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Invest, build and manage are the new buzz words for Stiles Corp., a Fort Lauderdale-based family concern that touches on practically every commercial real estate sector in all of Florida’s major metropolitan markets. Terry Stiles, chairman and CEO, has been at the company helm since 1971 yet admits to unprecedented challenges in the current environment. He took time out recently to talk with GlobeSt.com about coping with the current downturn and getting ready for the eventual recovery.

GlobeSt.com: Last year was a tough one for your company, having to make job cuts after your best year ever in 2007. How bad was it for you?

Stiles: That was probably one of our toughest years. One of the reasons we had our best year ever was the incredible job we did with expanding Dolphin Stadium, a good job with a very short time horizon. We normally do about $230 million a year, and we only hit about two-thirds of that in 2008.

We were geared up with two other projects, a hotel job and an airport job. These were very good, very well underwritten projects, but because of the restriction of credit they’re not going forward. Therefore, we have a lot of people that are in jeopardy of not having jobs, including us and our subcontractors.

We had one job in Palm Beach County that was 50% preleased to a high-credit company, but the restrictions put on the credit were just too tough to handle and we backed off of it. The underwriting is extremely hard, they’re requiring extreme personal commitments as far as guarantees, liquidity tests and net worth, and in a volatile situation we really can’t tell which way we’re going.

GlobeSt.com: Beyond straightening out the current credit situation, is there any other way for Stiles to get back on its previous track?

Stiles: It’s going to be very difficult. The real reason is with construction being the No. 2 industry in South Florida and seeing all those cranes coming down along the coast, all those jobs are going away. We need to create more jobs, we need to do more business to have demand, and when you can’t get the credit to do those projects that’s hundreds of jobs that aren’t going to happen, which means they’re not going to the dry cleaners, they’re not going to buy food and they’re not going to be renting houses.

Until we do something to stimulate the job growth here, we’re going to have a tough time. My only hope is that the government starts spending money on infrastructure, which we’re starting to see. We were just awarded the City of Sunrise public safety complex, which is a $30-million job and a good deal for us.

The airport is finally going to start breaking loose with designs on the south runway, the Port Everglades turning basin will be a fairly expensive project, as is the Interstate 595 expansion. Once those projects get into the system and we start hiring people back, and they start occupying some of these empty condos we have here, then you’ll probably start seeing something.

GlobeSt.com: Do you see this as a good time for investment opportunities in Florida commercial real estate?

Stiles: I think there are going to be some opportunities. The biggest difference between now and 1991 is that there were a bunch of vacant buildings. I think you’re going to see buildings with very good fundamentals that were bought with compressed cap rates and in turn financed with those cap rates.

Now with cap rates going up, the loan-to-value ratio is going to be out of whack and therefore there is going to be pressure to change that, which may force the sale of some of these higher-priced buildings that were bought in the last two years.

You’re going to see things get back in balance. People were paying too much money for some of this stuff. I think you’re going to see some good buildings at decent prices. We’re ready to move forward, but there’s a lot of money sitting on the sidelines waiting for exactly the same thing we’re looking for.

GlobeSt.com: What advantage do you have over competing investors?

Stiles: Where we think we have a leg up is we know how to underwrite them and we recognize the pitfalls. Some of the commercial real estate that’s in trouble today was just troubled to begin with and probably should have never been built, or wasn’t built right, so the fundamentals just weren’t there. But it’s going to get to the point now where you need to figure how to underwrite them, how to fix them, how to re-lease and re-tenant, how to manage, and you need to do it for a longer-term horizon. You can’t just fix it, flip it and make a bunch of money.

It’s going to be back to fighting every day and back to good tenant relationships. You’d see new hedge funds buying buildings with third-party management and they’d tick off the tenants, but it didn’t matter to them. All of that is changing.

GlobeSt.com: Which commercial sector do you see emerging from the recession first?

Stiles: One of the trends that we have noticed, as we’re getting older, is medical office requirements. I think you’re going to see some adult care facilities on the upper end. On a core deal, once the job growth comes back you’ll see some demand for office. I think class A office is going to be OK, but class B is going to be beat up a little bit..

GlobeSt.com: Your company has a strong commitment to green building. Has that changed in the ongoing downturn?

Stiles: What we’ve seen is if you design it right from the beginning, the cost differential isn’t that extreme. The perception of what green is needs to be better understood. It’s not just what it costs, it’s also how you operate.

If you design a building that can operate green, it can actually save you money from the operating side and not cost you too much to do up front. You need to be on this wagon. If not, you’re going to cut yourself out of a lot of this market. We’re trying to become a certified green developer, which there isn’t one right now.

GlobeSt.com: What advice do you have for companies like yours to stay afloat now?

Stiles: You’ve got to work your butt off. We’re working harder than we’ve worked in years. For the last 10 years, real estate was easy. If you didn’t make any money in real estate then, you’re never going to. We’re fighting for every job and every tenant.

You also need to think outside the box right now. We probably wouldn’t do a job for under $2.5 million five years ago. Now we’ll do a tenant-improvement job for $100,000. You’ve got to stay involved in the community and the market to keep people working. If you’re only doing one thing all the time, you’re going to get caught.

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