Terry Stiles, builder of modern-day Fort Lauderdale, dies

Terry Stiles, the man who spearheaded the development of Fort Lauderdale from a sleepy spring break town to a booming city for businesses and residents, has died on Monday at 70.

The chairman and former CEO of Stiles Corp. passed away in Fort Lauderdale after a recurrence of cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer in May 2015 and took leave for about six months to receive treatment. He returned to the company about 80 pounds lighter and was highly involved, even leading presentations to public officials.

His son Ken Stiles become CEO of the company in a previously-announced leadership transition and Terry Stiles presided as chairman. But then the cancer returned a few months ago.

"I sat with him one Friday for 30 minutes," said Doug Eagon, Stiles Corp. vice chairman and a friend for 36 years. "I wanted to know how he was doing but he wanted to know how our construction division was doing and how all the other divisions were doing.

"He had turned over much of the day-to-day operations several years ago but was always in the office when he was in town. He had no intention of ever walking away from the company. We looked forward to him having that role but God had different plans for him."

Stiles Corp. has developed over 43 million square feet of commercial and multifamily real estate, including many of the office and residential towers in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the first office park in Cypress Creek, the Sawgrass International Park of Commerce in Sunrise, and Northpoint Corporate Center in West Palm Beach. Stiles Corp. diversified into an architect, property manager and general contractor, designing and constructing facilities for companies such as Publix, Autonation and City Furniture.

"He was an incredibly good corporate citizen. He helped build Fort Lauderdale," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said of Stiles. "I have such immense respect for him and have such respect for his approach to the community and how much he changed downtown."

When considering the people who helped Fort Lauderdale mature and prosper as a city, Stiles and businessman H. Wayne Huizenga are the two people who stand out, the mayor said.

Seiler said Stiles created a lot of jobs and economic activity downtown with both his development and his advocacy for organizations such as Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery and Science, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the Art Museum of Fort Lauderdale and the Jack and Jill Children's Center to build facilities in the city. Stiles also volunteered a lot of time and effort in leading the drive for the expansion of Port Everglades because he knew it would benefit the community, the mayor said.

Bob Swindell, chairman and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, said when Stiles got behind a cause, other leaders would follow. Stiles was one of the charter members of the Alliance's CEO Council, which shaped its corporate recruitment strategy. At the same time, Stiles wanted to recruit companies into his office buildings.

"He was incredibly competitive," Swindell said. "He never wanted to lose a deal, but even if he didn't win the deal, his next priority was to make sure the project stayed in Broward County. It's a huge loss for South Florida. He was bigger than life."

Autonation CEO Mike Jackson said he first met Terry Stiles at a party shortly after Huizenga recruited him to Fort Lauderdale to lead the company.

"I am there for 15 minutes and this burly charismatic individual sticks his hand out and says 'I'm Terry Stiles and I want to build your headquarters for you,'" Jackson said. "Terry had an infectious leadership style. You wanted to say yes."

Stiles did, of course, build Autonation's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. He also introduced Jackson to his future wife.

"You couldn't ask for more than that," Jackson said. "If you were Terry's friend, you couldn't ask for a better friend."

Jackson expects Stiles Corp. to continue to be a first-class organization because of the team Stiles built. Many of them have been with the company for decades.

Stiles started in the business in 1968, working alongside his father Howard Stiles building homes and small warehouses around Broward County. After his father died of a heart attack in 1971, Terry Stiles established his company at a time when Broward was a relatively rural county.

"We were fighting for our lives," Terry Stiles said in an interview in 2016. "I just had a baby girl. I was making $123 a week. Our first job was a $480 door for Ruden Barnett's office. We would lay block and stucco and do anything we could to get jobs."

In 1972, Stiles obtained his first big job when real estate investor Maurice Finklesaw the Stiles sign on a medical office project and hired him to build a 35,000-square-foot warehouse. Clearly pleased, Finkle financed many other projects for Stiles, including a warehouse for Sherwin-Williams and a 25,000-square-foot speculative industrial building in Boca Raton that was soon leased to IBM.

In 1979, Stiles saw the cow pastures and trees on the west side of Fort Lauderdale Cypress Creek and decided to build an office park. The site is easily accessed from Interstate 95 today, but this was before the highway even existed. He started with three 50,000-square-foot buildings for office and warehouse tenants.

Today, Cypress Creek is one of South Florida's largest office markets with over 7 million square feet and tenants such as Microsoft and Citrix.

"That was the first planned business park in Broward County that Fortune 500 companies could gravitate to and that was cutting edge at the time," Eagon said.

Stiles Corp. kickstarted the development of "Class A" office towers in downtown Fort Lauderdale with New River Center for the Tribune Co. That led to the proliferation of office buildings on Broward Boulevard and Las Olas Boulevard, with residential towers to follow some years later.

Asked in a July interview to cite his proudest accomplishment, he said it was building downtown Fort Lauderdale and "being in the middle of all this."

Eagon pointed out that back when Stiles started, downtown Fort Lauderdale looked very different. What's now the business district had an abandoned funeral house, an abandoned bank drive through, and parking lots. There was no residential population downtown to speak of.

"It took not only a lot of vision but a lot of risk to pull that off," Eagon said.

Stiles never truly felt satisfied over his accomplishments, Eagon said. He was always focused on the next big project and the future of the city. Eagon said Stiles was looking forward to attracting tenants to his new office building on Las Olas.

Stiles Corp. is currently working to build an office building on a site it has leased for Broward Collage, plus two nearby apartment towers.

"Hopefully Broward College will be the closest we get to making a statement in my career,'' Stiles said in July. "What I'd like to know is when I do leave this company, I've created a company that's sustainable."

Eagon said Stiles was generous with his employees, always listened to their opinions when making decisions, and encouraged them to give back to the community. He also understood there was more to life than work.

"He could play as hard as he worked. He was always my hero in that," Eagon said. "It was too short of a life for someone of that statute. He packed more into those 70 years than most people pack into 100 years."

Terry Stiles is survived by wife Jamie Stiles and children Ken Stiles, Tresa Stiles, Carrie Tidwell, plus six grandchildren.

Brian Bandell Senior Reporter
South Florida Business Journal