Our Mission

Learn who we are and how we serve our community


Meet our leaders, trustees and team


Developing the next generation of talent


Covering the latest news and trends in the marketplaces industry

Industry Insights

Check out wide-ranging resources that educate and inspire

Government Relations & Public Policy

Learn about the governmental initiatives we support


Connect with other professionals at a local, regional or national event

Virtual Series

Find webinars from industry experts on the latest topics and trends

Professional Development

Grow your skills online, in a class or at an event with expert guidance

Find Members

Access our Member Directory and connect with colleagues

ICSC Networking Platform

Get recommended matches for new business partners

Student Resources

Find tools to support your education and professional development

Become a Member

Learn about how to join ICSC and the benefits of membership

Renew Membership

Stay connected with ICSC and continue to receive membership benefits


Walgreens’ Alison Johnson Used Her Strategic-Thinking Brain to Land a Role That Lets Her Be Creative

April 16, 2024

“You have to be the driver of your career,” said Alison Johnson. “You have to create those opportunities.” She took the wheel at the start of her career, as part of the two-year Walgreens Finance Development program, in which associates rotate among finance categories every six months. “I thought: ‘Everyone’s going to want to do real estate,’” Johnson recalled. “It’s such an interesting industry. It’s one of the largest [profit and loss] items at Walgreens. It’s over $3 billion.” She decided to be strategic and put it on the bottom of her list of choices. “I want to show that I’m interested but not too interested,” she said. She was elated to receive real estate financing as part of her rotation. She found out later that she was the only person out of a class of about 25 to even put real estate on her list.

Johnson, a 2017 graduate of the University of St Andrews with a degree in economics and management, is this year’s ICSC Foundation Mary Lou Fiala Fellow and now serves as Walgreens senior manager of real estate capital markets. She has always approached things a little differently from her finance peers. “With finance, you can get people who are really happy with numbers that make sense,” she said. “It’s logical, whereas on the real estate side, we like the illogical.”

For Johnson, who has both right- and left-brain tendencies — she has a finance background, as well as a certificate in interior design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — real estate has offered a chance to problem-solve creatively while still using her analytical skills. “With finance, there is a lot of limitation on what you can do based on the numbers or what the numbers are telling you,” she said. “Real estate is a way to look beyond that and, while understanding the numbers, also figure out ways to get both [Walgreens and our investors] happy and create the most value beyond what the financial scope asked or required.”

And Johnson demonstrates a remarkable aptitude for maximizing the potential of Walgreens’ real estate holdings. “I like to play in between the lines, and I like to pose different questions and think outside of the box,” she said. One of her strategies includes using Walgreens’ right of first refusal to purchase a property from its landlord. Walgreens then can sell the lease to another owner via a sale-leaseback. Via this tactic, Walgreens can purchase a building at the current market rate and sell it to triple-net investors at a likely lower cap rate, creating substantial value for the organization. Johnson has also found opportunities for Walgreens by conducting sale-leasebacks on individual properties rather than portfolio-wide. Through such approaches, Johnson has generated hundreds of millions in value for the company.

Among the first properties Walgreens’ Alison Johnson sold via sale-leaseback was Houston’s 5200 Westheimer Road in December 2022.

After the Walgreens Finance Development program, Johnson became a senior financial analyst for Walgreens and excelled at analysis and financial forecasting. During her two years in the role, she developed financial models for four store-closure waves.

But her true talent lay elsewhere. In 2021, she made the transition to what colleagues jokingly referred to as “the dark side,” the business side of real estate, Johnson said. She assumed the role of manager of capital markets in Walgreens’ real estate division. She executed more than 125 deals involving the buying and selling of Walgreens stores, totaling over $800 million and yielding an average return of 21%.

While Johnson enjoyed the position, she wasn’t content to settle with overseeing deals. Her overarching goal was to lead a sale-leaseback portfolio, she said. And she made her dream happen. In August 2022, Johnson learned the senior leadership team was convening to discuss strategy for the upcoming year’s sale-leaseback initiatives. “They were essentially assembling the next major portfolio, discussing the opportunities and assets,” she recalled. She lobbied to be a part of the meeting and was granted the opportunity.

There, the leadership team grappled with divesting high-value assets from Walgreens’ real estate portfolio. As she listened, Johnson had an epiphany: “Wait a second, we’re overlooking a significant portion of the value,” she thought. The assets Walgreens was selling were prime locations like beachfront properties in Miami and high-value properties in California and Texas. “If we package these up in a portfolio, we’re essentially losing money,” Johnson thought. “We’re getting a discount on our cap rate, and [in turn] an investor is getting an absolute gem of a property [where], if one day Walgreens chooses to leave, they can put up some sort of big apartment tower or lease out to somebody else.” In short, the land value was really important for those assets.

Johnson believed Walgreens had the infrastructure to parcel these assets individually. “One thing we hadn’t ever really looked at was the 1031 market, high-net-worth individuals who also have that kind of capital and are willing to pay a premium for better-quality assets,” she said. She put together a proposal with a cost-benefit analysis. Walgreens leadership embraced the idea.

Walgreens’ Alison Johnson, at right, with the rest of her foursome on a Fore the Ladies trip to Erin Hills golf course in Wisconsin

“Alison was bringing an old idea to a new problem,” said former Walgreens group vice president of property Chris Noble, who oversaw the company’s capital market activities at the time. “She leveraged some things that we had done already on a one-off basis and infused that strategy into a completely different part of the business. She really opened our eyes to the possible value that could exist.” But Noble wasn’t particularly surprised. Johnson, he recalled, “was always trying to figure out new ways of doing deals, new ways to create value for the company and in so doing not only [was] focusing on ‘How do we create value?’ but also, equally importantly, ‘How do we minimize risk?’” In the time Johnson has quarterbacked the new sale-leaseback program, she has delivered several hundred million dollars’ worth of value, Noble said.

Johnson emerged with an understanding of the importance of self-advocacy. That’s why she’s pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, focusing on strategy and real estate. It is also the reason she has volunteered to take on a league captain role for the national nonprofit Fore the Ladies, which aims to increase female participation in golf. Fore the Ladies also been a great way to network and socialize with other professional women, she said.

Driving her own career also is one of the reasons Johnson applied for the ICSC Foundation Mary Lou Fiala Fellowship, a year-long leadership and professional development program that prepares talented young women for executive positions in the Marketplaces Industry. “Having spent all my career at Walgreens, I have a very specific understanding of real estate, especially from a retail standpoint,” Johnson said. “My short-term goal is really to learn more about real estate as an industry overall and help myself — and also my company — make better-informed decisions by understanding those different components of the industry.”

Walgreens’ Alison Johnson sold 2976 Sepulveda Blvd. in Torrance, California, via a December 2022 sale-leaseback.

And much like the Walgreens Finance Development rotation, the Mary Lou Fiala Fellowship will pair Johnson with four woman mentors over the course of the year. “I am ambitious,” she said. “I have really great dreams of where and what I want to do within this field and this industry. My aim is to one day serve on an executive team and drive strategy through a real estate lens.” A platform through which to be mentored by woman leaders and have the chance to earn champions appealed to Johnson. “Learning from past fellows, I’ve realized that there is such a strong advocacy component to the fellowship. What the program does is say: ‘This woman is really strong. I will advocate for her to have opportunities.’” The fellowship also provides executive leadership education and training or executive coaching, as well as complimentary registration and hotel accommodations for ICSC LAS VEGAS and the opportunity to attend high-level networking and leadership events there.

Johnson didn’t know what her chances were of winning the fellowship, but on a recent Friday, she woke with a feeling that “something really good was going to happen,” she recalled. Her intuition was right. She was elated to get a call from the ICSC Foundation telling her she had won. “ICSC has done such a wonderful thing for women within the real estate industry,” she said. “I’m so excited to be a part of that.”

She also eagerly anticipates the opportunity to uplift peers in the industry. “As I am being pulled up by the incredibly strong women leading this fellowship, I’m looking forward to being able to do the same for other women,” she said.

By Brannon Boswell

Executive Editor, Commerce + Communities Today


A centralized platform leveraging 15 data sources to provide access to commercial real estate listings and enable financial and market analyses, site selection and demographic and trade area research.

Visit the platform