"You know what I like about my life?" muses Gil Dezer with an ear-to-ear grin. "How many 29-year-olds do you know who can pick up the phone and get Trump on the other end?" Dezer leans back from the wrap-around desk in his 31st-floor office at Sunny Isles Beach's $600 million Trump Grande Ocean Resort and Residences condo complex. "When I grew up in the Eighties writing book reports about Donald Trump -- who knew that in a number of years I'd be sitting here as his partner?"
You hardly need to interview Dezer to grasp the magnitude of this partnership, though. Approach the Trump Grande from the north and that relationship is spelled out in thirteen-foot-high block letters spanning the complex's second tower: TRUMP DEZER.
Still, while nearly all the units in the Trump Grande's first two towers are already sold (prices range from $350,000 for a studio to $5 million for a penthouse with its own pool) and construction is set to begin on the third tower, not everyone in town is ready to salute Dezer. As president of Dezer Development, Gil is heir apparent to the 27 oceanfront acres of Sunny Isles Beach acquired by his father Michael, yet many local figures say a familial handoff is premature.
Speak to some of Gil Dezer's fellow developers and you'll hear grudging admiration for his project's savvy licensing of Trump's name and the impressive sales that have resulted. Those comments, however, are leavened by misgivings regarding Dezer's personal style. Tales abound of his launching into obscenity-filled tirades during business meetings, screaming at his staff, and displaying a coarse, lewd personality, one that may fly in the streets of Dezer's native New Jersey but which sets teeth to grinding in the well-heeled Realtor circles of South Beach. "Yes, he's been an incredible success so far," concedes one of Dezer's former staffers, "but putting Gil in charge of a company is like giving a machine gun to a monkey."
As such complaints are echoed, though, the rap against Dezer begins to sound an awful lot like the carping once leveled at ... Donald Trump.
Today's aspiring MBAs know Trump primarily as the self-aggrandizing star of NBC's smash TV show The Apprentice, a cultural phenomenon that has established the real estate mogul as a financial wizard in the popular imagination. Never mind that Wall Street remains a bit more skeptical: Trump's casinos may have dazzled on The Apprentice, but offscreen they're burdened with $1.8 billion in crushing debt, a red ledger that has auditors publicly warning of bankruptcy. For those creditors who lost upward of $800 million during Trump's 1990 I'll-sue-you-for-libel-if-you-call-it-a-bankruptcy restructuring, the man's business genius is also less than evident.
Indeed anyone who lived through Trump's original Eighties heyday has a decidedly more ambivalent take on the man. The new, seasoned Trump seems willing to poke fun at his inflated sense of himself, hosting a Saturday Night Live episode in which he hawked "Donald Trump's House of Wings." The Trump of old, however, relished his crassness, a "short-fingered vulgarian" dedicated to erecting gauche structures that would make even Saddam Hussein's palace architects blanch.
Trump's personal life wasn't much more refined. As he hashed out a prenuptial agreement with his fiancée Ivana, her attorneys balked at a provision for "lump-sum payments" for every child she bore him. Not that the press accounts of his subsequent acrimonious divorce, his supermodel dalliances, or any of his business travails bothered him in the least. "It really doesn't matter what they write," Trump quipped to Forbes, "as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass."
Gil Dezer certainly shares Trump's propensity for bluntness. "I don't know if you want to call it kickbacks or bribes," he begins explaining to Kulchur, searching for the right expression to describe his former operating method at Miami International Airport. After a freshman year of "mostly Cs and Ds" at the University of Miami, both Gil and his father Michael agreed that academia was not his calling. Instead he switched to night classes at UM to free up his days for working at Dad's Dezerland hotel in Surfside. First task: rounding up a steady stream of guests.
"What's the word I'm looking for?" he asks Kulchur.
"Commissions!" Dezer thunders back. "We were giving commissions to the car-rental desks at the airport." Unbeknownst to their own corporate bosses, the clerks at Budget, Hertz, and Avis were earning five-dollar fees for steering their customers to the Dezerland with Dezer's own "Luxury for Less! $59!" vouchers in hand.
"I became the king of the rental-car agencies over there," Dezer chuckles. "You should've seen their faces when I would walk in. People were getting checks of $300 to $400 every week. Until the police threw me out. " He shrugs: "You're not allowed to solicit business at the airport." Undeterred, he shifted to the telephone kiosks that connect arriving travelers with local hotels, personally pitching Dezerland as a cheaper option. When the police rousted him from that spot, "I'd send somebody else when they got used to my face. We'd keep trading people."
It's a long way from dodging airport cops and hustling $59 rooms to the 31st floor of the Trump Grande. Or perhaps it's not that far at all. Michael Dezer's rapid purchase of a string of Sunny Isles parcels and dilapidated hotels -- all on the eve of the city's 1997 developer-friendly incorporation -- produced a vivid rumor mill, one quick to speculate on just how the Dezers amassed their property and on their influence as the town's largest landowner.
"We had an inside track knowing that the zoning was going to be changing here in Sunny Isles," Gil Dezer explains.
An inside track?
"My father's a friendly guy, he talks to everybody," Dezer continues, waving off any allusions to impropriety. "The word was out: This was going to be the place. It was about who had the biggest balls to put their money where their mouth was."
Balls aside, what about the persistent whispers of under-the-table sweetheart deals on Trump Grande condos for local pols and financiers? After all, one man's kickback is another man's, er, commission.
"I couldn't do it even if I wanted to -- the bank is on my ass and they want to see sold units," Dezer insists. "In Miami we've never had anyone come to us for money," he adds. "Donations to their campaign? Yeah. You have to give to Republicans and Democrats just to cover your bases." To that end he's even hosted a fundraiser for Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas's current U.S. Senate run, despite their being on opposite sides of the political divide. Penelas may be a Democrat, but Dezer says, "We work with the man, not the party. He's a sharp guy." Politicians aren't bought. They're wooed by the force -- or the subtlety -- of your argument: "It's like when you rush a fraternity. You've got to show your face around, be nice to all the brothers."
So who's getting hazed here?
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Dezer rolls his eyes and laughs. Grabbing a pack of cigarettes, he leads the way onto his office's balcony. The view is downright breathtaking, with Aventura's high-rises sparkling across the Intracoastal in the night sky, and to the right, the inky blackness of the Atlantic. His hair swirling in the wind at this great height, Dezer motions to the sprawl of the Trump Grande below. "I'm my father's son, he takes care of me, he's the one who gave me this opportunity," he says solemnly. "Now it was my decision whether to fuck the opportunity up or do what I did with it."
The same way Trump inherited his own father's real estate empire?
"And Trump gives his father a lot of credit," Dezer replies with a knowing smile.
Next week: The art of the deal, Dezer-style