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Lance Gilliam Switched from Tenant Rep to Underserved Markets Developer and Now Is Back in School

July 11, 2022

Lance Gilliam, a partner at Waterman Steele Real Estate Advisors, remembers walking into his very first ICSC convention. It was 1978, and he was 21 years old, not long out of Southern Methodist University, from which he’d received a Bachelor of Business Administration in real estate and regional science. He’d just started working as a project manager for Texas real estate firm McFaddin Kendrick. His boss, Sam Kendrick, knew how important ICSC was for career growth and took him to the conference. “Given I literally had just joined the firm, I think he not only had me join ICSC but register for the convention on-site,” Gilliam recalled.

That day, Gilliam walked into an ICSC Idea Exchange conference where executives like Herb Weitzman — a Texas-based broker who would go on to found Weitzman, one of the largest full-service commercial real estate brokerage firms in the state — was speaking. Gilliam sat down, expecting to take a few notes on the executives’ success stories. Instead, he listened in amazement as they one by one shared their mistakes and the lessons they’d learned over their careers. It was an effort on their part, Gilliam said, “to keep me and others in the room who were listening from repeating those mistakes. It made a huge impression on me because I was learning from their experience.” The panelists’ vulnerability, openness, perspective and framing for the span of their careers stuck with Gilliam. When he eventually became a managing partner himself, he’d tell potential clients as a selling point that when they hired the firm or him, they were getting the benefits of 40 years’ worth of mistakes,” he laughed.

Gilliam rose from project manager at McFaddin Kendrick to executive vice president of Grubb & Ellis retail properties, where he was the top-producing retail broker nationally, to managing partner at UCR Houston. He attended ICSC events throughout. The mentorship, networking and education ICSC provided Gilliam was “an important part of my career,” said Gilliam, who would go on to serve as dean of ICSC University’s School of Open-Air Center Development.

This year, at 65 years old, Gilliam headed back to school himself, to get a PHD in community and regional planning at The University of Texas in Austin, studying the comparative analysis of economic incentives for affordable housing. Gilliam has devoted much of the later part of his career to investing in developments in underserved communities and has seen firsthand that these developments can be both socially beneficial and profitable. Ultimately, he hopes to prove out his practical experience through academic research and to inform and lead conversations on the subject.  “I think the academic community can be the ultimate arbiter of good information,” he said.

When Gilliam learned that the university was not yet an official University Partner of the ICSC Foundation, he fixed that immediately. “ICSC has just been too important to me for an institution I’m attending to not have a structured relationship with them,” he said. In June, he funded three years of dues to the ICSC’s College & University Partner Program, making The University of Texas at Austin the ICSC Foundation’s 59th partner school. The program grants UT Austin access to unlimited student, staff and faculty memberships for no additional cost and gives students access to a year-long mentorship program, a variety of virtual learning opportunities, discounted in-person events and virtual training and a directory of industry professionals and leaders. “I'm hoping that the students will take advantage of not only the content resources, but also the opportunity to attend meetings, to network at a discount but most importantly to learn,” Gilliam said.

The sponsorship, for Gilliam also is about equity, a way to make sure every UT Austin student has an equal chance to access ICSC resources. Equal opportunity always has been important to Gilliam, who is the immediate past chair of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County and who in college studied food deserts and access. So much so that in 2011, after more than 30 years representing retailers like Sports Authority, Office Depot, Circuit City and PetSmart — “I was the big-box guy,” he said — he switched his focus to development in underserved markets. “Social equity is really the driving force of our firm,” Gilliam said.

One of his proudest moments was the December 2019 opening of a 90,000-square-foot H-E-B in Houston’s largely low-income Third Ward. Gilliam’s firm, Waterman Steele, had represented the grocer in the public-private partnership. “It was the first time H-E-B had built a traditional-format store in a predominantly African American neighborhood,” Gilliam said. As part of the complicated transaction, the city of Houston bought the store’s nine-acre lot for $13.85 million, using a grant from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Economic Development Initiative funds to help finance the deal. The city then conveyed ownership of the property to Houston Housing Finance Corp., which leased it to H-E-B.

At times during negotiations, Gilliam worried the deal wouldn’t happen. But when the store’s doors opened, Gilliam saw elderly women crying “because it meant so much to them to have that grocery store,” he said. He described the moment as “majorly joyful.”

Gilliam wrote a case study on the H-E-B development for his 2021 master’s degree in urban planning at University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. And he’s excited to trade stories and knowledge about this project and the benefits of other socially equitable investments with new classmates at UT, even if he’s the only one sporting white hair, a coat and tie in his student ID photo. “It will be obvious who to return my ID to if it gets lost,” he joked.

And if ICSC happens to ask him to speak on a future panel of executives, Gilliam is more than ready to share with younger professionals the mistakes he’s made and the lessons he’s learned. “Oh God, there’s so many of them,” he laughed.

Those interested in sponsoring their own alma maters for ICSC University Partnerships can reach out to ICSC Foundation manager of student engagement and University Partners James Dulin at jdulin@icsc.com or 646-728-3504.

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

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