Tampa Bay real estate mogul Ben Mallah mixes profit with profane (w/video)

Published October 14 2016
Updated October 16 2016

One of Tampa Bay's wealthiest real estate moguls, all 350 pounds of him, floats on a bright green inner tube in the pool behind his Largo mansion and stares straight at the camera through gaudy white shades.

"My name is Benjamin Mallah, and I want someone to take over my life. I'm looking for the right person to be my protégé, someone with big enough balls to come in and take over my $150 million portfolio," he barks, a white yarmulke flopping off his head into the water.

"I want to stick around a while longer, so I got to find the right person to fill my fat-a-- shoes. Take over my life today."

The 45-second promo for the tongue-in-cheek web series, Life: for sale, paints Mallah, 50, as a sickly millionaire trying to sell off his assets so he can spend his dying days with family. Over the dozen episodes, he rants profanities in a raspy New York accent, lights a Newport from a flaming $100 bill, and closes multimillion dollar deals while jabbing his friends and toting ex-wrestlers in his entourage.

When this character hit YouTube — this bombastic Tony Soprano/Donald Trump hybrid with a knack for being both offensive and endearing — it was somewhat at odds with the suited-up businessman he portrays for government officials and flacks he meets off camera.

"That's not exactly the image he presented to us during our interactions," Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said. "I think anybody who has seen the videos was pretty surprised."

In one light, he's a real estate heavy hitter, who sold Tampa's Best Western Bay Harbor for $34.5 million last year, more than double what he paid for it in 2012. He's the pro partnering with Clearwater to bring a seven-story, $15 million parking garage to the beach. He has made millions buying and selling more than 4,000 units in Tampa Bay since 2003.

And then he's a crude, chain-smoking brute who, with the camera rolling in his home office, told a loan officer: "I don't think you're a real banker. I think you're just like some sales guy that they send out to schmooze to fat, rich old people doing business with the bank. Have you ever done any real banking in your life? Have you ever underwritten a loan before? No offense, but I don't see it."

He's a self-made millionaire who built an empire without so much as a high school diploma. The kind to cut a $150,000 check on a whim for a shiny, white Bentley Mulsanne but who has bought a home outright for an employee facing foreclosure.

The kind who was thinking only about the payday when he spent $8 million on a Clearwater senior housing tower to fix up and flip but throws parties for residents in the meantime and stops in the laundry room just to chat with the widows.

Through all the contradictions, what's certain is Mallah has carved out a niche of Tampa Bay real estate that has made him millions: buying dilapidated properties, fixing them up and flipping them for a profit, only to reinvest those earnings into another deal.

This tactic allows investors to defer capital gains taxes. But it demands constant turnover to avoid paying up on that massive accumulated tax bill.

It works because hustling comes easy to Mallah. It's how he got here to begin with.

• • •

A lust for money festered early inside the boy growing up in Far Rockaway, Queens, living a childhood he remembers as "total misery."

"I hated being poor,'' he said. "I hated seeing other people live better than I did. I used to walk to Central Park, and walking by The Plaza Hotel, seeing all the dignitaries and the limousines and all the big shots of the world, I'd say 'One day, I'm going to be able to go to places like that and stay in places like that.'"

Mallah's father was stingy with the little money the family did have. He made his three kids carry slices of cheese from home when they went out for burgers. Ketchup bottles were filled with a little water when they ran low.

"He always wanted to save, save, save, but the question is what are you saving for?" Mallah said. "You're not spending it on yourself. You're not investing it in the welfare of your family. It was almost like a disease."

Deprivation made Mallah want to grow up to live exactly the opposite of his father.

But he also passed on some ways to easy money.

Throughout his childhood, organized crime figures were on his periphery. His uncle, also named Benjamin Mallah, was convicted in 1974 in a 50-person conspiracy to distribute large amounts of heroin and cocaine in New York and was tied to crime families.

As much as he despised being poor, Mallah wanted his own way out.

"I knew what that life was like, and I didn't want to be involved whatsoever," he said. "I'm not a violent person, and I hate bullies."

• • •

Mallah quit school at 14 and worked odd jobs from a messenger on Wall Street to office work in the garment district until he enlisted in the Army at 17.

The military, he said, saved him by giving him a way out of a violent city.

But the move that changed everything came when the Army stationed Mallah in Oakland, Calif., in 1987 after three years in Germany as a traffic management coordinator.

By then he was 22 and knocking money off his rent picking up cigarette butts and trash around his apartment building on weekends.

Landlord Mark Wilton liked the work ethic and put Mallah in charge of the building. Then a few more. Then all of them.

"He sat down and learned how to rent properties, how to manage the people within them," Wilton, 69, said. "He was very astute, a very fast learner. Very pushy. He wanted to know how this was done and that was done and if I didn't tell him, he'd force it out of me."

Mallah left the Army and became a partner in Wilton's MarWil Investments. The pair bought, managed and sold buildings and split the profits.

Wilton taught Mallah the insides of a then-unpopular niche: subsidized low income rental properties.

"It was a sleeping giant that nobody wanted anything to do with," Wilton said. The formula was to buy cheap crack houses, abandoned buildings, the worst of the worst, fix them up and contract with the government to rent them out.

Mallah began growing his empire and also his family.

He was divorced with two young sons in 1999 when MarWil bought a 12-unit apartment building crippled with crime.

"There were flowers all in front of the building, everywhere outside, laid down for all the people that got killed in front of it," Mallah said.

Karla Nila was 14 and living with seven relatives in a two-bedroom unit when Mallah, then 34, took over. She had fled Mexico at age 7 as an orphan to be with her grandparents in California but was living with no hot water in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the U.S.

When MarWil took over the building, Mallah hired her grandfather as a maintenance manager. Mallah relocated her family to a safer apartment he owned, putting her relatives in charge of the building to give them jobs.

They blended in work and family. As soon as she turned 18, Nila and Mallah married. They will be married for 13 years in January.

"I look back a lot on that time to where we are now," Karla Mallah said. "We came a long way together."

• • •

Mallah began buying properties across California. Then Texas. When he wanted a more peaceful place to raise his then-teenagers, he looked to Florida.

In 2004 the family bought a $1.5 million mansion in Largo stocked with an elevator, a wine cellar, a home gym, and space for the pair of Bentleys, three Rolls Royces and a Porsche. His first investment was a 200-unit multifamily building on Belcher Road he bought for $9 million and flipped for $12 million.

The recession years were prime time for Mallah to gobble up cheap property with his stockpile of capital and good credit. When the market turned around in 2012, he sold off $70 million in real estate, using the earnings to invest in hotels.

And his family has been part of the empire all along: his son, Ben Mallah Jr., 31, left college in California to learn the business and was managing a 111-unit building by age 20. Son Vinson Mallah, 25, made the same tradeoff, running hotels before most of his friends had a college degree. Aaron Mallah, 9, is in training, he jokes.

On camera, Mallah growls at his kids through gritted teeth for not working hard enough, or spending too much time thinking about girlfriends. They stare blankly, roll their eyes as he ribs them with a straight face.

They put in the work for little thanks because they've never seen it done any other way.

"The more our father picks on us, the more he loves us," Ben Mallah Jr. said. "We see his love by what he does for us. He helped me buy a house, get a car, become a greater man. He shows you his love rather than telling you."

Several of Karla Mallah's family members still help run the business, with her sister working in the hotel division and brother working as a maintenance supervisor.

Their portfolio includes seven hotels, including the Sheraton Suites Tampa Airport Westshore, two commercial buildings and six residential properties across Tampa Bay, but the goal is to expand the Mallah brand to the higher-end hospitality industry for his children to inherit.

And much of it will likely be caught on camera.

• • •

Danny Jones, 28, founder of video production company Koncrete, met Mallah at the birthday party of Clearwater restaurateur Frank Chivas in 2012.

The two hit it off, and when Mallah hired him to do marketing for some properties, Jones' camera gravitated towards the 6-foot, 2-inches of personality with no filter.

"He's a crazy character," Jones said. "He came from the ghetto gutter of New York and he brings that mentality to everything he does."

Jones played with footage he took of Mallah ranting and working on deals and edited it to an eight-minute teaser for YouTube. By morning, the clip of this dying mogul trying to sell off his assets had more than 200,000 views.

When Mallah worked with the TLC network in 2015 for an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive in one of his rental properties, producers began talking about a TV series spinoff from Jones' work.

Though the TLC deal never took off, Jones still shadows Mallah's antics for what's become one of Koncrete's most successful web series.

Jones has been there for trips to scout South Florida properties, to check on Mallah's elderly mother in New York, for one of the last visits Mallah had with his father before he died last year.

He's still pitching the series to different production companies, and the goal is to land a national platform like Netflix, HBO or cable, Jones said.

People who know him best say everything Mallah has to show for his business savvy — the mansion, luxury cars and the personality that dwarfs all of that, is a spectacle worth broadcasting to the world.

"He's always the funniest guy in the room," said Chivas, the restaurateur and longtime friend. "You'd never know he's got the money he does just by hearing him talk. He's just a fascinating person."

Yes, the grind for money is to the point of obsession. But Mallah said it's not about him at all.

"All this," he said, "all this is for my family. I want to give them a better life than I had growing up."

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

       
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