

Vacationing most of the year wasn’t part of the business-minded Motwanis’ DNA. Still, they bought the modest, if grandly named, 49-room Merrimac Beach Resort Hotel and moved into it with their two young sons, Nitin and Dev. Until then, their only hotel experience had been as guests. “We had confidence in hard work,” Ramola says.

The Motwanis came from India. Bob — his given name was Ramesh — came from a family in the electronics business. He earned an economics degree from what’s now the University of Mumbai. Ramola’s family was in timber and cinemas. She earned an undergraduate degree in economics and a law degree. In St. Charles, Mo., their first home in the U.S., they built an import business and lived a traditional suburban life. But Bob suffered from scleroderma, a condition that includes a strong susceptibility to cold. After visiting sunny Fort Lauderdale, the Motwanis decided to become motel owners. They had no interest in becoming stereotypical Indian immigrants owning a highway motel, Nitin says, and aimed higher even as they started with the Merrimac. They later added the Tropic Cay and Gold Coast — the kind of small, 1950s-era motels, with less than 200 rooms combined, that arouse memories in generations of Boomers.

The Motwanis’ due diligence had failed to detect that Fort Lauderdale’s citizens had become fed up with spring break, however. “Where the Boys Are” had given way to “Where the Drunk and Disorderly Are,” with tens of thousands of inebriated students swarming the beachfront and some, too regularly, falling to their deaths from balconies.

“It was six weeks of business, but the reputation lasted all year,” says Jim Naugle, who served on the city commission and as mayor. Shortly after the Motwanis arrived, the city cracked down, enforcing a new ban on open containers and arresting 2,500 during spring break 1986. The next year, according to reports at the time, occupancy at the Merrimac was down by half. Some operators lost their properties to foreclosure.

Many beach businesses fought the city's efforts to curtail spring break. “Not Bob,” Naugle says. “Bob was very, very supportive of giving it a try. They worked really hard. There were some really lean years between spring break and when we came out on the other side.”

Bob focused on financing, working with the city and building business. Ramola operated the motels. The boys worked restaurant tables, did maintenance and staffed the front desk from family quarters off the lobby. Dev learned Negotiating 101 as a youth, effectively pitching his properties’ assets — and discounting room rates if necessary. “You never let money go out the door, but you didn’t drop right away,” says Dev, now 39. “The price for something isn’t the price. It’s what someone’s willing to sell for and someone’s willing to buy for.”

The city, through taxes from beach properties, funded parking and street improvements and spruced up the beachfront. Marketing was geared to appeal to families. The beach transitioned from hosting 600,000 young people for spring break to 3 million visitors a year, Naugle says.

The Motwanis were on their way. Then, in 1994, Bob died unexpectedly. The local chamber, visitors bureau and city officials placed a plaque in front of the Tropic Cay honoring his contribution.

The family’s lender, perhaps fearful the motels would founder without Bob, wanted out. Ramola had to learn quickly how to refinance. “I came so close to losing everything,” she says. She got by, she says, by relying on “myself and my God.”

Too busy running motels to volunteer at school, she made it a point to know her sons’ teachers and stayed atop their academics. “If I didn’t have an A, she was meeting with my teacher the next day. One of the original tiger moms,” says Nitin, now 41. “She lived and breathed for her kids. We saw that, so we wanted to do our best to not burden her.” Nitin graduated as valedictorian from Fort Lauderdale High and went off to Duke University. A year later Dev was salutatorian and joined him.

The brothers were interested neither in running motels nor in returning to South Florida. Nitin joined Goldman Sachs in New York as an equities derivatives trader, while Dev joined Credit Suisse in structural derivatives.

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."

 

Read more in Florida Trend's June issue.
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