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Up next: The industry’s young leaders

September 30, 2016

ICSC members recognized four of their own for outstanding leadership at the Next Generation National Conference, held last July. The second annual Four Under 40 class — Andrea Drasites, Luke Petherbridge, Jason Richter and Adria Savarese — then took audience questions in a fireside-chat-style discussion. “We didn’t give them the questions way in advance, because we wanted it to be more candid and personal,” said Whitaker Leonhardt, co-chair of ICSC’s Next Generation leadership board and an associate director in HFF’s Orlando, Fla., office. The tactic worked, he says. 

“What emerged was a spontaneous, dynamic discussion,” Leonhardt said. “They explained how they got to where they are today and shared their advice with the audience. They also discussed some of the risks and challenges they encountered early in their careers.” Questions about the future sparked a particularly lively exchange, he says. “They all gave some really interesting answers,” Leonhardt said. “For example, none of the four expected an enormous revolution in retail. Instead, they foresaw a continuation of the steady change we see today. For them, change is just the new norm.”

The selection committee focused on a range of qualities in choosing the honorees. “You don’t have to be a CEO or president of your company,” Leonhardt said. “You could be a senior-level person within a department and still have that opportunity to be recognized as a leader by your peers. However, we did give additional consideration to nominees who give back in some way, either by volunteering in ICSC or participating in a charitable or philanthropic cause that is unique to the shopping center business.” The result was a Four Under 40 class with a diversity of backgrounds and responsibilities. There were common threads too, however. “They are all extremely bright, hardworking and ambitious, but also humble,” Leonhardt said. “They’re perfectly willing to spend time sharing advice and ideas with peers and other young people, which is special.” 

The following profiles cover these honorees’ career paths as well as some of their thoughts about where the industry is headed. In years to come, the recognition of young leaders will be a key part of the Next Gen mission, says Leonhardt. “We expect that Four Under 40 will be a cornerstone of our organization and what we represent,” he said. “We want to recognize the next generation of respected national leaders who are making a difference in the industry today.”

People are spending more time and money on experiences, says Andrea Drasites
Focus is central to Andrea Drasites’ approach to managing Blackstone’s 48 million-square-foot portfolio of U.S. retail investments. “With a new asset, identify the top five things you can do to drive value, and focus on those,” she said. “There are always 20 things you can fix. If you focus on key drivers, it allows you to harvest value efficiently and quickly. Once you fix the first five, you can go on to the next, and keep going after that, depending on the hold period.”

Drasites has been with Blackstone for four years as a managing director in the real estate group. The 34-year-old earned a bachelor’s degree in international business from Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., and an MBA from the University of Florida. She learned the shopping center business from veteran Florida developer Duane Stiller, whose Woolbright Development she joined in 2007. Amid a booming retail market, Stiller was building a $1 billion development pipeline. He challenged Drasites to tackle multiple challenges at the Boca Raton–based firm, which he founded in 1985. She canvassed for new tenants, did common area maintenance reconciliations, negotiated lease renewals, closed acquisition and disposition deals, worked on customer relationship management programs and learned the ins and outs of property management. “I got lucky — Duane sort of threw me in, sink or swim,” she said. “It was great exposure to all facets of the business.”

Equity One hired Drasites in 2009 to manage assets at a time when the industry was still coping with the fallout from the economic crisis. The job required putting distressed assets under intense scrutiny to find ways to save money and boost productivity. “I remember going to shopping centers and looking at the garbage-collections bins to see which ones were being used and which ones weren’t,” Drasites recalled. “Could we reduce the number of bins or change the frequency of collections to save money? You had to get really creative.”

In response to the challenges, Equity One focused its resources on larger assets in gateway cities and moved to sell a substantial portion of its portfolio. “A big part of my job at Equity One was working through those dispositions,” Drasites said. “I had a large — over $1 billion — disposition pipeline. Through that process, I talked to a lot of institutional investors and ended up selling about $500 million in assets to Blackstone.” The private equity giant was gearing up to make a major push in retail. It had already committed to acquire the nearly 600-asset Centro (now Brixmor) portfolio for $9.4 billion and to enter into a joint venture with DDR Corp. to buy 71 shopping centers for $1.9 billion. Having worked closely with her during the six-month closing period for the Equity One transaction, Blackstone offered Drasites her current job. “They needed help with retail, and I was happy to come on board,” she said.

In addition to overseeing all of the firm’s wholly or jointly owned retail assets, Drasites manages The Cosmopolitan casino hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. “I’m on the board of The Cosmopolitan,” she said. “Learning about the gaming business has been a great extension of my career. There are quite a lot of similarities between retail and gaming. In both, you’re trying to create the right tenant mix and environment to draw your consumers in.”

Urbanization is among the trends that are top-of-mind for Drasites as she mulls how to best position Blackstone’s assets. “Urbanization is a trend that we are seeing in multiple product types, whether it be office, multifamily or retail,” she said. “The Millennials’ culture is sort of infiltrating and influencing Gen-Xers and baby boomers and driving choice-making and behavioral patterns. People are spending more time and money on experiences. It’s changing the way we think about tenant mix.”

Drasites serves on the Nexus committee for ICSC’s NOI+ Asset Management Conference. She says she loves living in New York City’s Union Square and enjoys visiting her family in Southwest Florida, which gives her a chance to ride horses. “Riding horses is my passion,” Drasites said. “I don’t do it often enough. I also spend a lot of time exercising, shopping, of course, dining out and trying to be outdoors as much as possible. I guess I’m trying to be like a Millennial too.”

Assets matter, but staff are the engine of an organization, says Luke Petherbridge
Luke Petherbridge, who in May became president and CEO of Excel Trust, aims to create the culture of a start-up at that Blackstone-acquired REIT. “We are focused on a proactive, innovative, collaborative structure,” said the 36-year-old. “I want people here to be enthusiastic, have a sense of purpose and enjoy what they do. If you can achieve that, everything else falls into place.”

Petherbridge, a native of Australia, knows startup culture firsthand: He was 23 years old in 2003 when he was invited to join the team at start-up Rubicon. The founder wanted Petherbridge — a fund manager with an economics degree from Sydney’s Macquarie University — to help him grow the business. “The founder was extremely bright and innovative, and I felt this strong sense of mission in connection to what he was doing,” Petherbridge recalled. “He said to me, ‘I do not know where this is going to go, but I promise that in five years I will give you 15 years of experience.’ ”

As Rubicon’s director of transactions, Petherbridge put in some extraordinarily long workdays amid a booming global real estate market. The firm was managing about $20 million in assets when he started, but over the next five years, Petherbridge worked on transactions valued at an aggregate $5 billion, in the U.S., Europe and Japan. “In five years of working those sorts of hours, I had my 15 years of experience,” he said. “When you’re only 23, your attitude is, ‘Bring it on.’ ”

In 2008 Petherbridge was hired to manage Macquarie DDR Trust, a joint venture between global investment bank Macquarie Group and Cleveland-based DDR. Later, when it became EDT Retail Trust, Petherbridge stayed on as CEO and director. Then, in 2011, after selling EDT’s retail portfolio (ultimately to Blackstone after interim ownership by a private investment firm), Petherbridge faced a big decision: whether to move to the U.S. to become DDR’s senior vice president of capital markets.

Intrigued by the dynamics in U.S. retailing, Petherbridge chose to move his family about 9,500 miles from Sydney to Cleveland. “The U.S. is very different from Australia, which is mall-driven, with a limited number of discount retailers,” he said. “In the U.S. the consumer is just so paramount to the economy, and you have all of these different retail tenants — Target, Kohl’s, Walmart, T.J.Maxx, Ross; it fascinated me.” In various roles at DDR, Petherbridge concentrated on raising capital, managing the balance sheet, maintaining ties with lenders and closing corporate-level deals. In May 2015 he was promoted to CFO and treasurer of the REIT. “DDR is an incredible business, and it was a great four and a half years there,” Petherbridge said. “We raised a lot of capital and, once again, did $4 billion or $5 billion in transactions.”

Many of those transactions involved working closely with Blackstone Group, which acquired Excel Trust in April 2015 for about $2 billion and has already doubled the REIT’s size since taking it private. In the global equity firm’s press release announcing Petherbridge’s hiring, Nadeem Meghji, co-head of U.S. acquisitions for Blackstone Real Estate, described Petherbridge as “incredibly talented.” Now Petherbridge is focused on building his team at Excel Trust, which owns or manages about 80 shopping centers across the U.S. The latest addition is David Dieterle, who was DDR’s senior vice president of leasing but joined Excel in August as executive vice president of leasing and development. 

“Every CEO has the opportunity to do something different,” Petherbridge said. “The advantage of Excel is that it is smaller and going in a new direction, so you can impact the culture more easily.” Toward that end, Petherbridge aims to promote a sense of ownership in the company and its mission, he says. “Assets matter, but the staff are the engine of the organization,” he said. “It is critical that they have a say in the direction and feel part of it.”

Petherbridge is a member of NAREIT and serves on ICSC’s Open Air Conference Committee. He and his wife, Chantal, live in Chicago with their three children. With a framed jersey of the Wallabies, Australia’s national rugby union team hanging in his office, Petherbridge describes himself as a “rugby tragic” (someone who is utterly hooked on the sport) and an avid sports fan in general, he says. “Sports are the fabric of society.”

In the past 10 years, Jason Richter has done 2,000 deals worth $500 million
Study Jason D. Richter’s résumé and you might have trouble believing he is only 37 years old. Over the past decade or so, Richter has negotiated about 2,000 deals valued at upwards of $500 million all told. On the retail side, his recent credits include overseeing the bankruptcy of American Apparel, where he negotiated roughly $10 million in savings while simultaneously managing the chain’s global portfolio. Richter, CRX, CLS, has also served as head of real estate for chains such as Perfumania and Ricky’s NYC, as well as private equity firm E&J Lawrence, which owns urban brands such as Decibel, Hyperactive and Jimmy Jazz.

Richter learned the landlord side of the business from Joseph J. Sitt, founder of Thor Equities, one of the world’s largest private equity owners of high-street retail. He started with Thor in 2003 at a time when its office comprised just 10 or 15 people. “I was there for six years and worked in 10 different major markets, doing everything from enclosed regional mall leasing, to strip center, high street and luxury leasing,” Richter said. “It was great experience.” Thus far in his career, Richter has worked with such top landlords as CBL & Associates Properties, General Growth Properties, Taubman Centers, Vornado and Westfield, as well as retailers Apple, Gap, J.Crew, Regal Cinema, Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret. He is the founder and CEO of Capricorn Asset Management as well as co-founder and managing principal of the Hudson brokerage firm. “Hudson is my brokerage company that I started two years ago with Jason Gerbsman, a partner and longtime friend,” he said. “It is really based on third-party transactions — agency leasing and tenant representation as well as an investment sales division — while Capricorn is a pure-play investment vehicle.”

It all started with retail tech. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Richter was studying computer-information systems at Hofstra University when he hit upon the idea of helping mom-and-pop tenants take advantage of the Internet. Some resisted the pitch. “Back then, if you went into a local cheese store or bakery, they would say: ‘I need a website? Why?’ ” Richter said. “I went into these densely populated or affluent areas and educated them as to why they were going to need a presence online.” As the business grew, Richter made it scalable by writing software that enabled retailers to create their own websites by means of a graphical user interface. 

When the tech bubble burst, Richter shifted to real estate. As senior leasing manager for Thor Equities, he handled the firm’s New York City retail, led the leasing of some 1 million square feet of new development in Houston and also leased high-street assets in South Miami Beach, Fla., and Beverly Hills, Calif. In addition, Richter played a role in the leasing, refinancing, acquisition and disposition of Thor assets across seven states. After leaving the firm in 2009, he spent five years overseeing real estate for E&J Lawrence, Perfumania and Ricky’s NYC.

All along, though, Richter aspired to start his own company. He launched his brokerages in 2014 and is now intent on expanding Hudson, in particular. “We’ve got a great team of approximately 12 people at Hudson, including our CFO, Harold Harris, who was with one of the largest leasing and management companies in the Northeast for 28 years,” Richter said. “We have been focused a lot in New York and New Jersey on the agency side, with very cool and exciting projects like a waterfront development in Williamsburg [Brooklyn, N.Y.], and the redevelopment of the Asbury Park Boardwalk, in New Jersey.”

The restructuring of American Apparel in partnership with Gordon Brothers Group was another high-profile project. “Not only did we renegotiate American Apparel’s entire domestic portfolio,” Richter said, “but we also oversaw all of its real estate internationally.”

Richter served as ICSC’s New York and New Jersey state director from 2011 to 2014 and sits on the RECon Planning Committee. He co-chaired the ICSC New York Conference in 2015 and is chairman of the New York show this year. Richter serves on the board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He is single, a Williamsburg resident and a cooking enthusiast, and he enjoys snowboarding. “It allows me to get out of my head and just really engage with my surroundings and nature. When you couple that with the speed and the adrenaline, it is just one of my favorite things to do in the world.”

Getting out of the office is the way to get things done, says Adria Savarese
Adria Savarese, CLS, was an undergraduate at Cornell University in 2005 when a suggestion from a JPMorgan executive set her career on a new path. “I had done an internship in equity research and met someone here who encouraged me to try real estate,” she said. “It was an eye-opener for me. I realized that I liked having the ability to get out from your desk, go see and visit assets and do finance in the real world, as opposed to just sitting at your desk.”

In 2016, Savarese was promoted to retail group executive director in JPMorgan Asset Management’s global real assets division. The 32-year-old now sets the investment strategy — including leasing, operations, development, financing, valuation and disposition — for 7 million square feet of retail properties positioned within JPMorgan’s 42 million-square-foot mixed-use and retail portfolio in the U.S.

Initially, Savarese supported senior-level asset managers by doing financial analysis of individual properties. She had just started managing assets of her own in 2008 when the Wall Street meltdown put her skills to the test. “Here and around the country, everyone was tasked with determining how to best reposition assets and put them on a good path going forward,” she said. “For the most part, we weathered the storm very well, but of course it was a difficult time.” As the economy recovered, both the challenges and the opportunities in retail shifted as well. 

Now Savarese’s strategies take into account such factors as consumer craving for authentic, real-world experiences. “We’re thinking hard about retail concepts that truly fit the community,” she said. “That might mean they aren’t chain-based but are more local or regional.” By adding things like free Wi-Fi or product pickup areas, shopping centers can be future-proofed to fit into consumers’ wired, always-on lifestyles, Savarese notes. “You want those sales logged at your property, not lost on the web,” she said.

Savarese’s approaches hinge on using both technology and data to maximize dwell time. “You want to create that connection with people in order to encourage them to stay longer,” she said. The trick is to be discriminating about the tech-and-data partners you work with, she points out. “One of the things we have really emphasized is the importance of a detailed credit review,” Savarese said. “A startup could have cool technology, but if the backend isn’t there, if it can’t scale and grow, then the idea, in and of itself, isn’t enough.”

Though site visits are part of the reason Savarese enjoys managing real estate, the young executive never imagined how far these journeys would take her. In addition to her U.S. role, Savarese serves as investment adviser for a portfolio of properties located across the Indian subcontinent. To provide support on investment recommendations, evaluations, board reviews and property-level management decisions, Savarese immersed herself in the real estate dynamics of that country; she routinely travels to major Indian cities, most recently this past July, amid scorching heat. “In India it can be difficult to obtain clear titles to larger parcels of developable land, as small slivers of land can stay in families for generations,” Savarese said. “Additionally, there can be governmental and legal obstacles in India that we don’t encounter in the U.S.”

Savarese is optimistic about the future of retail. All the headlines about Macy’s recent store closures notwithstanding, the news accounts often neglect to mention that the company and its predecessor entities had gone on an acquisition tear during the boom, Savarese says. “Think about Macy’s — they went through so many mergers and expanded their real estate holdings through acquisitions really significantly over time,” she said. “Without that, would Macy’s have been the size it is today? There’s real estate out there with two or three Macy’s brands in a single shopping center. No matter what business you are in, it is tough to be profitable that way.” Strategic store closures have always been a part of the expansion and contraction of retail, Savarese says. “If Macy’s were not closing stores, there would probably be an issue down the road,” she said. “It is a smart decision to get out in front of it and recognize where your real estate is profitable and where it is not.”

Savarese, who earned a bachelor’s degree in policy analysis and management from Cornell, was awarded ICSC’s Fiala Fellowship in 2012. She is a CFA Charterholder and also received the LEED Green Associate designation from the U.S. Green Building Council. She lives in Roslyn, N.Y., with her husband, Matt. “We’ve got 17-month-old twins, Mara and Evan, so life is a little crazy right now, but it is a lot of fun.”