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Glenn Rufrano’s Long Career Takes Another Step: Meet ICSC’s New Chair

December 6, 2021

For a man who has restored billions of dollars in value to struggling commercial real estate companies and grown others to the moon, new ICSC chairman Glenn Rufrano is about as modest as they come. A product of working class parents from the then-impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, Rufrano tends to shrink from the limelight and from the insular world of analysts and financial trade press.

So on a January morning in 2008, it was business as usual for the unassuming Rufrano when he touched down in Melbourne to rescue the moribund Australian real estate colossus, Centro Properties Group, which was weighed down by a staggering $8 billion debt load in the aftermath of the subprime collapse.

Blue-jeaned and bleary-eyed after a 13-hour flight, the new Centro CEO slowly strolled into baggage claim, where he was certain a huge celebrity was holding court. “Suddenly, there was all this flashing; it was blinding,” Rufrano recalls. “Then, I realized that it was for me. They’d gotten wind I was coming, and there must have been 20 to 25 photographers there and reporters shouting questions at me.”

Australia’s largest-ever failing enterprise, it turns out, was a big deal in the country’s public arena. “One of the reporters asked me, ‘What are you gonna do with Centro?’ and I answered honestly, ‘I don’t know.’ Another asked what I was going to do that first day, and I said, ‘Go to work.’” So Rufrano exited the terminal and raised his hand to hail a taxi — no private driver for this Yank. The press, watching as Rufrano’s cab disappeared into the Melbourne skyline, viewed his display of humility as a good omen, the Centro CEO later would discover.

What did Rufrano do on Day One? He stopped briefly at his new apartment to drop off his bags, then headed straight to his new job, jet lag and 16-hour time difference be damned. That’s what Rufrano, who succeeded John Morrison on Monday as ICSC chair, does: He goes to work. And that’s what the 71-year-old will do in his new ICSC chair post and in whatever venture he tackles after that.

With his trademark tenacity and unflinching transparency, Rufrano has piloted many companies during a distinguished 51-year career, most notably re-engineering four national and international firms over the past few decades. After salvaging Centro, one Aussie paper dubbed him Mr. Fix It and another called him “the American who saved Australian shopping centre basket case Centro Properties.” Others referred to him as the Turnaround Titan.

Back in 2000, a daunting challenge had confronted Rufrano when he took the helm of New Plan Excel Realty Trust, as the REIT staggered from a near-ruinous merger and suffered from chronic operating and senior management woes. He transformed it into one of the nation’s largest and most successful public real estate companies. And in 2015, Rufrano came aboard net lease REIT American Realty Capital Properties to help it bail out from a highly publicized accounting fraud scandal, leaving in its stead the hugely successful VEREIT, derived from the Latin veritas, or truth. In November, Rufrano departed VEREIT after shepherding its merger with Realty Income, creating a $50 billion enterprise in the process.

In between, in spring 2010, Rufrano undertook a much less-foreboding challenge, steering juggernaut Cushman & Wakefield on a path to global expansion, eventually growing it to 13,000 workers with 400 offices. That push laid the groundwork for DTZ’s 2015 acquisition of Cushman & Wakefield. Stints with Landauer Associates and J.P.Morgan and a second round with O’Connor Capital Partners, as chairman, are a few other posts rounding out Rufrano’s meaty resume.

Rufrano’s approach

There’s no magic reversal-of-fortune formula for Rufrano. With struggling companies, he typically tweaks management and boards of directors while ushering in new corporate cultures and his three-prong ethic of discipline, transparency and consistency, all as he starts hammering out multiyear stabilization and growth plans. “You have to build a five-year plan but leave room to refresh it along the way because you’ll need to respond to trends, and you need to be certain to have the resources and personnel to make those changes and be sure you implement those changes well.” He added: “You can’t shy away from making decisions; you’re better off taking the risk to make a big decision than not making a decision at all.”

Among the other early career lessons Rufrano learned as he led firms to light was how to tell the difference between cyclical change and more permanent “secular” change. For example, when the pandemic first broke out, sales at eateries in the VEREIT portfolio were lower than 2019 numbers, and Rufrano watched as other big real estate owners panicked over their restaurant-heavy holdings. “What were we going to do, package them up and sell them off first thing? And to who and for what?” he posited. Patience paid off. In Rufrano’s final quarter with VEREIT, rent collections hovered between 90% and 100% for both quick-service and casual eateries, up from about 25% in each category in the second quarter of 2020.

Is there anything good about plunging head-on into troubled company waters? “Yes, you didn’t cause the problem, and you aren’t part of that legacy that did,” he said. “You also have latitude to think outside the box a bit, but you can’t do anything stupid.”

Empathy and leading by example are systemic at Rufrano-led firms. “It’s pretty simple: Treat others the way you want to be treated,” he said. “The CEO has to teach by example; you can’t yell and scream your way to success, and you can’t act entitled. If your constituents don’t think well of you, you can’t expect them to follow you,” he said.

Even as the SEC’s prime focus is on responsibility to stakeholders, Rufrano’s long-held operational management mission statement has been to “serve employees, tenants and stakeholders to the best of your ability,” he said. “You really can’t serve stakeholders if the employees and tenants aren’t happy; you’ve got to have all three working well.”

His ICSC path and vision

Rufrano’s ICSC journey commenced in 1983 when — as co-founder of then-upstart O’Connor Group, now O’Connor Capital Partners — he began attending ICSC events. He instantly recognized the relationship-enhancing and lead-generation benefits. “I realized you not only get to learn about the business, you get to know the people you do business with,” he said. “So many times, I did deals with people just because I’d met them.” 

But Mr. Fix It may never have rescued giant portfolios and saved thousands of jobs had he landed a job in his intended field, computer analytics. Fresh out of Rutgers in 1971, Rufrano struggled to land a computer post. He needed work — any work — and recalls how he “fell into” a Long Island property appraisal job with the Joseph Blake Co., now known as Blake. “I didn’t even know what a real estate appraiser was at the time.”

Since joining ICSC, Rufrano has missed just a single RECon, when he was stationed in Australia. Over the years, he’s served as ICSC panel speaker and host, trustee, treasurer, past trustee, vice chair and now chair, among other roles.

Quick to note that the ICSC rebranding has been a team plan executed by ICSC president and CEO Tom McGee and aided by chair predecessors Morrison and Daniel Hurwitz, Rufrano is excited to serve the first full chairmanship under the refashioned organization. “Innovating Commerce Serving Communities is a more consistent narrative of what retail is and the role it plays today; we’re not just managing brick-and-mortar shopping centers.” That new tagline, to go with the continuing ICSC name, better conveys the organization’s value proposition and is more consistent with the type of member ICSC needs to recruit and embrace, he added. “This will be a multiyear process: remaining relevant, attracting more members and helping those members make money.”

Rufrano also wants to assist McGee and team in helping stakeholders in the marketplaces industry learn how to tailor their centers to better serve communities and to further merge physical and nonphysical retail. He also aims to help the new vice chair — Patrick Donahue, who was profiled a year ago when he began a one-year term as chair of the ICSC Foundation — encourage ICSC volunteerism at all levels. And he’ll take a longer look at creating helpful programs and other member value-adds. For example, ICSC already has lowered member fees across the board. “We’ll lose a little money, but we look at it this way: ICSC is investing in its membership,” he said. “This follows the simple concept of providing more value.”

He’d also like to see sustainability become an even stronger priority for ICSC and its constituents. Pointing to the environmental, social and governance operational and reporting push in Europe that far predated America’s, he stressed that capital markets, ratings agencies, underwriters, shareholders and virtually any fiscal entity tied to big business in the U.S. increasingly want to back sustainability-oriented companies.

Industry academics long have been a support area for Rufrano, whose parents — Onofrio, a metal worker, and Grace, a seamstress — had few educational opportunities. A longtime backer of the ICSC Foundation’s scholarship programs, Rufrano also has funded countless scholarships privately over the decades for promising real estate students at Rutgers, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, and at Florida International University, where he earned his Master of Science in Management and Real Estate. He also has provided scholarships for students at Baruch College, where he serves on the advisory board, and he acts in a similar advisory role at NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate, where he has taught classes.

Rufrano’s recurring advice to students: “I tell them that they need to find their talent and what they’re good at. Then they need to take risks. If you don’t take risks, you may never reach the next level.”

Juggling doesn’t stress Rufrano, who welcomes multiple challenges. A week after completing the VEREIT merger and just minutes after a Nov. 9 video call on which he was awarded the Nareit 2021 Industry Leadership Award for his 45-plus years in the business and his example-setting transparency, Rufrano talked enthusiastically for nearly two hours with ICSC’s Commerce + Communities Today about his plans as ICSC chair.

During Rufrano’s REIT Leadership award ceremony, one person thanked him for being a staunch CREW missionary. It turns out Rufrano quietly and substantially has supported CREW Network, which represents commercial real estate women, for years, particularly during his time at VEREIT, where many female staffers were enthusiastic CREW adherents. “The industry has been chiefly white male for so long, and frankly, there’s no reason for that.”

At the same event, Nareit award presenter Marguerite Nader, Equity LifeStyle Properties CEO, noted Rufrano’s remarkable longevity in the trade and lauded him for his “companywide business approach based on discipline, transparency and consistency” and for his service to Nareit’s advisory board of governors. His transparency ethic, in fact, repeatedly has landed Rufrano on the boards of public companies like Trizec, Ventas, General Growth Properties and Columbia Property Trust. He also has been active on the boards of charities like New Alternatives for Children, which serves kids with medical disabilities and/or chronic illnesses and their families.

At an age when industry execs usually kick back and reflect on their lifetime achievements, Rufrano chooses to forge on and embrace new opportunities. Where Rufrano grew up, “if you didn’t have a job, you were embarrassed,” he said. “That shapes you early on.” One analyst asked during an earnings call if he would retire after the VEREIT merger. “That’s a bad question, so I have a bad answer: ‘I’m going to work ’til I die, I just hope I don’t die here,’” he said.

He jokes that his happy, 48-year marriage to wife Mary is buoyed by his seemingly perpetual absence and travel schedule. But Rufrano is an unwavering family man, traveling with his entire family to at least one vacation spot every year, including their favorite, Walker’s Cay, Bahamas. Rufrano’s kids make Dad proud: Daughter Lori is a physician, and son Gary is a director at Clarion Partners.

Rufrano also loves to boat, fish and scuba dive with the family near his Long Island home and is partial to cinemas and the occasional football watching foray at Scuttlebutt Tavern. His literary inclinations are, appropriately, “about great men in very difficult situations,” he said. These include the Winston Churchill saga The Splendid and the Vile and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. He cited longtime O’Connor Capital partner Jerry O’Connor and Kimco Realty executive chair Milton Cooper among his top career influencers.

As Morrison hands the ICSC chair reins over for Rufrano’s one-year term, “John’s advice to me was that a lot of what we are doing is understanding the market and that we shouldn’t stray from our original goals of what made ICSC great in the first place. That’s making absolutely sure our members enjoy being a part of our organization and can build value from it.”

As for the rapidly changing retail industry, there are abundant challenges out there that can morph into huge opportunities for change-tolerant and community-oriented ICSC members, Rufrano said, including advances during COVID-19 like new ways to reach and serve customers. These are enduring innovations and great examples of how adversity can expedite positive change, he said. “This ingenuity wouldn’t have happened except for the pandemic. It was this quick reaction and clear thinking that got us over the bridge and I think will continue to do so.”

COVID-19 was also a big reset for Rufrano personally. On March 16, 2020, the day society and commerce effectively slowed to a crawl, Rufrano was laid low by a high fever. Sure enough, he tested positive for COVID, and his fever spiked very high. His fever finally broke after 18 days, “and fortunately, COVID didn’t get in my lungs,” he said. That brush with a potentially fatal illness at age 69 only added to Rufrano’s resolve — that, and his long and extraordinary record of making the right call at the right time. “The changes I made were always for better, not for worse, I’m happy to say. That’s why I love the business, and that’s why I continue to work at 71.”

By Steve McLinden

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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