By Doreen Hemlock
Alexander Wertheim is founder and president of Spacio Design Build, a general contracting firm with clients such as Nobu Miami Beach, the Related Group and the Marriott Stanton South Beach. A former pro tennis player on the ATP whose coaching gig got him into the construction and property management business, Wertheim now oversees a firm of about 20 employees with revenues of about $20 million.
Wertheim spoke with The Real Deal about building a business, challenges facing South Florida contractors and the latest construction trends.
“I’m a guy who believes you go with the curve,” said the 45-year-old Miami native. “You have to adapt.”
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q. How did you get into the construction business?
After retiring from professional tennis, I coached. One of the guys I was coaching owned 30,000 apartments across the United States. I was up at his house one day and said, “I need a career.” So he hired me. He started to buy in Florida in the early 1990s. He bought a couple thousand units in west Fort Lauderdale and offered me a job there as a social director. So now, I’m doing bingo, fitness at the swimming pool, handing out bagels…I looked at it like school. I was there six months and stuck my nose everywhere. I found out what the property manager did, the leasing agent, the superintendent, the sprinkler guy, everything. Then, he says to me, “Do you want to move to Connecticut and be my son’s right-hand man?” I left the following week. I was 23 years old, director of operations of a company with 52 employees, about 10,000 apartments, half a million square feet of industrial space and four condo associations.
I learned construction, punch-out work, leasing and managing apartments, budgets, due diligence on new buys. Later, I went out on my own. With a partner, we did a bunch of condo conversions, and then, I came up with the current concept.
Q. When and why did you start Spacio?
We started in Coral Springs in 2007 to go after homeowners who wanted basic renovations. We built a beautiful showroom, and the recession came, so we went lean, down to my partner and myself. Back then, you’d call me and say, “I have a dry-wall repair,” and I’d be there.
After the recession hit, we landed our first building in downtown Miami, the Ivy. The majority of developer units are what they call “decorator-ready,” with a finished kitchen and finished bathroom. But if someone wants to move in, you need to do the floor and baseboards, window coverings, painting, closets and commercial lightning. We came in and did those upgrades on more than 400 units.
From that, we went across the street to The Mint and changed our business model. We opened up a design center to offer a turnkey package, a one-stop shop. We have a team of professional glass shopfront fitters and we did construction and even worked with furniture providers if you wanted. Mint was 532 units. Our average ticket at Ivy was $10,000, and at Mint, about $30,000. So, we ended up doing seven other buildings at the same time. We became known as the condo contractor.
Q. How much business did you do last year, and what do you project for this year?
Last year, about $20 million. This year, I have almost $14 million on the books, and it’s only March. So, it should be more.
Q. Tell us about some key projects.
We just finished Eden Roc Nobu, which is a hotel within a hotel. We took the existing restaurant, gutted it and added about 3,000 square feet of exterior space to make the largest Nobu in the world. We also did the lobby, common areas and the hotel rooms – around 150. At the Marriott Stanton at 161 Ocean Drive, we started out with the rooms, then common areas, the front and façade, the entrance, lobby. Because they couldn’t build new, we literally had to rebuild the entire structure from the inside outside, including the roof – all with the hotel in operation.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you face as a contractor in South Florida?
The workforce here. It’s laid-back, and that makes things take longer. And it’s very transient. You’ve got guys that show up today, and three weeks later, they’re gone. You hear a lot of horror stories. We’re very careful about the subcontractors we work with and develop long-term relationships with them.
Q. What trends do you see in construction in Miami?
One is incorporating exterior space into the interior. People are adding collapsible window-doors that open to one side to bring exterior space inside. You’re seeing this in homes, restaurants and hotels, because so many people love to be outside. In houses, people are putting bars, kitchens, TV rooms, sitting areas and fire pits outside to continue the experience of their great-rooms inside. It makes the space seem bigger and more welcoming.