SF Attorney spells business with a capital “R”

by Jennifer LeClaire of the Florida Real Estate Journal

In a legal landscape where behemoth law firms are gobbling up boutique practices, Fort Lauderdale’s Angelo & Banta PA is determined to do the mega deals without the mega roster.

Led by managing shareholder Thomas Angelo, the eight-attorney firm frequently litigates real estate cases against legal industry titans like Greenberg Traurig, Akerman Senterfitt and Holland & Knight. But lawyers with mega-firm credentials don’t intimidate Angelo, a former partner at Stearns Weaver Miller in Miami. His track record since launching his own firm in 1998 speaks for itself.

Indeed, Angelo & Banta is a small partnership that boasts big clients, including Bank of America, Wachovia and El-Ad, the Israeli developer that invested $56.3 million to buy a piece of Fort Lauderdale Beach for a condo-hotel development last year.

Angelo and his partner, Gavin Banta, are proving that boutique firms can play with the big boys in the real estate and financial services realm by putting relationships first.

“Our strategy is to keep the number of clients small so we can provide high-quality service and gain repeat business,” said Angelo, 44, who launched his own firm to control his own destiny.

The duo’s slow-and-steady growth strategy is simple. The firm seeks clients who engage in frequent transactions so its attorneys can learn how to think the way the client does. Angelo likens the attorney-client relationship to a marriage where mutual trust grows over time.

That strategy has paid off. Angelo represented RPH Hotel Associates in the $24 million sales of the Ritz Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach in June. He negotiated and closed a $45.8 million construction loan for the Strand, a 28-story luxury apartment tower in Jacksonville. He represented Bank of America in closing a $24 million loan to Wilton Manors Developers in Fort Lauderdale. And the list goes on.

“We cultivate relationships with existing clients because that’s our best source of business. Any sales network will tell you that it’s easier to cultivate relationships you already have than to find a new client,” Angelo said. “We are always asking ourselves if we are doing the best possible job for our clients.”

This relationship mindset permeates all aspects of Angelo’s firm. When he launched Angelo and Banta nine years ago, he had only one client: Bank of America. He credits relationship-building with the balance of his client base today.

The firm didn’t advertise then and it doesn’t advertise now. It depends on word of mouth and rock solid performance to grow. Angelo & Banta enjoys referrals from national law firms like Kirkland & Ellis, a 1,500-lawyer mega-firm in Chicago. The firm also receives recommendations from clients like Starwood Hotels, Citibank, AmSouth, AutoNation and the Codina Group.

“The key to successful business development is getting someone to give you an opportunity to do the first piece of work. Then you do a great job and create the platform internally to continue servicing that business with the same high quality you gave to the first file,” Angelo says.

Angelo’s firm needs those strong relationships – and the trust that comes along with them – in the heat of the battle. It was actually during a battle over beachfront property in Fort Lauderdale last year that El-Ad got to see Angelo in action. Angelo represented Swiss Beach Holdings in the sale of two acres of Fort Lauderdale Beach to El-Ad. In connection to that sale, litigation was filed to evict Margarita Cafe, a tenant.

Angelo successfully navigated through the challenges to settle the case and make way for El-Ad to close the land deal for a record $28 million per acre. His performance led El-Ad to hire Angelo & Banta to represent the developer in ongoing matters on Fort Lauderdale Beach, as well as other South Florida real estate transactions.

Mammoth deals with clients like El-Ad take the sting out of the recent real estate retreat. Several large condo conversions Angelo & Banta was brokering have been shelved. The boutique firm has plenty to fall back on, though. Its practice areas include corporate law, estate planning and probate, bankruptcy, litigation and property tax appeals.

The diverse practice has led to consistent 10% to 15% annual growth over the past five years. That’s just the way Angelo likes it. He is purposely trying to keep the firm small. His motto is “quality over quantity,” and his hourly rates afford him the opportunity to maintain the firm’s boutique status.

“We are not the cheapest firm in South Florida, and we are selective about taking on new clients. It’s like a marriage. You want to have a good fit. We don’t want to take on work with companies that aren’t seeking long-term relationships,” Angelo said.

Angelo & Banta’s biggest challenge is not competing for clients; it’s competing for the best and brightest attorneys, many of whom still want that mega-firm recognition. Angelo has been there and done that. He and the attorneys he employs enjoy the freedom of choosing which clients they’ll serve and then endeavoring to serve them well.

Angelo also serves the community well as the chairman of the board of the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale. “I am as passionate about my work at the museum as I am about my firm,” Angelo said.

That passion is paying dividends for the museum, which has transitioned from a money-losing venture to a $2 million surplus under Angelo’s watch.

Ask Angelo about the future of his firm and he reverts to the relationship-speak. His goal is to expand the relationship with his current client base and to provide growth opportunities for younger attorneys to enjoy the same level of success as he and his partner have achieved.

The industry’s largest firms crave to acquire smaller, profitable firms with strong management teams like Angelo & Banta. Angelo would not go so far as to say he would never sell the firm, but mergers and acquisitions are not in his thought process. Relationships are.

“You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball and stay focused. Be passionate about what you do and success will come,” Angelo asserted. “Build and maintain relationships because they are the key to success in life. There is no question about it.”


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