Not everyone comes to Miami for the sun, sea and sand. For a former Canadian hockey player and his business partner, real estate proved the all-important lure.
Sasha Cucuz, who played three seasons of minor-league hockey in the Philadelphia Flyers' organization, and Peter Politis are partners in Greybrook Capital Inc., a Toronto-based private equity firm that focuses on real estate and health care.
Greybrook, which has worked mostly in the Greater Toronto Area, now has partnered with a New York developer to build a 500-unit, 88-storey project at 300 Biscayne Blvd. It is projected to be worth $970-million (U.S.) upon completion.
Up to now, Greybrook has invested more than $800-million (Canadian) in more than 50 projects across the Greater Toronto Area. The firm decided to head south because the real estate market is similar to the GTA's.
"Florida is the only state in the U.S. that develops like they develop here in Toronto," Mr. Politis says. "What I mean by that is they presell their units, and the purchaser deposits that are bought and insured are used in the construction process."
The Miami opportunity didn't come around by chance. Greybrook spent almost a year evaluating projects there, and had the inside track partly because Mr. Politis grew up in the area and knew the city well. Even so, much of the time was spent selecting the right development partner, Property Markets Group.
"Ten years ago had we called up PMG, who's a multibillion-dollar New York-based developer, and said, 'Hey, I'm Sasha, at my little shop in Toronto.' They're not taking your call," Mr. Cucuz says. "Once you've had some consequential successes then it makes it easier."
It is testament to how far the company has come since its founding by Elias Vamvakas in 1999. Even when he hired Mr. Cucuz and Mr. Politis in 2001 to help manage his money, Greybrook was working on one or two projects a year.
Today Greybrook considers about 150 projects a year and proceeds with about 15. "We've gone from about 30 to 70 to 130 to 250 [millions of dollars] in deployed capital over the last three or four years. That's a significant leap every year," Mr. Cucuz says.
He estimates that the company's health-care portfolio stands at $100-million, with investments in TearLab, which makes eye-testing equipment, and TMS NeuroHealth Centers, which produces non-sedating treatments for depression.
The completion value of Greybrook's real estate portfolio, however, stretches into the billions. The company has worked on between 55 and 60 developments, with 25 active and continuing.
Mr. Cucuz says that things really started to take off for Greybrook in 2007 when it invested $31.1-million in 1,195 residential condo units in Toronto's Liberty Village neighbourhood, returning 240 per cent for its investors with a completion value of $390-million. Growth stalled during the recession, but then picked up again after.
To help manage growth, the company recently relocated to downtown Toronto from Mississauga. But the new space wasn't enough for long.
"Between signing the lease in October and moving in in March, I think we hired 12 or 13 people," Mr. Politis says. "And then we hired another nine or 10 people and we literally signed a lease for a second floor yesterday. We came into this space with a dozen people, but now we're at 40."
The firm recently decided to hire a president and chief operating officer, and having been an investor on previous Greybrook projects, former Macquarie Private Wealth president Chris Salapoutis agreed to come on board.
Mr. Cucuz and Mr. Politis agree that the key to Greybrook's growth is the relationships built with developers and investors. The investor base has grown mostly by word of mouth, and every partnership with a developer has resulted in multiple projects.
"It's all trust related, and I think you have to earn that trust," Mr. Cucuz says.
They see "hockey stick-type growth," he says, because "you've got to be in business long enough that people know, okay, these people have been in business 10 years, they're still here, they seem to know what they're doing."
Editor's note: The Greybrook tower in Miami is 88 storeys, not 32, as appeared in a previous version of this story. This is the corrected version.