This Q&A originally appeared in D CEO magazine.
Lynn Van Amburgh began her career not long before the 1984–85 recession that decimated the local real estate sector and North Texas banks as a leasing representative at Henry S. Miller. She then wound her way through leasing posts at companies, including Nasher Company, Homart Development, and Simon Property Group, persevering through the 2008 recession as a group vice president of leasing at GGP.
“Each situation gives you perspective for the next, and I’ve seen the retail industry through a lot of ups and downs,” says Van Amburgh.
Now, as vice president of Weitzman’s Dallas-Fort Worth office, Van Amburgh’s past has shaped her outlook for COVID-19. Here are a few of her thoughts during our conversation about the crisis and the current state of retail deals in commercial real estate.
WHAT ABOUT THIS CRISIS IS UNIQUE, AND WHICH STRATEGIES FROM THE PAST CAN BE APPLIED DURING COVID-19?
You learn as a real estate leasing individual—and I think it can apply to a lot of people and a lot of different areas— that you don’t get too high with the highs and you don’t get too low with the lows. In this particular situation with the social distancing, the shelter-in-place mandate, the closure, it’s just hitting so many different aspects, but the one thing you have to keep an eye on is we’re going to come out on the other side of this. So, you just adapt and learn different techniques with keeping in touch with your clients and the people that you’re doing business with and, obviously, your teammates.
One of the things that I continually deal with, and you recognize in that of 2008 particularly, was the Amazon factor, and I think that was obviously one of the big change points for a lot of retailers. And [whether] it was mall-based, whether it was open-air centers, if those retailers did not learn to adapt and change to the way people are shopping, they were not going to be able to survive. And I continually am impressed with the stores that do adapt, do change. Brick and mortar will never go away. Brick and mortar is just the heart of retail.
And, we can all name a handful off the top of our head that were not able to grow, adapt, evolve after that time. You know, the good names—Circuit City, Linens and Things, Borders, The Sharper Image—those went by the wayside basically. Retail learned then that we’ve got to be doing more. We’ve got to have a strong digital platform and recognize that our brick and mortar presence is still important.
HOW DID THE 1984 AND 1985 CRISIS SPECIFICALLY HELP POSITION YOU TO SUCCEED AS A LEASING PROFESSIONAL DURING COVID-19?
In any circumstance, if you’re smart, you look back on it, and you think, ‘Okay, this happened as a result of x.’ [The 1984 and 1985 crisis] taught developers better on how to build, what to build, and how much to build. That was one of the key things, and to be very strategic in what you’re doing as a developer.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME CHALLENGES THAT ARE UNIQUE TO THE RETAIL REAL ESTATE SECTOR RIGHT NOW IN DEALING WITH COVID-19?
We’re all about connection and client interaction, and so the way that we are doing that is changing. Going to meet tenants in the space, that’s all changing right now. You have people who are showing spaces with a Zoom camera, doing it all virtually. You have to be able to quickly adapt.
HOW IS WEITZMAN GOING ABOUT CONDUCTING DEALS AND INTERACTING WITH CLIENTS DURING THIS TIME?
Honestly, very similarly. I had a letter of intent that I had been working on, and the broker and I just stayed in touch. We had a call with his client a week ago, and we’re about to move to a lease, so that process has not changed. Where, maybe perhaps before this, we would have had a meeting in somebody’s office and got that all hammered out, we did it a little differently this time.
ARE THERE STILL A GREAT NUMBER OF RETAIL LEASE DEALS GOING ON DURING THIS TIME?
I don’t know that I would use the word “great,” but yes, there are still deals happening, and I think particularly an operator, a retailer, realizes we are going to come out of this. They want to be ready when that happens to open their door.
WHAT KINDS OF DEALS ARE STILL OCCURRING, AND WHICH ARE TAPERING OFF? IS THERE ANY PATTERN THERE?
Not really. It’d be interesting to watch what happens with the home furnishings category. That’s certainly been one—the home furnishings, the fitness groups. Once they’re able to get reengaged, I think we will see some real growth there.