Fifty Years of Family Business: A Conversation with Cervera Real Estate

September 12, 2019
In the feature article of this issue of Owner to Owner, we sit down with third-generation family business Cervera Real Estate to discuss playing the long game when it comes to best serving clients, navigating the complexities of a family business and planning for succession.

Provide exceptional service, and you will be successful. That’s real estate maven Alicia Cervera’s advice when it comes to best serving clients, and it appears to be working. Over the past 50 years, she and her two daughters, Veronica Cervera Goeseke, CEO, and Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, managing partner, have built and grown Cervera Real Estate into a leading Miami-based real estate company, which has represented exclusively more than 120 luxury buildings in the city and has multiple offices to handle its luxury real estate resale business. The company’s success is built on long-term, trust-based client relationships, half a century of understanding the local market in Miami, understanding cultural nuances in a diverse city and a commitment to strong family values.

We recently sat down with Alicia Cervera, Veronica Cervera Goeseke and Veronica’s daughter Alexandra Goeseke Cervera. Alexandra and Alicia Lamadrid Paysse, another third-generation member, are already asserting themselves as the next generation of leaders. During our conversation, we spoke about playing the long game when it comes to best serving clients, navigating the complexities of a family business and planning for succession.

Brown Brothers Harriman: Alicia, tell us about your journey to starting Cervera Real Estate. 

Alicia Cervera: My husband and I came to the United States in the early 1960s because of the turmoil taking place in Cuba. For the first few years, I was in limbo; it was a different culture and a big adjustment. After being here for five or six years, I realized that I was going to be in the United States for a long time – possibly forever. I decided I had to get a job, but I had never worked in my life and didn’t know where to start.

One day, I ran into a friend, and she started telling me about her husband, who was a real estate broker. It sounded interesting, and I went home and told my husband I wanted to get into the real estate industry. There were a couple aspects of my upbringing that I thought would help me succeed in this career. My mother used to build and sell houses in Peru, so I grew up looking at floor plans. In addition, my father was an attorney and ambassador who had us live in various cities, including New York when he served in the United Nations. My international upbringing was an important factor in Miami, which was destined to become an international city. I decided I was going to create a platform for developers to attract global clients, which no one else was doing.

I had a vision that Miami was going to shift from a city of single-family homes to include high-rise luxury condominiums on the water. So, during those early days, my husband and I sold everything we could part with and purchased a piece of waterfront land in the Brickell Avenue neighborhood, which we got rezoned from single-family use to high-rise buildings – something that had not been done before. Eventually, we sold the land for a significant profit, and this was our first big sale. I knew then that instead of listing single-family homes, someone had to sell the high-rise buildings coming to the market, so I chose to create a company that would specialize in this.

One day, I read in the paper that Harry Helmsley, who owned the Empire State Building, had bought a piece of land in Miami, so I wrote to him and described my background and experience. To my surprise, I received a call from him three days later – I thought it was a prank at first because it happened so fast! We arranged a meeting, and before I knew it, he had hired me to sell the first luxury condominium building on Brickell Avenue in Miami, which I did quickly. That was my first experience living my dream of selling high-rise condominiums to an international audience.

Working with Mr. Helmsley helped get my name out there, and I started to be hired as the exclusive broker on projects all over the city.

BBH: What have been some key projects over the years that highlight Cervera Real Estate’s success and influence on the Miami market?

Veronica Cervera Goeseke: In Miami, we have helped developers to sell and market more than 120 high-rise buildings. The platform Cervera has designed to handle these project sales is what we are known for. We work with developers from the start of a project, and instead of them hiring in-house staff, we manage their sales operations, including input on floor plans and pricing. We also provide an experienced salesforce specializing in project sales. This approach, combined with our international focus and in-depth understanding of the Miami market, differentiates us.

There are many projects that demonstrate our approach works successfully. We are experts at identifying where the next Miami neighborhood will be. For example, we have sold the majority of luxury residential real estate in the Miami Beach South-of-Fifth neighborhood and helped pioneer that neighborhood during its revitalization. We were the exclusive broker for the most expensive building there – the Apogee South Beach condominiums.

At the St. Regis in Bal Harbour, we were the exclusive broker and delivered a $1.2 billion sellout, establishing a new level of luxury for the neighborhood. Starwood looked to us for our outreach in the United States, Europe and South America.

Some others that come to mind include the Grand Bay Tower development on Key Biscayne, where we helped bring together some of the most prominent families from Latin America; the Ritz-Carlton, Grovenor House and Grove at Grand Bay in Coconut Grove, an area that we helped transform into a high-rise, high-end neighborhood; and the EPIC Hotel and Condominium in Downtown Miami, which established new prices and a luxury market for the area, along with its restaurant, Zuma, which we brought from London and which changed the dining scene in Miami.

We’ve also sold numerous luxury homes in the city and pride ourselves in keeping our client relations private.

Today, we continue pioneering and setting records for “firsts” in the market. In Edgewater, between the Design District and Midtown, we recently closed over 600 residences at Aria on the Bay. Currently, we represent the Aston Martin Residences Miami, where we are setting a new level of luxury in Downtown Miami with penthouses that offer its private pool. At another end of Downtown, we recently launched Natiivo Miami, powered by Airbnb, the first-ever property purposely designed, built and licensed for home-sharing.

BBH: Veronica, did you always know you were going to join the family business?

VCG: When talking about family businesses, we always talk about the second and third generations, but one of the key factors is the first generation’s ability to lay a solid foundation and set an example. My mother always says we left Cuba, and with it came 45 minutes to poverty and freedom because that’s how long the plane from Havana to Miami took. My parents were fortunate to both have great educations, and I saw them leverage those and work so hard. They’re the reason for my involvement, which happened naturally.

When my mother started her real estate courses, my dad asked me to go with her because he didn’t want her walking in the parking lot alone at night. I would bring my homework, sit there and study. Then, when she started doing open houses, I was the oldest, so I went and helped her. When I finished university, my dad looked at me and said, “I’m only going to ask you for one thing, that you spend six months helping your mother with this company that is beginning to show signs that it can have real growth.” I said I would, and those six months turned into a career.

I am so fortunate to work with a woman who is such a great teacher and mentor. There are areas where we are fundamentally alike, but there are things that we’re so different on, too. Early on in my career, I was great at getting anyone on the phone and setting up meetings, and my mom was amazing at running them. We have had such a good time growing this business, and it continues to be interesting every day.

AC: One of the interesting things about the company is that my two daughters, who have become my partners, are as different as their careers. Veronica studied industrial engineering, and Alicia studied clinical psychology. It was a great benefit because we had the mathematical side and the practical side, and they blend well.

BBH: It seems like engaging the next generation in the family business happened organically. Would you agree?

AC: Yes, the most challenging thing for me was balancing work with family. I chose a quality vs. quantity approach. When I started the business, Veronica was 13 years old, and Alicia was 10 years old. I took them everywhere I went, so work became part of our family affairs.

VCG: Families have certain activities that they do together, and one of ours was going to see property. It was normal for us.

BBH: Alexandra, did you have that same experience, where you grew up in the business? 

Alexandra Goeseke Cervera: Yes, we were exposed early on. When I was young, our apartment was above the office, so it was essentially the nursery. I used to answer the phone on the weekends as a kid, worked in the different sections of the business in the summers and thought it was a normal extracurricular activity to go to the architect’s office with my grandmother and work on floor plans with tracing paper. My mother would always offer to bring us on trips to help promote a project.

I got to travel the world and formed many relationships because of it. We have second- or third-generation clients that I met through my family, where my grandmother, mother and aunt knew the previous generations, and I keep in touch with the kids. I grew up in this company, and I loved it. In that sense, the legacy has continued.

BBH: How important to Cervera’s success is building those long-term multigenerational relationships?

VCG: We are very much a relationship business. In the real estate world, and probably in any service-oriented company, it’s all about long-term relationships. There is a human element that computers cannot replace; they cannot take someone to lunch, look them in the eye and have a personal conversation. That allows you to build trust. Having that trust and the human touch and human moment keeps family businesses like ours afloat.

It’s like cooking: When you buy local, fresh produce and vegetables, your meal is going to be a lot nicer. In real estate, when you buy from the locals who have built the community, your purchase process is going to be a lot nicer. That’s what we focus on, and we think that as you buy real estate, you should go local because those people know best what’s happening in the city. They understand the history and know where the city is going forward.

AGC: Technology has, of course, helped certain aspects of our company, but it is not what generates the most business. That is driven by relationships. We stay in constant contact with clients and always make sure that we’re engaged. I tell our clients that I’m not in a rush to sell them anything that they’re not going to be happy with. I am more interested in the long term. Residential real estate is one of the most emotional decisions that people make.

AC: I have always said to the people I work with, especially to my daughters and grandchildren, that real estate is a service. Provide exceptional service, and you will be successful. I start each client relationship by learning about everything the client needs and what will make them happy. After that, I love the sensation of finding the best fit.

There are four elements that lead to a successful sale: trust, help, need and the check. Trust is the most important because when you don’t have trust, people don’t want your help. When you help, you have to think of everything they need. The last thing is asking for the check.

BBH: Looking inside the company, how do you manage the dynamics of working in a family business? 

VCG: We have a saying in our family that while some families fight because they want to be apart, we fight because we want to stay together.

My sister and I have always felt strongly that if one of us isn’t doing well, then neither of us is doing well, so we are very open with one another. It has deep roots in having come here together a few months before our parents left Cuba and in how our family works.

In a family, it’s OK not to agree on everything, and it’s OK not to speak to somebody for a day or two, but it comes down to the bigger picture of how much you love your family. There are core values and traditions in the family, and problems would arise if anyone violated them; they have made our family – and our business – strong for so many years.

AC: It’s also important that the founder of a company give the second and third generations space and time to be among each other and find their voices.

AGC: The benefit of the family business is that situations get resolved almost instantly. We can communicate and make decisions quickly, which helps with turnaround times.

BBH: You mentioned your family values. How do they manifest themselves in your corporate culture?

VCG: The values of the family translate to the values of the business. It’s about integrity, doing the right thing, working hard, listening, helping one another and creating an atmosphere of communication. As part of a family or as part of a business, you have to make time for one another. My mom may not have worked until later in life, but she had all those strong fundamental values that led her to succeed in business.

BBH: How have you approached succession planning?

AGC: Several years ago, when I was at Columbia Business School, I learned about the importance of succession planning. I remember hearing about the low success rate of family businesses after the third generation and thinking, “I’ve already invested years into this business. I need to make sure that we are planning well and ensuring a future for me and my family.” I came back and encouraged my grandmother, mother and aunt to hire a consultant to help us. We chose one and worked with him for over a year. He helped us define roles and job descriptions as well as communicate more effectively with each other.

VCG: He helped us get organized and created an awareness for us. There were best practices and future plans that we were already aware of, but he made us commit time to formalizing our plan and processes. We had dedicated meeting times with set agendas, and he was a good conversation facilitator. I recommend that any family business thinking about succession hire a professional – it was certainly worth the investment.

BBH: What was the result of the planning? 

AGC: The partners are all communicating far more successfully, and everyone has an idea of what their job roles are and how to work together.

VCG: We understood that the second generation would co-manage the business, and we had very healthy conversations about how to actually do that, how to find everyone’s strengths in order to do this and why it was a good thing for our company.

BBH: Did you implement any structures, such as ongoing family meetings?

VCG: We now have regular, formal meetings. We have weekly partner meetings and weekly manager meetings, all of which have agendas.

AGC: I hold everyone accountable. Every quarter, the team has to present its goals and accomplishments, and then we set future deadlines and expectations. As we’re expanding, there needs to be more structure in the firm.

BBH: Speaking of expansion, how do you cater to an increasingly global client base?

VCG: Miami is such a diversified city, and you have to understand where people come from when they come into your sales center and be able to relate. For example, if you can’t have a conversation with somebody from Europe or Central America, or if you don’t know the difference between somebody who lives in Bogota and somebody who lives in Santiago or Milan, you’re not going to do as well in this town.

Our family itself is a blend of nationalities from all over the world. We are what Miami represents.

BBH: How important is bringing in outside professionals to the company’s continued success?

AGC: We have more nonfamily employees than family members in the business, so we’re not family-centric in our hiring, and our employees tend to build lifelong careers here.

VCG: We have the flexibility to have that human compassion for employees when life outside of work gets in the way. People help each other out, and we host employee events at our homes and spend time with each other outside of the office. You can pay someone to go to your office, but you can’t pay someone to love your business and be loyal. It’s that love of the business that makes the difference between just being a regular company and being a company that will succeed and continue to succeed, and you have to get that from your employees.

BBH: We’ve touched briefly on the fact that you left Cuba for the U.S. Tell us about that experience.

AC: When I was leaving Cuba, my husband was leaving through the Mexican embassy, and I was leaving with my own passport because I was Peruvian, not Cuban. We boarded the plane, and I had a nervous feeling that something bad was going to happen. All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and it was a soldier telling me to get off the plane. I went with him, and while my husband wanted to follow me, the Mexican ambassador told him that it was a trick to get him off the plane and that he should sit and wait.

I have no clue how long I was off the plane, but after what felt like an eternity of waiting and watching people go through my things, I was told to get back on board. It was the most terrifying moment of my life. When the plane took off, I was so happy.

VCG: Stories like this are a fiber of Miami. We were fortunate that all of our family was able to leave. When I came to the United States at 6 years old, I was coming from a country where there was a fear of safety for your family, and the first thing I thought when arriving here was how accepting and kind the American people were. I still feel that way to this day, and it is such a favorable country to grow a business in thanks to its laws and the attitude of its people. After going through the experience that we did, there’s a sense of gratitude just to be able to sit like we are right now, having a conversation on a lovely sunny day.

BBH: Alicia, Veronica and Alexandra, thank you so much for your time and insights.

Interview conducted by Jake Turner and Kaitlin Barbour, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.

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