CSA's 10 Under 40: Meet retail real estate's rising stars

Real Estate’s 10 Under 40

BY Debby Garbato

Many members of CSA’s 2018 class of rising stars of retail real estate grew up in the business. Their parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents were leasing agents or developers.

Others discovered the field by accident and learned the ropes from the ground up. No matter. They all have one thing in common: They climbed the corporate ladder quickly and earned key positions before the age of 40.

One of our honorees doggedly pursued the same company for seven years before cutting a deal, and another orchestrated a complex redevelopment her peers had labeled impossible. Stories like these are common among this class of youthful achievers, as is the fact that they all deal with massive projects, wide-ranging portfolios, and have earned the respect of clients and peers.

Now it’s your turn to learn their names. What follows are the selections for CSA‘s 2018 10 Under 40:

10 Under 40 — Patrick Waldron of Save-A-Lot Food StoresPatrick Waldron, 35
VP of real estate — Save-A-Lot Food Stores (Earth City, Mo.)

Waldron’s parents played a pivotal role in shaping his career. His father was a retail executive and his parents were residential investors. After majoring in international business and marketing, he began working for a mortgage banking company involved in multifamily housing. “I was always interested in real estate, but then I really got into it,” he said.

When he heard Germany-based Lidl had plans to open in the United States, he wanted to get in on the ground floor. He got a job with the discount grocer and spent more than three years rising through the ranks and eventually leading a team of 100 people.

He also got a bird’s-eye view of the deep discount, largely private label grocery business that is far more prevalent in Europe. Waldron, who joined Save-A-Lot in August 2017, said he believes the limited-assortment, small-footprint concept used by these retailers has serious growth potential in the United States. Price and convenience are the driving factors.

“Smaller formats are driving retail success. It’s the perfect storm for retail and private label,” Waldron said. “The physical experience has to be convenient, which is why Lidl, Aldi, and Dollar General are doing well. These type of stores are big in Europe but are just getting started in the U.S. You can get everything you need, but it’s not overkill and you can get in and out quickly.  When it comes to supercenters, people are busy. They don’t want to spend hours going through the store.”

Traditional grocers, Waldron added, are at a crossroads, with companies like Walmart and Amazon eating into their market share. But he said he believes convenience is the trump card for them as well.

“Grocers are trying to figure out the next thing before it’s here, whether it’s click and collect, in-store pickup, self scanning or Target acquiring companies like Shipt,” Waldron said.

10 Under 40 — Manny Steiner of New England DevelopmentManny Steiner, 39
VP of leasing — New England Development (Boston)

The son of Columbus, Ohio, developer Yaromir Steiner, Manny Steiner had a front-row seat in the high-stakes theater of large-scale retail projects. In high school, he became curious about the business his father was so passionate about. “This was my most significant driving force,” he said.

After college, Steiner worked for a hotel developer on the property development side and loved it, particularly the fact that projects are created around people and how they spend their time. After working at Trademark Property and Steiner + Associates, Steiner landed at  New England Development, where he is VP of leasing.

During his career, he has served as leasing lead for the $30 million renovation of CambridgeSide, the Mohegan Sun Boston casino bid, the luxury remerchandising of Market Street – The Woodlands, and even converting a Triple-A baseball park in Columbus to a motorcyclists’ destination.

“My work has exposed me to every key market and given me insights into the future of experiential retail long before it became the requirement for shopping centers it is today,” Steiner said.

Steiner believes retail’s future lies in “detail and intricacy.” This includes knowing who customers are — not what it is assumed they are.

“I’m always talking to store managers asking, ‘What subgroups do you see?’  Not just ‘How were holiday sales?’ but, ‘What’s feeding your business?’” he said. “MIT, for example, is near one of my malls. It’s assumed there’s a large population of male nerds who don’t shop. That’s not true.”

Steiner has close ties to the Ohio real estate community. Ten years ago, he became founder and chairman of the Columbus ULI District Council.

“It involves both the professional real estate community and citizens,” he said. “There’s a social action component, involving every land use discipline — architects, lawyers. Before, there were no good organizations like this in central Ohio.”

Manny Steiner’s most notable mark on the real estate industry came just recently. In an industry full of family-run companies where power passes from father to son, his dad Yaromir recently succeeded him as ULI’s chairman.

10 Under 40 — Sezin B. Cortinas of Divaris Real EstateSezin B. Cortinas, 34
VP of retail — Divaris Real Estate Inc. (Virginia Beach, Va.)

Divaris Real Estate CEO Gerald Divaris describes Sezin Cortinas as “fearless.” Indeed, Cortinas seems to tackle any challenge. She was born in Turkey and raised in Moscow, but she attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and, in 2000, interned with a real estate developer.

“I really loved it,” she said, and eventually ended up at Virginia Beach-based Divaris, where she overcame language and cultural barriers to become the company’s youngest VP. Her rise was sped by her yearning for a favorite store.

“I wondered why there was no Ikea nearby,” Cortinas said. “I began pursuing them and nine years later, did a deal. It was its second Virginia location. It involved tenacity and was extremely rewarding.” The 331,000-sq.-ft. store will be Hampton Roads’ largest retailer when it opens in 2019.

Cortinas’ “creative marketing approach” helps attract tenants that do not initially see Hampton Roads as an ideal site, said company chief Gerald Divaris. “Her provocative and untraditional approaches are reflected in her presentations. She looks for advantages, not disadvantages,” he said.

Cortinas sees strength in discounters and specialty retailers like Ulta, which continues opening myriad locations. The middle of the market, though, is suffering.

“There’s not much differentiation and they’re deteriorating more. Look at Toys ‘R’ Us, Radio Shack and Claire’s — you can find those items online,” she said, though noting that e-commerce accounted for only nine or 10% of sales. “The way it’s published by the media, you’d think it was 40 or 50%. Retailers that provide exceptional service and an emotional connection keep customers coming back. You can’t get that online.”

10 Under 40 — Crystal Allen of TranswesternCrystal Allen, 34
senior VP — Transwestern (Houston)

During college, Crystal Allen became interested in real estate while shopping for a house with her parents. A finance major with a real estate focus, she migrated to the business’s commercial side.

Since joining Transwestern almost six years ago, Allen has built a leasing portfolio of more than 3 million sq. ft. of existing and new developments, including River Oaks District, Houston Center, Imperial Market, and CityPlace Springwoods Village. Over the past 12 months, she has executed more than $100 million in transactions and is consistently requested by the company’s premier clients to represent projects.

Like many, Allen said she believes the way people shop is changing. While they still visit malls, the internet has made trips shorter and more efficient.

“In the past, you didn’t know beforehand what a store had. With the ability to do research, people are more focused on what they’re doing at the mall,” she said. “But they’re buying the same or more as before. Digital is also teaching them about stores where they may not have ever shopped. From soft goods to entertainment, we’re at a fun and creative time in the retail world.”

The opening of physical stores by former pure-plays like Bonobos and Carbon38 is further proof that bricks-and-mortar is not dying. “Small businesses and venture capitalist companies are a huge part of expansion,” Allen said.

She also sees more restaurants and retail going in renovated office building lobbies.

“I’m doing a lot of work in downtown Houston,” Allen said. “Many office buildings have stuffy lobbies. They want to hold onto tenants. I see developers reworking street level space, adding retail, restaurants, and patios to activate building interest.”

10 Under 40 — Courtney Smith of RPAICourtney Smith, 34
VP of investments for Eastern Division — RPAI (Oak Brook, Ill.)

For Courtney Smith, the “real” in real estate is what makes it concrete. “What drew me to real estate is that it’s a tangible asset class,” he said. “If you major in finance, you focus on stock. But if you buy or lease something, everybody has to work or live somewhere.”

Smith’s belief in real estate’s solidity has served him well. He entered the industry two years before the Great Recession, and he could easily have assumed his budding career was not going to flower.

“A lot of people left real estate. Things weren’t as rosy as I expected. But I stuck with it, which I think is an accomplishment,” he said.

It’s paid off for Smith, who has conducted close to $2 billion in acquisitions and dispositions. He joined RPAI in 2014 and is responsible for all investment activity in its Eastern Division. He has also held executive positions at General Growth Properties, JLL, and J.P. Morgan.

Smith predicts lifestyle centers will continue growing, with consumers attracted to a combination of stores, restaurants, theaters, bars, and health clubs. “You can work and play. There’s a big push for that,” he said.

He doesn’t believe the internet is destroying physical retail, but that technology has created a highly educated consumer.

“Bricks-and-mortar won’t disappear, as evidenced by Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. You still need to touch things,” he said. “But whereas you used to run to five stores for information and comparisons, you now go where you’ll get the best deal, having researched the price and model. Digital has made shoppers smarter.”

10 Under 40 — Andrew Mahr of Bialow Real EstateAndrew Mahr, 30
VP — Bialow Real Estate (Needham, Mass.)

Mahr learned about the industry from his father, who owns a Florida real estate firm. After double majoring in finance and real estate at Indiana University, he began working for a company specializing in single-tenant triple net sales. About five years ago, he joined Bialow, where he was drawn to the retail side of the business.

“It was a little less corporate and more hands-on,” he said. “And we’re not just a brokerage firm, customers hire us to be an extension of their real estate departments in site selection, managing the lease process — everything that would be expected of an in-house real estate department. This is part of the reason for my success.”

Mahr, who was just named VP, has negotiated deals nationwide in all types of markets. But one of his biggest accomplishments was a transaction in upstate New York involving Sleep Number and Vitamin Shoppe.

“The type of site they needed didn’t exist. Most brokers would have just shown them available sites. I showed them a piece of land that was an ‘A’ site. It was transformed into a successful shopping center that wasn’t there before, generating tax revenue and jobs,” he said proudly.

Mahr gives to communities in other ways. During 2013, he witnessed the Boston Marathon bombing firsthand. He was so moved that the next day, with no previous experience, he vowed to run the marathon the following year. He spent the year raising money, completed the marathon, and has done so every year since. To date, he and his running group have raised more than $5.5 million for the Massachusetts General Hospital Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Program.

10 Under 40 — Sean McCourt of CBRESean McCourt, 30
VP of retail services — CBRE (Chicago)

Sean McCourt’s family lived and breathed real estate. His father, uncle, sister, and brother-in-law were all in the business and he was not sure he wanted to follow in their footsteps. However, as he got older, he realized that the apple does not fall far from the tree.

“It seemed to fit my personality in that you get out what you put in. That, coupled with it being a people business. I get a lot of satisfaction making connections with a variety of people,” McCourt said. “I don’t like to pat myself on the back, but large, institutional owners trust me to advise them on transactions and guide them to where they need to be.”

McCourt joined CBRE in 2011. It was his first job. Today, he and his partner oversee one of the largest portfolios of retail space within CBRE. He has leased more than 10 million sq. ft. in the Chicago market. Specializing in power centers, McCourt averages 35 transactions annually with national restaurant, fitness and health care providers. From 2014 to 2017, his gross revenue increased 48%.

He believes malls are experiencing a “Darwinian moment.” To evolve, retailers and developers must work more closely, focusing on areas that are more internet resistant. “Mall owners can get more creative, not seeking prototypical ’90s and late-’80s lineups. But many existing retailers in centers resist non-traditional tenants like bowling alleys, offices, or fitness.”

McCourt’s goals go beyond real estate. In October 2014, he and his wife ran the Chicago Marathon for the first time. Following months of training, they finished in four hours.  “It was emblematic of how I approach life. There are peaks and valleys. But if you stay the course, you’ll persevere.”

10 Under 40 — Laura Kelly of At Home GroupLaura Kelly, 38
real estate director — At Home Group (Plano, Texas)

Kelly entered real estate right after college “pretty much by accident.” She embraced it when she realized it plays an integral role in all aspects of society. Now, she really is “at home.” “Everything is driven off of it and I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in,” she said.

Over the past year, Kelly single-handedly opened 12 new At Home stores totaling 1.4 million sq. ft. at a cost of more than $100 million. She also selected the site, negotiated the lease, and led the design team for the company’s second distribution center, slated to open in 2019.

One of her biggest accomplishments was revamping a store location in Katy, Texas. She negotiated a creative lease with the landowner that let At Home redevelop the property and return land to the landowner for future development. The project required closing the company’s most successful location and erecting a new store on the property. The store closed in February and was opened just five months later. “Nobody thought we could do it,” she said.

Kelly sees a lot of reinvention in the market as malls are repurposed to meet changing needs.

“Instead of a food court, you see a café or neat bar,” Kelly said. “There’s entertainment, things geared towards kids, even community colleges. The top tier Class A malls won’t go anywhere. The C’s and D’s are more dicey.”

She also believes successful convergence of physical and online retail can optimize marketing and convenience.

“Digital brings more awareness of what’s going on with retailers. You realize Lancôme is having a sale and your phone pings saying you can pick up your gift when you buy a certain amount,” she said, “And Walmart and grocers are doing a good job in that you can buy groceries online and pick them up in a certain spot, saving mom and dad time.”

10 Under 40 — Bryce Islava of Harbor Freight ToolsBryce Islava, 32
senior manager of real estate strategy — Harbor Freight Tools (Calabasas, Calif.)

In the 1950s, drug stores with soda fountains were the hottest retail concept around. Islava’s family got in on the action, owning and running Clark Drugs in the Los Angeles area. They eventually sold the business, but held onto and leased out the real estate. “I got to help out when I got out of high school and it was the catalyst for my moving into the industry,” he said.

Islava still works in retail. He has been at Harbor Freight Tools for five years and has been promoted three times. He has led 425 site selection locations and executed 125 lease renewals for the $4 billion private label retailer of value-priced tools.

“Bryce is a fantastic market planner, an analytical guy who also gets the real estate site selection side, which gives him a full understanding of what it takes for Harbor Freight to continue growing at a pace it has never grown at before,” said Michael Peck, director of real estate for Harbor Freight Tools and one of last year’s 10 Under 40 finalists. “He is a key player in picking markets and is an asset to the team.”

Like other executives, Islava believes many mid-tier retailers are struggling and that the strength is at the high and lower ends of the market.

“The Crate & Barrels and the Apples are doing fine, as are malls focused on high-income neighborhoods,” he said. “The middle tier is disintegrating in suburban America and value-priced retailers like Family Dollar and Harbor Freight are moving in because the market share
is there.”

10 Under 40 — Brian T. Finnegan of Brixmor Property GroupBrian T. Finnegan, 37
executive VP of leasing — Brixmor Property Group (New York, N.Y.)

Finnegan was introduced to real estate by a college friend who was working as a tenant broker. “I didn’t know much about it,” he said. “I liked that he was working with businesses I knew and interacted with everybody, be it restaurants, retailers, or banks. Today, when I tell people what I do, they can easily relate. They know what it’s like to have a restaurant or retailer open in their community.”

Finnegan has spent 13 years at Brixmor in his rise to executive VP. His team of more than 80 professionals has executed 8.1 million sq. ft. of new and renewal leases at comparable rent spreads of 15.5%, including 3.2 million sq. ft. of new leases at rent spreads of 34.1%. He also executed more than 100 anchor leases at rents more than 40% above Brixmor’s in-place rents. In the fourth quarter of 2017, he achieved the highest volume of anchor leases since Brixmor’s IPO in 2013.

His team has significantly expanded the company’s fitness and entertainment roster. They brought in Dave & Buster’s and the bowling and dining concept Main Event. Finnegan has also wooed strong boutique fitness brands such as Orange Theory, Burn Boot Camp, Pure Barre, and Club Pilates that have become significant traffic drivers.”Those centers that give the communities they serve a reason to visit them will survive,” he said.

Finnegan also believes landlords should be flexible in reformatting space. “You can get a Kmart box and split it up into a small grocery store like a Trader Joe’s, then put in an Ulta or TJX,” he said. “We can do that in four to six months. Retailers and developers have to remain relevant to the communities they serve.”


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