Foreign development

For more than two decades Edgardo Defortuna has built a company by finding the right people and carefully moving into international markets.

“Surround yourself with the right people and try to not overextend yourself because the temptation in the market today is to go big really quickly and to try to have the homerun the first time at bat,” says Defortuna, president of Fortune International. “It’s really a potential recipe for disaster. If you’re hardworking and surround yourself with the right co-workers and the right people, the market and the overall business in South Florida is very good and bound to succeed.”

The 49-year-old native of Argentina started his company 23 years ago as a real estate brokerage but has since added construction, equity, sales and marketing to his offerings. But it is the development division that has really taken off.

For more than a decade Defortuna nurtured his real estate brokerage company, specializing in luxury residences. As he did so, he worked with developers, watching and learning, until about 10 years ago when he decided it was time to get into the act himself.

“When we were working with developers on the marketing and sales of property, sometimes they listened to our advice and sometimes they didn’t,” Defortuna says. “After I saw what they were doing, I said I could probably do this better.”

Finding and keeping the right people
Spending so much time observing taught Defortuna more than just how to get into the development business; it also taught him who to bring along. Defortuna found a site for a first development in South Florida and put together a team of developers, financial experts and construction specialists.

“The experience of being in the real estate market for so long gave me an inkling to who the good people were from the architectural design, execution and construction,” Defortuna says. “I watched some of those most important buildings being built while I was in the brokerage business. It wasn’t that difficult to identify those people.

“To be able to convince them to join the team and convince them to stay is somewhat more challenging and requires a uniform front and the right chemistry.”

In other words, it is one thing to get them; it’s another all together to keep them.

“There is a lot of competition,” Defortuna says. “I would be foolish to think my people don’t get offers all the time. You have to be reasonable and generous with the overall compensation. In addition to that, it’s how well they feel about the environment where they work and the potential continuity of the company.”

Defortuna talks with his employees about the importance of stability and keeps them involved.

“We try to have continuity,” he says. “We try to keep people very informed about what we’re doing to keep prospects for the future. They understand and know that we’re here to stay, and they will always have, as far as I can manage it, continuity in their work and work environment.

“One of the biggest assets that we have presently in the company is that everybody comes to work happy, and we’re all pulling toward the same goal. It’s one of the characteristics that makes our company different.”

The relationship between co-workers is so good that many of the development company’s employees go on vacations together. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Defortuna pays for the trips. Recently, he paid for about 75 employees in the development office to spend five days in Las Vegas. And it was not a work trip disguised as a vacation.

“This has been a tradition for the last four or five years,” Defortuna says. “The atmosphere and the chemistry that exists here is unique in the industry. We’ve been to Buenos Aries. We’ve been to Orlando. We went to New York last year. We went to Key West. We have dinners together, then there is an event program for Saturday night where we have a club that we reserve for ourselves, so we’re going to have fun there. There is no work-related agenda.”

The best way to develop a team like the one at Fortune International is to start at the very beginning.

“It begins with the interview process,” Defortuna says. “Nobody hires anybody without a concerted approval process from the heads of many of the departments that are going to be involved with that particular individual. Not only the qualifications of that person are important, but his or her personality is very important to us because it’s key the relationship and the chemistry is kept.

“By now, I and many of my coworkers have become pretty good readers of (how well) people will adapt to our system. That’s something I stress. We go on a trip once a year, but we have meetings all the time. On Fridays, there is lunch for everybody in the company. We try to get together and share not only work experiences but also share personal experiences. That’s what makes it a very upbeat environment and a very happy environment.”

That environment has helped the company grow — last year, Fortune had $750 million worth of projects.

International expansion
Defortuna realized early on that the beauty and climate of South Florida appeal to more than just Northerners tired of cold, gray winters.

“When we were doing marketing and sales for developers, we figured out that a lot of the clientele that came through the sales center were foreigners,” Defortuna says. “When more and more projects came online, we felt that it was necessary to go to those countries, specifically at that time to go to Latin America, and get the customer educated on and informed about our product and the way that you buy in the U.S. before they get here, because there are too many (differences).”

Defortuna started developing relationships in those countries with the most demand at the time: Colombia, Brazil and Argentina.

“We first established alliances with local brokers there that would specialize in marketing and sales of our products here in Miami,” he says. “Later, in some of the cases, we opened our own offices in conjunction with those same brokers but under the Fortune umbrella, so they could represent exclusively the products that we develop or sell here in South Florida.”

It was a learning experience.

“It’s key that they’re local and they understand,” Defortuna says. “We went through growing pains. We figured out that sometimes the bigger offices or the bigger brokers are not necessarily the best choice to align with. You have to find somebody that is really committed to sell a Miami product. If they sell in their countries and their countries are doing OK, Miami takes a second position.”

Defortuna found that often, the smaller companies were better suited for the tight relationship he needed.

“The most important factor is to have knowledge of the local conditions,” says Fortuna. “They must be knowledgeable from a political and economical situation. For instance, in Argentina, Fortune International has a longstanding reputation. The people know us and trust us.

“One of the most important principles in real estate is to stick to what you know. Don’t take unnecessary risks. We wouldn’t go into a market that we don’t know. In addition, we look at new markets in order to stay diversified and, in turn, create new opportunities.”

Whether it’s through foreigners visiting South Florida and expressing an interest in his projects or Fortune International employees exploring other countries, Defortuna is able to begin understanding those off-shore opportunities. He further develops that understanding by partnering with individuals and offices already in those markets.

The ability to cover a wider area and do projects in multiple countries is key.

“It is another factor that makes Fortune very attractive when developers are looking to sell their projects,” he says. “You cannot do it for a single project because the infrastructure and the amount of effort would be tremendous. But when you have 20 or 30 projects that we have at the present time — between the ones that we’re developing and that we’re marketing ourselves — it allows you to be in every international fair, do an event and educate people on how easy it is to buy real estate here.”

One thing that makes his practice so successful is the ability to adapt and focus on different foreign markets, depending on the situation.

“We can put an emphasis in different countries according to their economic and political situation,” Defortuna says. “All through the years, the priority country has been changing on a constant basis. In the beginning, it was Argentina and Brazil. Then Colombia got real hot.”

In the last three or four years Defortuna has switched his attention to Europe. Europeans, he says, are attracted to South Florida not only for its natural beauty but also because of the strong economic and financial climate. With his constant assessment not only of the South Florida market but also of other countries, Defortuna is able to take advantage of the constant change in world real estate.

“Because of the strength of the euro, they think this is relatively inexpensive in comparison to what they can buy in their own country,” he says.

No matter where in the world he takes his company, the key is making the decision and then delivering whatever is necessary to get the job done.

“People, money, time — obviously, whatever it takes,” Defortuna says. “If you’re going to make a jump, you have to allocate resources. (We) must be ready to make a full commitment — especially when developing or selling in a new country.”

Defortuna has taken Fortune International beyond just marketing and selling to those on foreign soil. The company has also started developing its own projects in other countries.

Defortuna has once again found a way to leverage the relationships he has with foreign real estate offices. While those offices in Argentina continue to help sell Fortune’s South Florida properties, they are now able to promote the developments the company has in that country, as well.

Defortuna will continue to look at international opportunities and in other markets around the United States, but for now, his primary focus is on where it all started.

“The company grew, but (was) also fueled by the Miami market, which the last few years has been tremendous,” he says. “And with our position and knowledge in the market, we were able to achieve the success that we have today.”

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