“The first time I met him we became brothers,” says Jay Parker of Kenneth Baboun.
What brought Parker, CEO of the Florida division of Douglas Elliman and president of Elliman’s development marketing division in Florida, and Baboun, the founder of BGI Cos., together was Alba, a 22-story condominium development set for groundbreaking in West Palm Beach at the end of this year. The development on the Intracoastal is a collection of 55 luxury residences, plus four two- and three-story townhomes.
“The connection wasn’t because he necessarily had decided to hire us or we felt that he needed us,” Parker adds. “We just looked at each other and knew that there was something special and that it would be accretive to both of us as friends and as business partners.”
Then Parker turns characteristically introspective: “I think that that comes from the soul and that comes from who you really are, from your authenticity and transparency,” he says. “People used to say to me, when I was younger, that I wear my heart on my sleeve, and you know, I would open my insides up to anybody to let them see inside me because all you’re going to see is what you see on the outside, which is a genuine, honest, transparent, hardworking, dedicated person—and I got that feeling from Kenny. Literally the only thing I would regret is that I didn’t brace harder for the hugs because he’s a big guy and when he hugs you, it kind of hurts a little bit. But he is one of those few people in your life that you meet and you realize this is going to be a brother for the rest of my life.”
This is not the usual rap you hear from a corporate executive of a household-name company like Douglas Elliman. Parker, who emigrated to Miami from Toronto, says he owes his ingenuousness and openness to his unconventional path, to his early travel experiences: in Israel through an overseas program during his enrollment at the University of Western Ontario, and during another Mediterranean stint, this time on the Greek island of Rhodes (“I figured wasn’t smart enough to get a Rhodes scholarship, so I decided I would just go to Rhodes and say it was a Rhodes scholarship,” he jokes). He earned his law degree from the University of Miami School of Law more than 20 years ago. The travel addiction has remained: He says that as long as he has his laptop, he can be anywhere.
JAY PARKER’S STORY
It’s been a decade since Parker joined Elliman as the CEO of the company’s thriving Florida brokerage. Listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Douglas Elliman is one of the country’s leading real estate concerns, operating everywhere that matters. It blankets the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with 22 offices in New York City and a headquarters in the Hamptons; the California headquarters is in Beverly Hills. Elliman also does business in Colorado, Massachusetts, Texas and Nevada.
The Florida headquarters enjoys an auspicious location within the noted Herzog & de Meuron building at 1111 Lincoln Road in South Beach. Brickell, Boca Raton, Palm Beach, Las Olas—Elliman dominates the tri-county area, from the northern reaches of Palm Beach County to Coral Gables and Coconut Grove (Elliman serves the affluent west coast of Florida as well). One office is appropriately ensconced in the Ritz-Carlton on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
Though Elliman has worked as an attorney and launched a title company, it was the last decade at Elliman that positioned him as real estate superstar. Happily, his passion has matched the prestige. “It’s been a great evolution for me because it’s where my passion lies,” he says. “I really love working with agents. I grew up in a family where my father was a real estate lawyer until he retired and my mother was a real estate agent for many years, so I was around transactions, brokerage and deal negotiations and the legal aspects for pretty much my entire career, even my entire childhood.”
Parker always thought he would land in real estate, but he didn’t know in what capacity. “I saw brokerage in Florida as a really interesting space for opportunity, but I also recognized that the amount of capital that would be required to properly transition the industry into what I thought it would be was more than I willing to risk,” he says. And because the core of his title business was working with Realtors, he was reluctant to go into competition with them as an agent. “I also felt I had a strong title insurance business and legal practice,” he says. “I didn’t feel I was going to jump out of my lane.”
NEW YORK CONNECTION
But his future became clear when Douglas Elliman chairman Howard Lorber approached Parker and presented him with an opportunity “to connect the markets where all our clients naturally want to be—I saw that as vividly as his words. I also knew of his strength in various capacities as felt as if there were ever somebody who would allocate the capital, vision and intellectual capital and the patience, it would be him.” (Lorber also serves as president and CEO of Vector Group, a diversified holding company listed as VGR on the New York Stock Exchange.)
At that time, Douglas Elliman was a very different organization—it was much smaller, and it had yet to go public. “He said to me, ‘I don’t really care how long it takes,’ ” Parker recalls. “He wanted to build a business that could speak to each of these markets cohesively. Being from Toronto and recognizing the amount of business I felt could cross borders but that wasn’t being properly managed, I knew that was an opportunity.” Having lived and worked in New York was another ace in Parker’s pocket, given the vibrancy of the market there and its long-lived ties to South Florida. “For many years we were considered the sixth borough—I would probably say today, we’re the first borough,” Parker says, with good-natured hyperbole. To make Elliman live up to its potential, it “required a reinterpretation of what this business was in Florida,” Parker says. The vision became reality: “We’ve spearheaded the most significant projects in the state of Florida,” he says.
With real estate one of the Florida’s top sectors, and with the luxury sales landscape as obsessed over as any in Manhattan, East Hampton, Los Angeles or San Francisco, competition is always a factor—to a point. “One Sotheby’s is a viable competitor, and we have a great relationship with them,” Parker says. “They’re great people. I, frankly, think we have more depth, a stronger bench. There have been others that have come into the market, like Compass and Corcoran, but they don’t have our infrastructure. Our culture is so strong and our passion is so real, as is our commitment to our clients like Kenny and to our agents: 1,500 agents in the state of Florida.”
Parker says that philosophy comes from the top: “Howard Lorber is my idol—he calls us an agency-centric organization and that’s the truth. We give us 100% to help our agents succeed, which, in turn, helps their clients deliver results. We’re relentless in our desire to see them succeed.” And succeed they have, especially in the tumultuous last two years. He credits “our understanding and knowledge of each of the markets that have benefited from tax mitigation, migration and the pandemic. It’s been a grand slam.”
BABOUN’S EYE FOR THE MARKET
For his part, the Mexico City-born Baboun (he moved to Miami in high school) likewise considers Parker his brother, though his memory of first meeting Elliman’s Florida CEO in 2021 comes with a side dish of edge. “I’m not one to be summoned, but I got summoned by Jay,” says the developer, which sends both men into explosive laughter. “We put our teams together and what I thought would be a 30-minute meeting turned into a two-hour meeting. We hit if off at the first meeting.”
Before embarking on the Alba project, Baboun’s most prominent deals included staking a distressed-assets fund in 2008 and, later, investing in the 46-story Brickell House condominium tower in 2010 and 2011. But, he says, “I think that the project that defines my career will be Alba,” and he grows animated when describing how Alba quickly grew in ambition. “The project started out as something smaller, but within 14 months we were able to change a five-story building into a 22-story tower,” he recalls. “The market had really boomed because COVID-19 had passed the fear stage into a let’s-move-to-Florida-it’s-a-better-lifestyle phase.”
Delivery is set for spring 2025, which can’t some soon enough—that’s how strong demand is. Baboun notes that other than the Bristol Tower, a 68-unit tower built in 2019 that was considered the most expensive condominium built in Palm Beach County, no residential building in West Palm Beach has risen since 2005. The Alba experience has been so positive—from community involvement to zoning changes—that he says West Palm Beach will now be his focus. His headquarters are still in Miami, but feels burned by the Magic City. “I’m used to fighting with the city of Miami, and to go into a city where they promote development—instead of saying we can’t do it, they say, ‘How can we help you?’—was a complete gamechanger.”
In choosing Alba’s architect—West Palm Beach-based Spina O’Rourke & Partners—Baboun considered the community. “Our approach is that if you want to build something big in a small town, you go with the small-town experts,” he says. “Just as when I went into Jay’s office, when I walked into the Spina O’Rourke office and met [principals] Keith [Spina] and Tammy [O’Rourke], and started working with them, I saw their vision and they grasped my vision. They made the right introductions and outreach—we met with the neighbors at least eight times to ask what they wanted to see there and not become intrusive. It’s our philosophy to hire local—it makes life easier.”
DOING IT RIGHT
The result is a light and airy tower that doesn’t feel stacked or dense—even the exterior suggests the limited number of residences on each floor (from one to four, with private elevators and vestibules for discretion), while the multistory base evokes the setbacks of a ship. An elevated amenities deck will boast unobstructed sunrise, sunset and water views.
Baboun is quick to enumerate Alba’s market differentiators. “We are the tower that’s on the marina,” he says. “There hadn’t been one built in the past nearly 20 years. And we are a boutique building with only 55 units, and our mix of units is something special, because we have townhouses on the water with yards and dock slips. Every unit has an unobstructed water view. Alba means first ray of light—so we get the first ray of light in the morning. We light the tower perfectly, so it gets sunrise and sunset.” To underline that point, Alba will enjoy both a sunrise and sunset pool. The development was 30% sold even before the sales center formally opened.
But beyond the pools, golf simulators and other top-tier amenities, Parker points to something far more elemental: space. “As I anticipated, and I’m not making this a claim to fame, but I’ve been pretty right about the market over the past decade, and one of the things that I’ve felt was going to happen, as we saw an absolute absorption of single-family homes, is that people would move to a residence, and that would increase value,” he says. “Obviously, there are different drivers in the market now that are pulling and pushing in different ways, but one of the things that I think is super appealing about Alba is its low density. When you have a building that’s 200 or 300 units, it changes the dynamic. Alba is more of a small, important community—you get to know your neighbors. You have a sense of identity. People know who you are, and they look out for you.”
The final verdict from one “brother” to another: “Kenny did it right. He has a passion for excellence. There’s nothing ordinary about him, nothing, and I mean this both as a compliment and a quality. Alba will be the first of what I hope will be many special projects that Kenny will bring to market.”
Photos by Nick Garcia