Alirio Torrealba Started MG Developer in Coral Gables Three Years Ago and Now is Building Biltmore Square, While Earning a Name for Supporting the Arts
By Doreen Hemlock // Photos by Robert Sullivan
For real estate developer Alirio Torrealba, entrepreneurship began with a 1987 Fiat Regata. The young Venezuelan was attending university when his father gave him the three-year-old car as a gift. He asked permission to sell it and start an auto business. Ever since, he’s enjoyed creating new ventures.
In his South American homeland, the law school graduate developed a chain of used-car stores and then launched new-car dealerships for Kia, Fiat, Ford and Chinese brands JAC and Dongfeng. He expanded into Puerto Rico, opening a Kia store and more recently, a finance company.
In South Florida, Torrealba began investing eight years ago, initially renovating apartments and selling them. But what’s put him on Coral Gables’ map are his ambitious efforts as CEO of MG Developer, the real-estate group building luxury residences and sponsoring art shows and installations in the City Beautiful.
His Coral Gables-based company now is pumping nearly $80 million into its Biltmore Square project, developing 65 residences in four adjacent properties. The Square’s initial Biltmore Parc segment is already completed and half sold, with 32 units priced from $1.2 million to $2.5 million each. His group is also developing single-family houses and townhomes for $1 million-plus each, in other parts of the city.
“My hobby is working. I like to create,” says Torrealba from MG Developer’s unpretentious Coral Gables headquarters at 301 Almeria Ave. near Miracle Mile. “On weekends, I’ll go for a run and think about what I’d like to do next. Then, I’ll call a manager and say, ‘I’ve got this idea. Let’s do it.’”
Torrealba leads the Coral Gables push, while also commuting regularly to oversee his businesses in Puerto Rico and Venezuela, mainly in Caracas. “The secret is the team and having good communication and direction,” he says. “Because the truth is, the team gets it done.”
Working in multiple places comes easily for Torrealba. His father owned a bus company that provided service between Venezuelan cities. “I was practically raised in a bus,” he jokes. He now flys to Caracas and other locales sometimes every week, while his wife and teenage sons stay in South Florida. “It’s a question of getting used to it,” says the 47-year-old. “For me, it’s normal.”
I like creating, so people can work, grow and benefit together. We want to leave a legacyAlirio Torrealba, CEO of MG Developer
In Venezuela, Torrealba’s companies employ some 285 people that have been shifted among ventures as the economy recedes. With car sales weak, for example, the group recently began offering motorcycles from Italy’s Benelli brand. “With the same team, we’ve been re-inventing ourselves and entering new businesses,” he says. Managers strive to keep staff motivated, even as Venezuela’s inflation soars and supermarkets lack basics. The group now provides lunches for employees and has stepped up scholarships, turning more paternalistic.
Helping Torrealba run his companies is long-time partner Fernando Pinto, who also moved from Venezuela to South Florida several years ago. The two men met in the 1990s at a shopping mall in Caracas, where Torrealba had a used-car business and Pinto a ladies’ shoe store. “We’re brothers now,” says the 55-year-old Pinto. Indeed, they’re so close that when attending functions that serve Scotch Venezuelan-style, Pinto knows his pal won’t turn his drink back, even though Torrealba doesn’t like whiskey. “I have to laugh inside about the times over the years I’ve finished his drink,” jokes Pinto.
Torrealba handles more of the group’s strategy and organization, while Pinto focuses more on operations, serving as director of MG Developer, for instance. Learning the U.S. ropes has been a challenge for both. “It’s very different – the rules, the laws. You have to adapt,” says Torrealba during a wide-ranging interview in Spanish. “Teaming with local people who have solid reputations and strong local knowledge, that’s helped us.”
The U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico turned out to be a valuable stepping stone for the group to enter Florida. The island of nearly 3.5 million residents shares the same Spanish language and Caribbean culture as Venezuela, yet follows U.S. law. When MG set up a Kia concession in Puerto Rico’s Bayamon-Humacao area almost a decade ago, the group had to learn U.S. rules and regulations, helping ease the transition to the states later. “If we’d come directly to Florida, it would have been harder,” says Pinto.
In Coral Gables, MG Developer now counts among its associate firms: Bellin & Pratt and Maria de la Guardia for architecture; T.A. Builders and Torre Construction for contracting; and Fortune International for sales. With the group, Torrealba is “very hands-on,” says Daniel Guerra, Fortune’s vice president for development sales. He also follows through – even when details promised to homebuyers may cost more than expected: “What I like about him,” says Guerra, “is he’s here for the long-term, not for the moment.”
Many of MG’s townhome and condo projects appeal to empty-nesters and retirees seeking to move closer to the city center. Those buyers want to forgo the responsibility of large homes and big gardens in more suburban settings, says Ron Shuffield, president of EWM Realty International, whose brokerage has sold MG units. Finding the appropriate sites near the city core, getting approvals to re-purpose them, and then building modern, quality housing takes “staying power to do something so complex,” says Shuffield.
Three-year-old MG Developer takes its name from Torrealba’s core business in Venezuela, Multibrand Group, or in Spanish, Grupo Automotriz Multimarca. The group also uses the “Multi” prefix in Puerto Rico, where it has sold its Kia store. Its latest venture on the island, Multibanco International, provides funding for companies expanding in Latin America and on the U.S. mainland.
Torrealba learned first-hand that financing can be elusive for foreign investors new to the United States. In Venezuela, banks typically knew his company and track record. But in Florida, his group has had to build a name. That process required time, patience, and humility, he concedes.
To foster its brand in Coral Gables, Torrealba’s team has mobilized around the arts. MG has commissioned a four-foot-high, 30-foot long stone bench as a centerpiece for Balboa Plaza. The group also hosts Art & Culture nights at its Biltmore Parc development and sponsors other art-linked events. It backed three pop-up galleries for Miracle Mile’s “Back to Beautiful” celebration, for example, that kicked off April 14.
The group has long been active in philanthropy in Venezuela, where it tries to stay clear of politics. It works there with Fundahigado, a foundation which helps provide liver transplants, says Torrealba.
To keep sharp at business, Torrealba typically rises around 6:30 am and heads to the gym most mornings. “Exercise relaxes me,” he says, his blue eyes bright. He stays in touch with his companies all day, often attends work-related functions at night, and sleeps usually by 11 pm, sometimes watching a documentary first. As he meets people who share his values of teamwork and long-term development, he often mulls opportunities to start new ventures with them.
“I like creating, so people can work, grow and benefit together,” says Torrealba. “We want to leave a legacy.”
MG Developer’s Coral Gables signature development, the $80 million Biltmore Square, comprises four adjacent developments offering 65 residential units that span roughly 150,000 square feet. It is expected to be complete by 2020.
Here’s a look at projects within the Square:
Biltmore Parc at 718 Valencia Ave.: 32 two- and three-bedroom units, ranging from 1,650 square feet to 2,245 square feet. Five stories. Completed. Half sold. Units run from $1.2 million to $2.5 million. Price includes one-year membership to The Club at The Biltmore Hotel.
Beatrice Row at 744 Biltmore Way: Nine Georgian-style townhomes, offering four bedrooms and two- to four-car garages. Units range from 5,537 square feet to 5,564 square feet. Three stories. Under construction. Half sold. Prices start from $1.4 million.
Althea Row on Almeria Ave: Five units planned. Named for Althea Merrick, the mother of Coral Gables founder George Merrick. Prices not yet set.
Biltmore Row on Valencia Ave: 10 townhomes planned. Prices not yet set.