1. Business

Puerto Rican businesses find fertile ground in Florida

Victor Febus' family has run their furniture store, Casa Febus, in Puerto Rico for more than four decades, growing it from a small shop to a chain with three showrooms across the island.

But the commonwealth's government is mired in debt and risks running out of money. Its economy is struggling through a decadelong recession. About 50,000 Puerto Ricans a year leave the island for the U.S. mainland, looking for jobs and a better life.

To keep growing his family's business, Febus has decided to follow them. So this year, Casa Febus opened its first location in Florida, a store in Pembroke Pines near Miami.

"We began seeing how things were getting a little more difficult here, economically speaking, so we began looking at different opportunities," Febus said from Puerto Rico. "As many Puerto Ricans, we saw the opportunity, explored the market (and) took the adventure."

The company wasn't alone: A number of Puerto Rican businesses have set their sights on Florida, looking to capitalize on the more robust U.S. economy and migration off the island. Since 2014, at least five chains have opened locations in the Sunshine State.

Casa Febus is joined by El Meson, a sandwich chain; Lucky Me, a discount store; National Lumber and Hardware; and Valija, a chic clothing boutique, in expanding into Florida.

"Recently you've seen a bigger push," said Andy Carlson, vice president of retail brokerage in the Tampa office of the real estate firm JLL. "There are some very good retailers in Puerto Rico that you will see expand."

The growth is fueled by a trio of factors, said Carlson, who has advised Puerto Rican businesses planning to expand into Florida: Puerto Rico — an island roughly the size of Connecticut — doesn't have very much room to grow. Economic turmoil there has worsened as the government says it can't pay off the $72 billion it owes. And Puerto Rico gives favorable tax treatment to island firms that expand overseas.

In Florida, those businesses find fertile ground. The number of Puerto Ricans living in the state has more than doubled since 2000, topping 1 million people and rivaling New York as the mainland's largest Puerto Rican population, according to the Pew Research Center.

"People — sometimes our best-trained people — are leaving the island en masse, mostly to Central Florida," Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said in Washington recently. "This rate will only increase as our economy continues to deteriorate."

By the same token, while Puerto Rican businesses have so far opened locations around Orlando and Miami, the wave of expansion should hit Tampa next year, Carlson said. The local economy is robust, and the Puerto Rican population here is growing fast.

According to a recent report by the credit rating agency Moody's, the number of Puerto Ricans living in Hillsborough County has surpassed Miami-Dade to become the state's second most, behind Orange County.

More than 110,000 Puerto Ricans lived in Hillsborough in 2014, accounting for 8.4 percent of the county's population after growing 21 percent in five years.

"It makes sense that if more Puerto Ricans are moving to the Florida market, then the business will follow," said El Meson chief executive Felipe Pérez.

That has helped draw attention to the Tampa Bay region, said Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, founder of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Florida. She has pitched the region to businesses on the island in an effort to increase exports, arguing that there's a market here for Puerto Rico-produced products, such as coffee, flowers or cheese. Lately, she said, she has been getting more interest.

"Tampa is the perfect, perfect, perfect location to do commerce between Florida and Puerto Rico," she said, arguing that it is boosted by short shipping times and a spot on the Interstate 4 corridor. Plus, JetBlue and Southwest fly nonstop between Tampa and San Juan.

Casa Febus plans to open a temporary store in Tampa next year to test the market, Febus said, and El Meson is considering opening a restaurant here in 2017 after expanding further in Orlando, Pérez said.

"To tell you the truth, Tampa seems like the best place to expand after Orlando," Pérez said. "I think Tampa is growing. It's a very strong economy."

But opening for business away from the island presents challenges. It means rethinking distribution, traveling to keep an eye on operations and making adjustments to appeal to an American audience.

The rewards, figure companies like Casa Febus and El Meson, are worth it. They see a chance to tap not just Florida's fast-growing Puerto Rican population but a larger Hispanic audience as well.

Febus said his company hopes to one day be "the Latin Ikea," so its stores here are trying a more modern look. Pérez said the restaurants El Meson opens here have bigger dining areas and a "more sophisticated" image.

"We're looking much broader," Febus said. "We can depend on Puerto Ricans initially, but we can't depend on that community only to maintain a business. You have to expand to other markets."

Reach Thad Moore at Follow @ThadMoore on Twitter.