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Who’s Here: Alan Lieberman, Hotelier

Alan Lieberman is barefoot. Wearing jeans and a polo shirt, he is padding around his Water Mill home, a man with boundless energy and an interest in everything around him. It’s a contemporary home of his own design, with an open floor plan that evokes South Beach ease and Hamptons chic simultaneously, but there are touches that are all Lieberman.­ Clouds of pale orchids in white pots on the coffee table are easily visible from the dining area, where a high chair stands ready for a visiting grandchild. Lieberman and his wife Diane have three, and they are expecting a fourth in the fall. The Water Mill house is the summer home for the Liebermans; their primary home is in Miami, where Lieberman is the owner of The South Beach Group, an independent boutique hotel company that has helped shape Miami’s rebirth as a vibrant, sexy destination that blends a sultry beach vibe, Latin heat and L.A. cool.

Not too bad for the son of a Philadelphia Food Fair grocery store clerk, who said something to Lieberman that was very inspiring: “The little guy can’t make it.” Lieberman took his dad’s words to heart and did exactly the opposite, striking out on his own. After graduating from Temple University with a degree in pre-law/business, Lieberman decided that there were three ways to make money, either to “be born with it, start a business and wait 30 years, or [go into] real estate.” Lieberman chose option #3 and began his career right in his own native stomping grounds, Philly. [expand]

“You can’t get a hit unless you get in the game,” Lieberman recalls when speaking of his first foray into real estate, which was during a tough economic climate. “Oil prices were high, so people were walking away from their mortgages.” With a sharp eye on neighborhoods going through the process of gentrification, Lieberman began buying apartments, with some 2,000 still in his name today, many of them managed by long-time employees. “We’ve had people work for us for 40 years.”

From about 1980 on, the Liebermans began spending time in Florida. “We always loved Miami,” Diane says. “We were going down every other weekend.” As the recession of the ‘80s hit cities like Philly, Lieberman began to look at Miami as more than just a perch for snowbirds. “I started buying stuff down there as an excuse to spend more time there.” They both remember the prevailing wisdom concerning their Miami properties. “People said we were out of our minds. The buildings were dilapidated.” But Lieberman knew exactly what he was going to do.

One of his first South Beach purchases was the Shelley Hotel, which Lieberman gutted and restored. There may have been “no creativity” in Lieberman’s Philadelphia real estate holdings, but in South Beach Lieberman had a personal hand in renovating and decorating scores of old hotels so successfully that his efforts have won accolades from the Miami Beach Preservation League, just as his work in Philadelphia has won awards from the Apartment Association of Greater Philadelphia.

With “over a thousand hotel rooms on the beach,” Lieberman offers his guests not only a nice place to shower off the sand and slither into a salsa dress for an evening out, but a number of extra amenities to entice beach-bound travelers—free airport pick-up, free cocktail hour, and a party-friendly atmosphere that has attracted celebs like Heidi Klum and Paris Hilton, and the cast of “Jersey Shore,” who were there to tape a segment of their reality show. Of the fist-pumping Jersey gang, Lieberman remarks that the rooms were re-dressed for the show and returned to normal when Snooki and the gang decamped.

The Liebermans are also the founders of the Alan & Diane Lieberman Children’s Cultural Art Series. For the past 14 years they have created educational programs for hundreds of children from pre-K through high school, exposing them to art, music and ballet. “There are shows geared for kids between five and ten-years-old. For some, it’s their first experience in music.” They are also involved with MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, for which Diane has hosted and sponsored many events. MOCA has been undergoing an expansion that will culminate in an anniversary bash celebrating the museum’s 15th year, an event the Liebermans will chair. Another project that they somehow find time to support is the New World Symphony, helmed by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, creating fellowships and opportunities for young musicians.

Clearly, the Liebermans love Miami, but they are just as passionate about their summers in the Hamptons. “We sent our kids to N.Y.U. because if they went anywhere else I wouldn’t visit them,” Lieberman laughs. Their Hamptons home became the Miami East outpost for the entire family. “People said go to Aspen, but it’s limited. We go to the Sag Harbor Cinema and the Bay Street Theatre all the time.” They’ve managed to find all the restaurants locals cherish as their own. Lieberman somehow finds time to play tennis, while Diane is enthusiastic about “just starting kayaking and paddleboarding.” Both Liebermans enjoy another Hamptons pastime—polo. They have their own team both here and in Florida, but Diane quickly adds, “I’m not on the team, I’m a novice!”

Despite the fact that Lieberman enjoys beach life just as much in both locations, there is one area where his loyalty remains undivided—sports. “When we lived in Philly, we had season tickets for the 76ers,” but when it comes to sports, it’s Miami all the way. “We are loyal Miami fans, it doesn’t matter what it is.”

“I sold Chris Bosh his home,” says Diane, who has her own real estate business, S.B.I., South Beach Investment Realty. “We had three of the best players in the world,” she sighs of the recent fate of the Miami Heat, “we should have won the finals.”

Sports aside, Lieberman feels very much at home on the East End. “The Hamptons are a good fit for us. This is where we’re supposed to be.”

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