James Cassel on why Miami is a great city to build a career

By Nina Lincoff

Where were you born? In Miami Beach at the old Mount Sinai. I may have been the youngest employee at Mount Sinai actually. At 14, I worked in the records department. It was an opportunity for a summer and I was paid, maybe $76 a week. I joke that I had more disposable income then than today because I had no expenses.

What did you use the money for? To buy my first car at 16, an Oldsmobile Cutlass from my mother for under $2,000. What’s worse was that when I was 17, I bought a brand new Buick Century. The problem was, when my future wife saw me in that car, she asked me if it was my father’s. I explained to her it wasn’t, it was the car I wanted, and she said it was better for a 40-year-old, not a 20-year-old.

How has Miami Beach changed? Miami Beach in the late 60s and early 70s …it was the James Bond era when “Goldfinger” was filmed at the Fontainebleau. It was a very small city and very much had a seasonality to it. In the summers a lot of stuff was closed and it was quiet. Today, of course, it’s very different. It’s a year-round community and the summers are as vibrant as the winters.

How did your family get to Miami? My family has been here since 1908. My grandmother had a house on 17th Street and Biscayne Boulevard and in the living room there were two grand pianos and an organ on a stage. She would have concerts there. My family has really grown up in Miami. I go to New York a lot, but Miami is different. It’s a great community and we have some very goods schools and there are great opportunities here. I never seriously thought about moving. As long as they can keep control of the rising sea, we’ll be in Miami.

Was the records department gig your first job? No, I worked as a delivery boy for the Miami Beach Sun, and then I worked for a gentleman by the name of Robert Hurwitz… on and off running political campaigns. We ran everything from a senate race to local races. Law school was a natural follow after that, because I had political aspirations at the time.

What happened to your political aspirations? Fortunately sanity prevailed. I was given advice that I didn’t want to seem like a politician who was in politics because they couldn’t do something else. The natural way to stay involved with politics was to get into law. I started as a real estate lawyer, working with my father. This was back in the 80s and I determined that I would be better in corporate law. In hindsight, it probably didn’t matter, but I started doing corporate law and I built my practice.

But you transitioned out of law? Yes, March 1, 1996 was my first day of not practicing law. I went into investment banking. In 1998, I started a boutique investment banking firm that I built with my partner Scott Salpeter and Gary Stein. We were ultimately acquired by Ladenburg Thalmann, in 2006. I ran private banking and had the opportunity to work with Phil Frost and he is more amazing than most people know. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is breathtaking.

And now you’re here, at Cassel Salpeter? At the end of ’09, which was a tough year, I left. From a technical standpoint, ’09 really sucked. In 2010 we founded Cassel Salpeter. We’ve been blessed, one of my children has joined up as has one of Scott’s kids. We’ve got a great team and we’re building a nice boutique South Florida firm.

What is the private equity environment like now? It changes in cycles. The industry is changing because of technology. If we had to do financial modeling 20 years ago it was very labor intensive, today tech gives you the ability to gather information much more easily. You still have to do a lot of work, don’t get me wrong, but technology has definitely made a different competitive environment.

What do you like to write about? To a certain extent I try to give back to the community. I try to write about things that are helpful to middle market businesses. Maybe they don’t get 50 points out of one article, but if they get one point, it has value. It’s also a way to stay in touch with people, because after all, we are a referral business.

James Cassel
Current position: Chairman and co-founder of Cassel Salpeter & Co.

Past position(s): Vice Chairman and head of investment banking at Ladenburg Thalmann, President, CEO and Chairman of Capitalink, Managing partner of the Miami office of Broad and Cassel; Chairman of the Retreat Psychiatric Hospital

Age: 60
Born: Miami Beach
Residence: Coconut Grove
Past boards: Equity One
Education: American University, University of Miami School of Law

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