Mark Shemel, Shawn Vardi, and Hunter Gellin have been business partners for more than a decade—best friends for even longer—and not once in that span have they ever gotten into an argument.
“It’s insane,” says Vardi, chief operations officer of Think Hotel Group, which he co-owns with Shemel and Gellin. “Each of us has a completely different brain and skill set. As a partnership with three totally different personalities, I can’t really explain it. But I just think we ultimately have the same understanding of what our business is.”
That business: A quickly expanding real estate development and hospitality company based in Miami. Think is attracting industry buzz this year for its recent acquisition of several boutique hotel and restaurant properties on the entire 21st Street block in Miami’s South Beach. The “Think Hotel Group Campus” includes the 52-room Boulon Hotel, the newly renovated, 51-room South Beach Hotel, the Ansonia House and Plymouth hotel—each scheduled to open January 2015—and Charles St. NY Kitchen. Not a shabby portfolio for three guys in their early 30s who only purchased their first hotel four years ago.
The native New Yorkers began their business in Brooklyn, buying and managing a small, low-income apartment building in the early 2000s. Though profitable, the building wasn’t the ticket to other properties in New York City that the partners hoped it would be, so they continued to treat Think as a side job. (While Shemel has always been in real estate, Vardi comes from a jewelry background, and Gellin from the clothing and fashion design business.)
That changed when the opportunity arose in 2010 to head to Miami and take over management of the Boulon—a condominium complex—and convert it into a hotel. After a successful revamp—the hotel now sees a $350 average daily rate and occupancy in the high 80s—the decision to acquire the properties directly adjacent to the Boulon was a no-brainer.
“Our future was literally staring us in the face,” Vardi says. “We really understand this market, the economy, and scale of doing things in the area, so we purchased the other assets. We now have two blocks and 250 keys in a thriving Miami market, and it’s made us a real player. We’re relevant.”
The three partners serve crucial roles in the organization: Vardi is in charge of daily operations, Shemel is the revenue manager for all properties, and Gellin handles the marketing and aesthetics. Put simply, Shemel describes Gellin as “the guy who makes sure everything we do always ends up looking very cool.” The $2 million renovation of the South Beach Hotel, for example, features handmade Guatemalan wood furniture in the lobby and original artwork in the rooms by local Miami artists.
The inherent trust they share as friends means there isn’t much push and pull when it comes to making business decisions, from big expansions to minor, day-to-day moves.
“You see a lot of family and friend partnerships fall apart over this kind of stuff, but with us, it’s different,” Shemel says. “Nobody ever feels like he’s doing too much, because we’re all doing what we’re good at, and we’re all expecting each other to perform.”
Vardi agrees. “If I wasn’t in the same room, and they made a decision on my behalf, I wouldn’t have to question it,” he says. “Case in point: We’re now getting to be successful, and we just signed our operating agreement last week, after 12 years together. It’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense.”
What makes more sense is Think’s vision for the immediate future: to make its block on 21st Street the premier destination for Miami’s young residents and travelers. “We’re young, and we understand that young people don’t want to go to an expensive meal or nightclub every night,” Vardi says. “You need to know your property. We’re catering to the price-sensitive crowd with good quality and a really good experience. One year from now [when the Plymouth and Ansonia open], we’re going to stamp this city with our experience and our culture. That’s what we’re building.”