GL Homes leaders talk secrets to success, future of company

Friday, March 8, 2019

Left to right: GL Homes VP Larry Portnoy, President Misha Ezratti and COO Marcie DePlaza in a model home at Lotus Boca Raton.

By Brian Bandell  – Senior Reporter, South Florida Business Journal
JOCK FISTICK/SOUTH FLORIDA BUSINESS JOURNAL

GL Homes’ story is about a homebuilder that succeeded by doing things differently.

While many developers shied away from the complicated development rules in Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve, GL Homes became an expert and built thousands of homes there.

When some developers walked away from houses they sold that were constructed with Chinese drywall, GL Homes covered the cost of replacing it.

While some developers sell homes to investors, GL Homes has policies that strongly discourage those practices.

Sunrise-based GL Homes ranked third on the Business Journal’s list of largest South Florida homebuilders by starts in 2018. It was the only homebuilder in the Top 5 that builds exclusively in Florida.

Statewide, GL Homes sold 1,800 homes last year, the company said.

“The national builders have hundreds of communities, but they are smaller communities,” GL Homes President Misha Ezratti said. “We have maybe a dozen large communities, but we are laser-focused and deeply entrenched in them.”

COO Marcie DePlaza, one of 18 executives who have been with the company over 20 years, said being a private company means they don’t feel the pressure to grow as quickly as a public homebuilder.

Like many South Florida businesses, GL Homes was founded by an immigrant.

CEO Izhak Ezratti moved to Washington, D.C., from Israel in 1974 and worked as a bank teller, said Misha Ezratti, his son. He couldn’t stand the cold, so he moved to Florida. His background was in the restaurant business.

In 1976, Izhak Ezratti and his father-in-law, engineer Joseph Hanin, co-founded GL Homes. Their first project was a duplex in Hollywood. For over a decade, the company grew at a reasonable pace, DePlaza said.

In 1992, thousands of south Miami-Dade County residents who lost their homes in Hurricane Andrew were looking to move north, and GL Homes already had options on 3,000 lots in Pembroke PInes’ Silver Lakes community, Ezratti said. The company sold 250 homes in 1992 and 750 in 1993 – providing it with an infusion of cash to grow.

Pioneering in the Ag Reserve

GL Homes embraced the challenge of developing in the Agricultural Reserve in southwest Palm Beach County. VP Larry Portnoy said they worked with county officials to understand the rules. For each acre developed, developers must preserve 1.5 acres elsewhere in the area for green space, farming or equestrian use. 

Using this formula, GL Homes has developed 14 communities in the Agricultural Reserve, and worked with farmers to preserve thousands of acres of land, Portnoy said. It also built many of the public roads in the area.

“It took a lot of risk,” Portnoy said. “Once we figured out what we could do, we acquired land at a lesser price.”

Branded communities

In southwest Palm Beach, GL Homes saw that many of the senior communities were small condos. The company decided to build active adult communities with larger single-family homes and luxury amenities, but without the golf courses, so seniors didn’t have to downsize, DePlaza said. This became the first of the Valencia-branded communities in 1996. GL Homes is now on its 14th Valencia, with over 12,000 homes developed, she said.

GL Homes realized that families also liked communities with large amenity centers and social activity directors, so it built projects such as the Canyons and Boca Bridges, and recently broke ground on Lotus. These luxury brands have accounted for over 1,400 home sales in the past six years, Ezratti said.

Lotus, in west Boca Raton, represents another evolution for GL Homes, with mid-century modern architecture and large, open floor plans. 

“Houses that would cost $15 million in Miami Beach are $2 million to $3 million here,” Ezratti said.

Joining the family business

Ezratti has been president of GL Homes for three years, but he didn’t rise rapidly at his family’s company. As a kid, he saw his father and his team working virtually around the clock on the business, especially on the weekends.

He joined the company shortly after graduating college 18 years ago. Ezratti said he’s worked in virtually every department of GL Homes – from construction to finance to land management. 

“My dad’s vision is being out there in the field,” Ezratti said. “You need to know the ins and outs of the company, and what everyone else is doing, and bring your own attitude, knowledge and perspective to it.”

Envisioning the future

Izhak Ezratti once told Portnoy that the worst thing for a builder is to finish one community and have nothing else next. With the Agricultural Reserve nearing buildout, the company is focused on its future developments:

• GL Homes won the bidding on 188 acres of the Boca Raton municipal golf course west of the city. The deal, which could lead to the development of about 564 homes, has yet to close.

• It plans 325 homes on the former Polo Trace golf course, west of Delray Beach, and 653 homes at Lyons Road and Flavor Pict Road in the Agricultural Reserve.

• GL Homes won approval for 3,897 homes and 300,000 square feet of commercial space at Indian Trail Groves in northwest Palm Beach. Portnoy said the company is still considering its options to build most of those homes in the Agricultural Reserve instead, which would require county approval.

• It just started sales on 400 homes at Valencia in Port St. Lucie. DePlaza said they have 11,000 lots for development in that city, so that could last 20 years.

• Ezratti said GL Homes will explore mixed-use or multifamily development, an area it hasn’t entered before, so it can develop in parts of South Florida without large tracts of land. “Just because we would do something relatively new for us, that doesn’t scare us,” he said.

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