10 Under 40: Retail Real Estate’s Rising Stars
Joel Stephen, 38
Senior vice president, CBRE
British native Stephen made his first deal at age 8 after the family moved across England. Tired of their cramped apartment, he scoured newspapers, found a house, and recommended his parents buy it. They did.
Life has since been a non-stop real estate adventure for Stephen. During 13 years at CBRE, he’s closed 250 deals in more than 15 countries and lived in Europe, China, Hong Kong, and New York. He advises overseas brands that want to enter the U.S. and vice versa.
Sometimes, Stephen has had to rely on sheer wit. “They dropped me into Shanghai at age 27,” he said. “The managing director gave me a blank piece of paper and said, `Here’s your business plan. I’ll support you 100%, but it’s on you.’ I didn’t speak the language and nobody knew about tenant rep advisory.”
Five years later, Stephen had built an “amazing team” and had helped 35 brands expand. “We felt like kids,” he said. “Clients would come from the U.S., experienced people, being pitched to by people in their 20’s and 30s.”
Stephen credits the many mentors he’s had for his career success. “I’ve taken huge risks, thought about the worst that could happen and became comfortable with that. Mentors helped everywhere I went. I try to do that with others.”
Paul Rittenberg, 36
Chief development officer, Just Salad
Rittenberg has foodservice in his blood. His father worked for Friendly Ice Cream and National Supermarkets, then became a landlord. Paul himself held executive positions at Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain, and Decathlon Sport before taking the lead development role at Just Salad, which has generated double comp store growth and plans to grow by more than 50%.
“I was kitchen table schooled,” he said. “Dad loved the industry. I’d go to meetings with him — it was father and son time. In high school and college, I took any real estate class I could.”
His father extolled the value of relationships, advice that brought Rittenberg to the attention of Nick Kenner, Just Salad’s co-founder and CEO.
“Somebody has always brought me along or got me in the door,” said Rittenberg. “Nick was friendly with three people I worked with in past lives. All three recommended me. They told him he was nuts if he didn’t talk to me.”
Rittenberg is on the road to taking what is largely a New York City chain national. Near term, this means doubling the 13-year-old chain’s presence in Chicago and moving into the Florida suburbs.
Ezra Stark, 36
Chief operating officer, Stark Enterprises
Among the four children of noted Cleveland developer Bob Stark, Ezra is the only one to have aspired to the family business. The urge hit him early on
“I’ve always had positive emotions about real estate, climbing around the equipment with my dad on construction sites as a kid, seeing how things are created,” Stark said.
From 16 on, he attended RECon shows with his father and sat in on his discussions with other company leaders. “They made it seem like everything was achievable. So while a lot of my peers would be camp counselors in the summer, I preferred being in the office at Stark Enterprises and soaking up information like a sponge,” he said.
Stark did a stint at Forest City Ratner (working alongside Ivanka Trump) to get a taste of New York City real estate before returning to Cleveland to handle kiosk leasing at Stark properties such as Crocker Park. Soon after, he transitioned into asset management and is now half COO, half CEO as he transitions into the leadership role at the company.
Expansion of both geography and real estate class is on his agenda. “We now have properties in 10 states, from California to New York, and where we were always mainly retail, we now are putting our place-making skills to work in high-rise in-fill and student housing.”
Charlotte Elstob, 30
Vice president of international retail, JLL
Earlier this year, U.K. native Elstob moved to the U.S. Since then, JLL’s newly appointed VP of international retail has been traveling the country learning about its myriad markets and cultures.
“This move has been one of my biggest challenges,” said Elstob, who works with European and Asian companies looking to enter the U.S. “I knew a few colleagues here, but not many. Much of my job involves learning a new market while pitching business to a new market.”
Elstob is no stranger to complex tasks. She started her career as a graduate surveyor for JLL in London, working her way up to director. One of her most satisfying projects involved the 2015 repositioning of London’s Westfield Stratford City into a beauty brand destination.
“This was a huge win for the U.K. business,” said Elstob. “The center is the first stop for many international brands. It is really rewarding to transform something, giving retailers the opportunity to reach new demographics.”
Willie Hoag, 38
Principal, Mid-America Real Estate Corp.
Possessor of a B.A. in English from Boston College, Hoag wanted to be a writer. Instead, he ended up selling B2B wireless packages for Team Mobile. When the recession hit, a tough business became tougher, so he decided to try real estate.
Fourteen years later, Hoag is a principal at one of the most active retail real estate companies in Chicago. His first two clients, LA Fitness and Aspen Dental, were not the types of retailers normally found in shopping centers, but the deals he made for them were a harbinger of things to come in the industry. Initially, people had doubts over whether these type tenants belonged in malls.
Today, LA Fitness has myriad mall locations and continues growing. Aspen Dental and ATI Physical Therapy have 700 and 900 respective locations. Three years ago, Hoag also started representing Oak Street Health and Well Now Urgent Care, which are also growing.
“This fateful turn of events made me innovate without knowing it,” said Hoag. “In the beginning, people resisted these tenants. Now, they’re traffic drivers.”
Mike Lubinski, 30
Assistant vice president, asset management, Western Division (Texas), RPAI
Lubinski helped propel RPAI into the 21st century by making it the first company in the industry to implement Argus Enterprise. Used for budgeting, modeling and other functions, the software helped generate information that made RPAI attractive to investors.
“We were going public and needed information on the financial, tenant, and other sides,” said Lubinski, who joined RPAI eight years ago. “It’s hard to do without a model that outlines growth and projects portfolio performance. I was lucky to be part of that and leverage the software to take the company in a new direction.”
Initially a department of one, Lubinski built and leads a five-person analyst group. He believes RPAI is ahead of the curve in this regard. “In technology, real estate is kind of backwards compared to other financial sectors,” he said.
But technology alone cannot resolve everything. “Many people want instant solutions but don’t want to apply `old school’ work,” he observed.
Ami Ziff, 34
Director of national retail, Time Equities
Over 10 years, Ziff has grown Time Equities’ retail holdings from 1.5 million sq. ft. to 5.7 million sq. ft. and is in contract for deals that will take it past the 6 million sq. ft. mark.
Ziff credits much of his success to improving his performance in areas he dislikes. “I learned to run towards things I hate doing,” he said. “Nobody wants to do things that are hard or they’re not good at. But if you keep pressing yourself and are detail-oriented, you can improve.”
Ziff particularly hates dealing with details, but addressing them has given him an advantage. “I found people are often sloppy,” he said. “If you build a reputation for delivering something crisp and accurate, you’ll propel forward. That’s one of our mantras for running shopping centers.”
The leasing requirements of the value retailers he deals with are stringent, making details important. “It’s a disciplined strategy,” said Ziff. “It’s not easy getting them to lease space, even if they’re a dollar chain planning 900 stores.”
Todd Pleiman, 38
Vice president, capital markets, Phillips Edison & Company
Somehow, Todd Pleiman manages to balance his busy life. During college, he co-founded a landscaping company where he built patios and hardscapes and later moved to renovating and flipping homes. Thus began his passion for real estate. Today, the father of five is heavily involved in the near-term prospects of his kid’s sports teams while, at the same time, managing the long-term outlook for Phillips Edison’s business.
Pleiman is responsible for creating, executing and maintaining the capital markets strategies across all of Phillips Edison’s investment vehicles. Since 2012, he has executed more than 40 financing transactions. This has included recapitalizing PECO’s balance sheet to effectuate two mergers totaling over $6 billion in assets.
The 12-year veteran of the company credits his success to his love of the industry and hard work. “I try to push myself and have a passion for what I do,” he said. “I take pride in the capital relationships that I’ve helped to develop and playing a critical role in the company’s successes and growth over the years.”
Dan Franz, 28
Senior real estate manager, Ross Stores
At 28, Franz is the youngest of this year’s winners, but he began cultivating his retail real estate acumen earlier than most.
During college, he worked for RightSight, where he effected deals for Kirkland Home Décor. He then joined Five Below, which was doing about 95 deals annually. Serving in a support role, he gained exposure and a true market understanding. Moving into a deal-maker position at Total Wine & More, he executed 23 leases in less than two years and took the chain into the Denver market.
Joining Ross just two years ago, Franz is involved in everything from leasing and site selection to legal, construction, and property management in five Southeastern territories. He considers landing this position as a huge accomplishment.
“Ross is not only opening 100 stores annually, they’re a `best in breed,’ he said. “Being here at 28 is really important. It’s a special feeling when you drive by a store you put together that created hundreds of jobs and will be there 30, 40 years.”
Joseph Dougherty, 36
Executive vice president, principal, Metro Commercial Real Estate
When Dougherty’s family passes one of his building sites, his three young daughters recognize the company’s logo. This, he said, is one of the most satisfying aspects of his job.
“It’s rewarding to say Daddy helped put that together,” said Daugherty, who has been with Metro 13 years. “I’ve sacrificed a lot for my kids. My wife supported my career since day one.”
Introduced to real estate by a family friend, Dougherty completed a five-year, hands-on co-op real estate program at Drexel University.
“It was more than an internship,” he said. “It was an entrepreneurial career path with new challenges daily.”
Outside of the founders, he is Metro’s youngest partner ever. Specializing in landlord and tenant representation, he has completed more than 744 lease and sales transactions totaling 10.2 million sq. ft. and valued at over $1.1 billion. His next most active business pursuit is mentoring the many younger agents at Metro.
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