Measuring Success Home by Home: Working to promote homeownership is central to all that DEVAL CEO Debbie Garcia-Gratacos does.
You might say that Debbie Garcia-Gratacos completed her first real estate deal at age 9. When her family moved from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Orlando, Florida, she found herself, along with her older brother, serving as an interpreter while her parents signed mortgage documents at the closing of their home. Spanish materials weren’t available, and being the bridge for the language gap was an experience that stuck with her into adulthood.
Today, Garcia-Gratacos is the president and CEO of DEVAL(opens in a new tab), a real estate company that specializes in public and private sector consulting. It also provides single-family-home lending, services loans and owns and operates multifamily affordable housing, often for underserved Hispanic communities.
Garcia-Gratacos has grown DEVAL from a small consultancy run from her kitchen table into a company with offices in Florida, Texas, Virginia and Puerto Rico; the company has responsibility to manage a $230 billion portfolio. Garcia-Gratacos doesn’t only measure her business success in dollars, however. She’s also measuring progress by how many families she is helping buy, keep and secure wealth with homeownership, as well as how she can help those families in times of crisis, such as when Hurricane Maria(opens in a new tab) tragically made history as the worst natural disaster to strike Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in September 2017.
By the Numbers
Friends of Puerto Rico, with the help of Debbie Garcia-Gratacos, made a lasting impact in the two-and-a-half months following Hurricane Maria:
- Raised $3.5 million in 8 weeks
- Completed 9 chartered relief-delivery flights
- Provided 5 generators to serve hospitals and medical clinics throughout the island
- Delivered 1 million pounds of food and goods
- Supported 55 local organizations and churches
- Provided medicine and health-care services to 300,000 people
Q: When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, how did it affect your community? What was your reaction?
Debbie Garcia-Gratacos: Many Puerto Rican professionals in the U.S. were impacted because our families or employees were on the island. I was truly concerned about the well-being of those family members and workers.
A few days after the hurricane, my family got together for our annual pig roast with friends and family. It’s been a special tradition for years. But we felt so heavyhearted that year about the people who were suffering on the island. We decided to turn that event into a fundraiser and ended up raising $38,000.
That’s incredible. How did you translate your grassroots fundraising into a full-blown mission?
First, we chose a nonprofit that we knew and trusted, Friends of Puerto Rico(opens in a new tab), based out of Washington, D.C. I became the Hurricane Maria chair. In less than eight weeks, we coordinated fundraising totaling $3.5 million. People and nonprofits—from California to New Jersey—donated 1 million pounds of food.
With all the moving parts, we had to determine where we could make the greatest impact. We quickly realized that transportation and logistics were among the biggest barriers, so we focused our efforts on getting goods from the mainland to the island.
What was your process for distributing goods to people in need?
That’s where my business skills came in. I negotiated the price of nine chartered planes to deliver the donated goods. On the mainland, we dispatched a set of 18-wheeler trucks to pick up donated goods from various locations. We coordinated with nonprofits and took everything to Miami where each flight would leave for Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
In Aguadilla, we helped unload each plane and then checked its contents against a tight inventory list. After that, we called in all the beneficiaries, which were mostly churches. We organized a process where we would hand out the goods—food, medicine and supplies—and help the recipients load everything onto vehicles.
Throughout this experience, what touched you the most?
I was moved by all the people who were suffering—women, children, the elderly. We took special missions to serve vulnerable populations. Those are the groups that end up even more neglected in the aftermath of a disaster. BB&T bank gave a generous gift(opens in a new tab) of $100,000 to transport goods to a group of orphanages. It was so touching.
All the hospitals were closed, too. You just had standalone clinics serving the sick and injured. We gave them power generators to keep the lights on and machines running.
Every delivery felt like a miracle. We worked 15- and 16-hour days during those missions and didn’t think twice about it. It was an amazing experience.
It sounds like a life-changing experience, and different from your day-to-day, running a real estate business. What initially inspired you to get into that industry?
While I was in law school at the University of Florida, I really connected with my real property professor and his course. He encouraged me to check out the real estate program. I ended up completing my master’s degree in real estate while finishing law school. I found it to be a space that was interesting to me, where I could thrive.
How did you launch a business in such a competitive market, when so many new entrants fail in the first few years?
Soon after graduating, I worked for Arthur Andersen as a real estate consultant. When that company began folding, hundreds of us got a pink slip. I was blessed to get a
contractor consulting opportunity with HUD and shortly after, I incorporated DEVAL.
A year or so later, I won my first big contract, worth $3 million. I still had credit card debt and student loan debt, so my husband and I started searching for a bank to give DEVAL a loan so I could hire staff and make the first month of payroll. BB&T saw something in me—they believed in me and gave me access to capital when other institutions didn’t feel comfortable making that leap.
"It’s crucial to have industry alliances and relationships that are mutually supportive. These business relationships aren’t just borne out of thin air. You have to build them. You have to be willing to give first to receive."
What has been your key to growing your company, year over year?
It’s crucial to have industry alliances and relationships that are mutually supportive. These business relationships aren’t just borne out of thin air. You have to build them. You have to be willing to give first to receive.
Another important factor: We are financially conservative. That means we are big savers. If I earn a dollar, I spend 20 cents. You always have to be prepared for when an
opportunity comes so that you can act. I stay lean in my spending so that we’re properly positioned to take on new work at any time.
At DEVAL, you have a deep focus on the Hispanic community. What are some of the issues you’re advocating for?
My colleagues and I advocate for housing counseling and increasing homeownership for Hispanics and underserved communities.
We educate Congress and the industry on the importance of language translations in mortgage materials. One of the key issues we’ve fought for is to ensure that “loss mitigation documents” are provided in Spanish for Spanish speakers. If you’re going to lose your house, you should be allotted the opportunity to read that information—and understand the process and your rights, overall—in the language most familiar to you.
Why is Hispanic advocacy close to your heart?
When my parents purchased their first home in Florida, there was a major language barrier. My older brother and I ended up translating the information for them in real time. I was probably 9 years old. Of course, I didn’t interpret any of the complex legalities, but I told them basic things, like where to sign. Fortunately, they were aware of the terms, but I’ve never forgotten how vulnerable they could have been. Now, as a business owner, I can do something about it.
As a real estate expert, what can you share about the outlook for the housing market in the coming years?
There is an affordable housing shortage. It’s going to continue to affect middle-class America and working-class people. DEVAL is advocating to close that gap. We do a lot of education so that before you get into your home, you understand the responsibilities that come with it. If you have a house today, we’re going to work with you on a financial plan to do everything possible for you to keep it.
I care deeply about homeownership. I’ve intervened personally on behalf of acquaintances, speaking directly to loan providers from other companies, to save their home. My role is to bring awareness to the issue of maintaining housing in underserved communities, to preserve wealth in those communities. Homes are the single biggest investment that most people have—and I believe in fighting for them.
Quick Takes from Debbie Garcia-Gratacos
In your company, how do you lead?
I’m a big believer that you’re only as good as the people around you. I surround myself with strong professionals whose life experiences allow them to bring value in different ways. They add distinct perspectives to our company’s mission.
How do you manage stress?
I wake up every morning and pray. Then I walk on the treadmill in my home gym before I get my three kids off to school.
By Ruth E. Dávila
Photography by Jonathan Thorpe and Micciche Photography, Inc.