Learning the Lessons of History
Brian L. Bilzin knows that history repeats itself — at least when it comes to real estate. For more than 30 years the Miami attorney has been helping clients find the right path through the peaks and valleys of South Florida’s ever-changing market.
“Much of my work today involves distressed properties, workouts and reorganizations,” says Bilzin, founding partner at Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod. “To help our clients, we can draw on some of the lessons learned during the last commercial real estate recession in the early 1990s.”
Bilzin serves as counsel to several of South Florida’s foremost public and private companies. He also handles mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and lending matters, including structured financings. “Brian is a great lawyer who has been tremendously helpful in solving problems,” says Michael Swerdlow, chairman, Swerdlow Real Estate Group in Miami. “I’ve worked with him for many years, and he gives extremely good, well-thought-out advice. He is a fantastic human being, and I think very highly of him.”
Becoming a Lawyer
Bilzin grew up on Long Island and went to school at the University of Michigan, where he majored in history. “I was the first person in my family who went to college,” Bilzin says. “I liked psychology as an undergraduate, but not the science courses. In my junior year, I went to dinner with my parents and my dad said, ‘I think you should be a lawyer.’ I wound up taking the law boards, and it turned out my dad was right.”
Bilzin met his wife Marsha in law school at Boston University and earned his degree in 1970. “When we finished, I accepted an offer from Rubin Baum Levin and we returned to New York,” Bilzin says. “I’m a great believer of luck and fate in a person’s life. Things happen that you never contemplate and take you in a different direction.”
In Bilzin’s case, it was a change in practice areas. “I thought I wanted to be a tax lawyer, which in retrospect would have been a tragic mistake,” Bilzin says. “The firm had hired me as a tax attorney, but before I joined, they had brought another tax lawyer on board. They told me the only thing they had left for me was litigation, so that’s what I started doing.”
Bilzin soon began handling a wide range of commercial litigation cases. Then, another turning point came in July 1974 when the Bilzin’s were vacationing in the Berkshires. “This was long before there were cell phones or the Internet,” he recalls. “The office sent me a telegram to call New York right away. It turned out there was a legal crisis regarding one of the firm’s major clients in Miami Beach.”
The client was legendary developer Steve Muss, and the firm’s senior partner was taking a summer vacation in Europe. So, Bilzin drove back to New York and took an immediate flight to Miami. He began counseling Muss in how to resolve the issue, and the developer soon became a good friend. “There came a moment in time when the litigation was finished, and Muss turned to me and asked, ‘What happens now?’” Bilzin recalls. “I told him I would go back to New York. Then, he asked me if I wanted to become a deal lawyer.”
In 1981, Bilzin decided to make the move to Miami — at least temporarily — and open a local Rubin Baum office that focused on transactions as well as litigation. “My wife looked at me like I was crazy,” he says. “But I felt we would enjoy life more in South Florida. We kept our house in New York for a while, but after three months we realized we didn’t want to go back.”
A year later, Bilzin met John Sumberg, who managed the 10-attorney South Florida office of another major New York law firm. “I needed help and they were great lawyers, so they joined my New York firm,” Bilzin says. For 16 years Bilzin and Sumberg practiced together at Rubin Baum, before leaving to form Bilzin Sumberg on January 1, 1998. Within a few years, Stanley Price, Scott Baena and more than a dozen other experienced attorneys joined the firm, which now has more than 100 attorneys in a wide range of practice areas.
Through the years, Bilzin has been a community leader, serving as board member and campaign chair for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, board member of the Jackson Memorial Hospital Foundation, and the I Have a Dream Foundation. He’s also a founder at Mount Sinai Hospital and a trustee of United Way of Miami-Dade.
“Most of my time is spent with people, at social, charitable and business events,” he says. Outside the office, Bilzin enjoys spending family time with his wife, their two sons and granddaughters. A student of history, Bilzin recently read a book on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and is planning a trip to Poland this spring that includes Nazi death camps. “We must remember the lessons of the past,” he says.
Real Estate Cycles
Through the years, Bilzin has seen both booms and busts in South Florida’s real estate market. In the early 1980s, he represented Muss in large projects like Seacoast Towers and Towers at Quayside, and picked up national homebuilder Lennar as a client in 1986. However, the national downturn in the late 1980s, slowed new development, put properties in financial distress and led to the collapse of the savings and loan industry around 1990. “We quickly became experts in distressed debt and buying loan portfolios,” Bilzin says. “One of our big projects from that cycle was a joint venture with Morgan Stanley to buy the Amerifirst [S&L] assets.”
The “enormous” workouts during that recession were “uncharted territory” for most law firms, Bilzin adds. But Bilzin recognized that the market would eventually pick up, and began focusing again on acquisitions and new developments. “Our firm is proud of the work we have done to help shape the skyline of Miami,” he says.
For the past few years, Bilzin has once again concentrated on finding workout and asset disposition strategies for owners, lenders and developers. In 2010, Bilzin represented Rialto Capital, a real estate investment management company focused on distressed real estate asset investments, in the closing of two multibank structured asset transactions with the FDIC. Since then, Bilzin has been advising and assisting Rialto in connection with the acquisition and disposition of the 5,500 distressed commercial and residential assets acquired from lenders.
“In structuring a transaction, an attorney has to make sure the deal will work for the borrower,” Bilzin says. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to force a deal onto the parties that they can’t live with. A deal simply doesn’t work when one party is getting crushed.”
Today, Bilzin is seeing a few signs of life in South Florida’s commercial market. Last year the firm leased 80,000 square feet at 1450 Brickell, a new LEED-certified building on the south end of the Brickell Avenue corridor. While U.S. investors remain skittish about real estate — especially with high unemployment rates — the firm is seeing a lot of inbound investment from Latin America. As Bilzin says, “Miami is a cosmopolitan city and a gateway to Latin America. Many foreign nationals want to move at least some of their assets to the United States and recognize the values here. I think our market is back on the way up.”
Back to 2012 Distinguished Attorneys Back to 2012 Edition