Stephen Bittel is the founder and chairman of Terranova Corporation, one of the top commercial real estate firms in southern Florida. Coming from a family that has lived in Miami for generations, in addition to starting and running his business Bittel has dedicated much of his time to serving his local community, holding board positions at various non-profit and political organizations over the course of his life.
Bittel is a true blue native of Miami, having been born at Jackson Memorial Hospital and grown up in the southern Florida city. He is the second of three children to his parents Jordan and Judy, who grew up on Miami Beach. He attended Miami Palmetto Senior High School, before being accepted to the highly selective private liberal arts school of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
Bittel has modestly said his grades at the large public high school he attended were not quite up to snuff for the caliber who gained entry at Bowdoin, but Bittel’s solid extra curricular activities and high SAT performance allowed him to gain entry. He claimed his high school had not prepared him for the academic rigor Bowdoin would demand of him, and he recalled being shell-shocked by the need to write eight to ten page papers every two weeks for a particularly demanding literature course, but his freshman year economics course instilled in him a passion for business that would be his main drive in his career. Through hard work and tenacity, Bittel was able to adapt to the school’s demands and graduated magna cum laude from the university in 1978 with a degree in economics.
Both his father and his grandfather were lawyers, so upon graduating from Bowdoin College Bittel assumed he would pursue the same career path. He won the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and was given a grant to travel abroad in Europe. He applied and was accepted to the University of Miami School of Law, however as he attended the school he found that his career was going in a different trajectory. He accepted a position working full-time in commercial real estate while still attending law school, and by his second year in school when his company offered to take him to commission based compensation instead of salaried, Bittel realized he could do even better by starting his own real estate company. Although he originally intended to start his business after completing law school, the timing seemed right then. Even through the trials that come with a start-up company, he was able to graduate from the University of Miami School of Law with a law degree and pass the bar exam in 1982.
So, in 1980 Bittel formed Terranova, or “new world” in Latin. Getting the word from the back of a dictionary in the foreign words section, he knew that Europeans and Spanish-speakers would understand the reference, and hoped to use his connections formed through the Watson Fellowship to excite Europeans about the prospect of southern Florida commercial real estate and invest their capital through him. Working out of his house, the company’s beginning were humble as the company’s first logo was created by an art student from the University of Miami, and its first investment were in “friends and family” syndications of two small unanchored strip shopping centers down the street from the wine and gourmet store started by his grandparents in the 1950’s.
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Bittel and his company grew their portfolio by focusing on shopping centers in growing suburban markets that had a supermarket/drug store anchor. They were in business with some of the largest chains in Florida like Publix, Walgreens, Winn Dixie, Payless Shoes, and Starbucks, capitalizing on the chain store relationships because they could be developed and result in multiple leases with the same tenant. At their peak, they had a property base of over 8 million square feet and they have worked on over 100 different open air shopping centers over the past 30 years throughout Florida. Throughout, Terranova also owned and operated numerous office buildings, industrial parks, multi-family, and self-storage assets.
As the families purchasing the suburban properties surrounding their shopping centers grew, so did sales for the tenants of Terranova’s strip centers. However, once the children of these families grew up and moved out, sales slowed and young people returning were more interested in urban living. As a result, Terranova began transition to purchase urban retail centers in areas that were part of a walkable downtown core. Following this plan, Bittel and his company became well-known for purchasing $52 million worth of property at $850 per square foot on a street called Lincoln Road in Miami -- an amount that seemed astonishing at the time. However, he and his team played their cards right, and in 2014 sold their property on the road for a staggering $342 million, one of the largest property sales in the history of southern Florida. Today, Bittel’s company owns and operates more than $1 billion in assets.
In addition to his career, Bittel is passionate about making his community and country a better place. He has been a member of the Florida Bar Association, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and has been the chair of the Miami chapter of the Young Presidents Organization and the YPO Real Estate Industry Round Table. He has served as a board director for the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, the Community Partnership for the Homeless, the Jackson Memorial Hospital Foundation, Teach for America Miami and Achieve Miami as well as serving on the board for four public companies. He was a trustee member for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Miami-Dade and Temple Beth Am, and led the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Washington Mission. Passionate about politics, Bittel has served as a board member and the vice chairman of development for the National Jewish Democratic Council and was an elected member of the Democratic National Committee for eight years, and was the national finance co-chair for the organization. He has also written extensively on real estate matters for numerous sources and is a talented orator, speaking at professional conferences across the world.
Bittel is married and has three children. Two of his children have served in the Peace Corps, and one of his sons went on to attend his alma mater of Bowdoin College. He is an avid non-fiction reader, a fan of the Miami Heat, and enjoys fine wine, pescatarian food, music (when he can find the time.)