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Stephen Bittel - Founder of Terranova Corporation - ideamensch interview

Stephen H. Bittel is the Chairman and founder of Terranova Corporation, leading the firm’s ownership and operation of a significant commercial real estate portfolio. As the South Florida real estate has grown, Bittel has stayed connected to South Florida, serving his community for years. A Miami native, he has served on the Boards of the Chapman Partnership, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, Teach for America (TFA),and Jackson Memorial Hospital Foundation. Bittel also has served as a Trustee member for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Miami-Dade and Temple Beth Am. He has led the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Washington Mission in 2009 and 2010 and is an active supporter and currently serves on the Advisory Board of Achieve Miami. Bittel graduated Magna cum laude from Bowdoin College in 1978 and obtained his law degree from the University of Miami School of Law in 1982

Where did the idea for Terranova Corporation come from?

While a senior at Bowdoin College, I was awarded a prestigious Watson Fellowship, to undertake a “wanderjahr”, a wander year of travel to study the motivations behind European Investment in the United States. This project followed up on a previous paper written while working at the Congressional Budget Office in D.C. on the Tax Treatment of Non-Resident Investors. A meaningful part of my study involved regular meetings with investment advisors and bankers throughout Europe. I was struck by the private banking model which provided a one-stop personalized service to high net worth individuals. My goal was to replicate this kind of service for offshore investors focused on the United States.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I tend to wake up very early, grind my own coffee beans, make my coffee, read a while and then exercise, all by 9. I am usually communicating with our team continuously after 7:30, getting us all focused and the challenges of the day. Our portfolio spans many different operating companies in different industries across a broad geography. I mentally scroll through each of the companies, generating questions on the status of pending matters. I next jump on the phone in the morning before heading to the office in the late morning. Lunch is a time for sharing ideas with our team, usually in the office or at one of our restaurant tenants or at our Lincoln Eatery Food Hall just off Lincoln Road. The afternoon is usually filled with meetings, more calls and internal reviews of new investment opportunities. The day typically ends with a dinner, where I always try to bring the wine from our home cellar, but not before a disciplined decanting process in the office pre-dinner. It’s usually lights out between 9:30 and 10:00 to get ready for the next day. After a lifetime of sleeping 4 to 6 hours a night, I have matured to enjoying a more normal night’s sleep.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I read like crazy—usually several books at a time, some in my study, some by my bed—I am surrounded by books awaiting to be read, all non fiction. Each day starts with the reading of numerous news sources both in print and on line, trying to figure out where the world has been and where it is going. Im a big history buff, so I constantly try to discern trends that can impact our investing and lives. All this exposure to ideas leads me to ask lots of internal and external questions of the most knowledgeable people I can find on whatever topics I’m probing. Our whole team usually awakes to find their inboxes filled with articles on topics for them to consider. They tease me that I am their human clipping service. Our goal is to have the most educated team in the industries we are active so we can make the most informed decisions.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Applying science to our decisions by industry just makes so much sense. We started transitioning to double pane hurricane proof impact glass on our properties long before building codes required it. Similarly, we switched to LED lighting 18 years ago, with motion detectors long ago. These ideas seem commonplace today, but when we first implemented them we were years ahead of the building codes After COVID became our new reality, we changed the mix of recycled/fresh outside air from 80/20 to 50/50, when upgrading air conditioning filters from MERV 7 to MERV 13, both creating a safer environment for our team. Sure it costs a little more, but protecting our team members has always been a top priority.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have always been a lifetime learner. I fell in love with self-education as a freshman at Bowdoin College, literally working all the time and I have never stopped. My kids always teased me that I was an intensely competitive scrabble and Monopoly player. I guess I’m intensely competitive at everything I do whether in business, charity, or politics. I have always played to win and can’t imagine doing it another way.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I probably could have been a much more engaged father when our now adult kids were younger. I was consumed with growing our businesses, always wanting to be in more industries so no one could say I just got lucky in commercial real estate.

Working seven days a week and while on vacation seemed normal back then. Balance was never a lifestyle for me. It was something that happened in a bank account if you were really good at your career. When I learned balance, it was more about developing a team of leaders internally, to do many things I previously did, so I could free up time to make a difference in our local and national community.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser. Winners consistently win at whatever they apply themselves to, so we look to invest in people with a history of winning, counting on their need to succeed to motivate a constant reinvention to achieve their goals, which we try our best to align with our goals. I have been criticized for being overly intense and driven, but I came this way and was nurtured by parents, family members, and teammates who loved joining on the path.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Manage your balance sheet, not just your profit and loss statement. Businesses fail when they run out of money, and we are constantly reviewing our assets to think about which we want to hold long term and which are right to move on from. Similarly, we constantly manage debt maturities and costs to match up income and the ability to service them. We try to be good risk managers every single day.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We try to think about how our society is changing and how that will impact living and investing trends. We want to make informed bets on the future, identifying trends, and how they will impact and change the way we do things. Gambling happens in casinos, not in our investing activities where we insist on a thesis to support every idea that we can test and then find a trade based on the test results.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Oh there have been lots of failures over the years, but the key is to identify them quickly and then move on from them. Good money after bad to try to prove yourself correct is always a losing strategy. We moved on from unanchored strip shopping centers to anchored ones early as a risk mitigation strategy, and it worked. Next, we moved out of big-box anchored properties to urban retail to avoid what we thought was a coming collapse. On our urban strategy, we retired almost all of our debt to create a more forgiving capital structure, that has been a blessing during COVID.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Surround yourself with the smartest people you can find and never stop asking for their ideas. Pepper them with questions and listen. I take notes on everything to keep them talking and to keep me from talking. My father always told me that when you are talking you’re merely repeating something you already know, but when you are listening, you have the opportunity to learn something new. I am still working on getting better at this.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I am overtipping everywhere I go these days. We have a substantially destroyed service economy and while I cannot bring it back myself, I am doing my best with as many $100 tips as I can push out. We all have to help those in need and now more than ever.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I use Duck Duck Go as a web browser to maintain privacy while searching for information and answers on so many subjects. I am never without a device or two with different carriers so I can stay informed on a real-time basis.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Sapiens by Harari is a detailed explanation of how our civilization evolved. It requires a focused attentive reading but is worth it.

What is your favorite quote?

At this moment in time I find myself saying all the time: “Never waste a crisis” a quote often attributed to Sir Winston Churchill. Tough times separate entrepreneurs from the pack and it’s a moment to think more deeply, care more about the results, and fight for what you believe to be important in the long run.

Key Learnings:

  • Make learning a lifetime focus.

  • Think ahead.

  • Surround yourself with the smartest people you can find and never stop asking for their ideas.


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