Punit Shah’s home run

Tampa hotel developer adds baseball to his portfolio

Punit Shah’s latest investment is something completely out of his wheelhouse, and he seems giddy just speaking about it.

I’ve always aspired to be part of a professional sports team, and when the opportunity presented itself in early 2017, I pursued it passionately,” Shah says.

After approaching multiple groups attempting to be involved, Shah proactively reached out to Derek Jeter himself. “I remain grateful that he and principal owner Bruce Sherman included me as a part of this exclusive investment group,” he says.

Jeter, the former New York Yankees shortstop, is now CEO and an owner of the Miami Marlins, and Shah is also an owner. Both made history. Jeter is the first African-American CEO of a Major League Baseball team, according to his MLB biography, and Shah is the first Indian-American owner of an Major League Baseball team, according to his biography on the Liberty Group website.

He says he didn’t invest in the team as a baseball fan, but every game he attends, he walks away with things to research to better understand the sport.

“It’s still very new and exciting for me, and I’m learning more about baseball with every game,” Shah says.

LEARNING FROM DAD

Shah was born in Toronto in 1980 to Raxit and Ketki Shah, who invested in their first property, a 52-room hotel in Youngstown, Ohio, and relocated the family to the United States in 1981. Shah learned early on about work ethics.

“My childhood was very unique. I have fond memories of shadowing my father to his business meetings, working in our hotels through virtually all departments, and traveling to our hotels throughout the United States and England,” Shah says.

He attended Boston University and moved to Tampa in 2002 after graduation. “Having watched my parents work all my life, and them instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in me since I was young, I always wanted to emulate their success,” Shah says.

He was eager to get to business, working at his father’s company upon graduation, but there was no direct path to an executive office. Shah’s father asked him to go to a construction site in northeastern Ohio, to work alongside contractors to build the newest hotel developments.

“Despite my pleading, he explained to me that the only way for me to appreciate the efforts of my employees was to first know exactly what every single job within the organization entailed,” Shah says. “That meant laboring away digging footers on a construction site, making beds with our housekeeping team, checking in guests at the front desk, and even working with our accounting team.”

By the time Shah moved to Florida, he had worked in every department of the Liberty Group. “I earned my father’s trust to start my own career path,” he says. “It also gave me a deep sense of pride and appreciation for the hard work everyone within our organization does every day.”

From 2002 to 2010, Liberty developed hotels, multifamily residential developments and senior living facilities throughout the United States.

The company began acquiring nonperforming debt instruments secured by hotel assets and implementing turnaround management, capital improvements and investment strategies that resulted in nearly 40 acquisitions between 2010 and 2014, Shah says.

CHANGING LEADERSHIP

Punit became Liberty’s CEO in 2014. Since then, the company has transitioned from a family business to a family-owned company.

“The most significant change has been the inclusion of investors within our family investment platform. Until recently, our portfolio of investments rarely included investors or partners,” Shah says.

As a way to scale the company’s platform and mitigate risk for the Shah family, he established an institutional-quality private equity fund platform. Liberty’s investors now include several billionaires, high-net worth family offices and professional athletes, but the Shah family remains the company’s largest stakeholder, Shah says.

Under his leadership, to date Liberty has invested in 57 deals, with a total value of nearly $550 million.

GOING ALOFT

One of Shah’s favorite projects is the Aloft Downtown Tampa, at the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive. Tampa’s Convergent Capital Partners and Liberty Group, as a joint venture, obtained the hotel property in 2013 for $2.2 million.

Liberty Group invested an additional $15 million into the adaptive re-use development before opening the trendy hotel’s doors in 2014.  In 2015, Liberty sold the hotel for $30 million.

“It was certainly the most complex, unique and personal project I’ve had the pleasure to develop to date. I still drive by it daily and am proud that my partners and I were able to preserve this landmark building in a way that appeals to visitors and Tampa residents alike,” Shah says. “I still remember hanging out with the Modest Mouse guys at the bar. I still remember doing tastings to make sure that the drinks were perfect. I still remember walking through the building the day we bought it with boots on because it was full of water.”

Modest Mouse was the headliner for the Gasparilla Music Festival in 2015, and Shah says several GMF bands even played an impromptu music set for hotel patrons.

“We built it and developed it, so even though we financially might not have ownership anymore, we are still very proud of the project’s impact to the community,” he says.

GETTING PERSONAL

Shah says he doesn’t have a lot of downtime but has never used an “out of office” message in his career. “I’ve found a balance where I can work and vacation in harmony, without disrupting either in a meaningful way,” Shah says.

He has visited more than 40 countries, with some of his favorite destinations being eastern Europe, Vienna and London. When he’s home, he enjoys golf, boating—including his Chris-Craft powerboat, which features a vintage 1950s classic design—and his luxury car collection, which includes several Porsches and a Ferrari.

Some of his most reflective times are walking to the office on Harbour Island with his dog, Boston.

“Boston is a fixture at our corporate office. One of the reasons we bought the (former SunTrust Bank) building is so he could come to work every day,” he says. “In fact, we ensure that every hotel we own is pet-friendly, because we recognize the importance guests place on their pets.”

In about two months, life will get a bit more exciting for Shah. He and his wife Carla are expecting their first child.

“Each day is filled with anticipation and the changes to our lifestyle will all be positive,” Shah says. “We tend to think of ourselves as progressive parents and hope to show our son the same kindness, love and care our parents have shown us.”

Shah plans to emulate his father and include his son on the family business when he’s young. “I’m sure we will be bringing him along on all our fun family trips, and I can’t wait for him to join my business meetings as he grows up,” Shah says.

In 2017, Shah purchased a prime piece of real estate at 300 Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. But he doesn’t know yet what he will do with it. He said the only thing he knows for sure, is that land will stay in the family.

“Whatever I do with it, it’s going to be something that will never be sold,” Shah says. “Perhaps my son may develop it himself one day.”

GIVING BACK

Punit and Carla met in the School of Hospitality at Boston University, and philanthropy is a large part of the family legacy.

Shah maintains ties to his alma mater, reflecting fondly of his time there. He and Carla support scholarships for minority students based on financial need, work experience and character. They have been funding the scholarships for 10 years, and Shah says they plan to continue to do so for at least another 10 years.

In 2017, he was invited to be the commencement speaker at Boston University. “It was a very special moment for me to stand before the students and their families as they began their new chapter,” Shah says. “I look back on that day with immense pride and humility, and earnestly hope my few words of advice inspire those students in the same way that my predecessors inspired me.”

Other philanthropic efforts include Carla’s deep involvement with the Junior League, where she helps to collect and donate school supplies for underprivileged children, among other charitable activities.

In addition, the Shah family loves supporting the Gasparilla Music Festival. “It’s such a fun activity for me as a resident, and it’s just so cool,” Shah says. “Most people think it’s just a concert. Not at all.”

Shah said the money raised at the festival goes to buy musical instruments and music lessons for under-privileged children throughout Tampa Bay. “We think it’s such a great organization to support because those kids are eventually going to grow up and be artists, and it helps bring all of us in Tampa together for a common cause,” he says.

All told, Shah’s family has donated more than $3 million to various charitable causes in the past year alone.

WHAT’S NEXT?

It’s hard to not speculate when someone like Shah buys land or gets involved in a major sports franchise. What’s next for him? Shah says he’d rather stick to what he’s good at.

While baseball is sexy, he hasn’t given up his development roots, and has no plans to.

The most recent development, a 213-room dual-branded Hilton hotel and Starbucks Coffee in Tampa’s Channel District is under construction.

“I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m trained and educated and experienced in and I’m going to stick with it,” Shah said. “I still believe that I’m on a journey.” ♦

Punit’s Prized Possessions

Punit and Carla Shah designed their home to feel like a hotel, thanks to their shared knowledge of hospitality. Their lounge design was inspired by the bar at On Swann in South Tampa, he says. Shah shares some stories about the mementos that fill the space.

1. My wife and I had an elaborate wedding at the Ringling Mansion in Sarasota. Our close friends gifted us these actual postcards of the Ringling Museum from the 1920s on our wedding anniversary.

2. Every holiday season, we visit Europe for a few weeks. On one of our recent trips, we brought back this granite paver from Prague’s public streets that we picked up along the way.

3. For the past few years, we have been supporting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay. I won this rare bottle of 20-year Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve bourbon during a live auction. The year prior, I also won four bottles of Kentucky bourbon, each signed by the proprietor of the distillery.

4. This French Laguiole Champagne saber was a gift from one of my closest friends to celebrate our new home. Now we use it to open virtually every bottle of Champagne we open.

5. We are expecting our first child, a son, in November. We just returned from being in California for a few weeks, and this beautiful picture was taken … at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Beach. It’s in a Michael Aram frame gifted to us by our Tampa friends.

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