Sunday, January 2, 2011
pictured are Alan, Charles, Michael and Stephen Lebovitz at their CBL office in Chattanooga
Brothers Alan and Michael during a meeting in Chattanooga
Charles, with Stephen, will celebrate his 50th year in the mall industry during 2011
CBL officials close the New York Stock Exchange in 2008
Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer John Foy
In his 50 years as a developer, Charles B. Lebovitz, chairman of the board at CBL & Associates Properties, Inc., has constructed a few rules-of-thumb: Don’t be a trendsetter; lure hot retailers to your centers; dominate mid-sized markets.
But rule Number One — a rule that paid off recently — is to build strong relationships. While many real estate companies scrambled to borrow money two years ago in a super-glue-tight financial market, lenders looked favorably on CBL. “We stood by banks such as Wells Fargo, US Bank and First Tennessee during the good times,” explains Lebovitz, 73, “and they stood by us — even when things were extremely tough.”
If real estate companies competed on television’s “Survivor,” CBL could win the million-dollar prize. During the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, the Chattanooga-based trust opened new centers, restaurants and big box stores. In Chattanooga, new retailers including Bare Escentuals, Mac Authority and Academy Sports moved in. A popular San Francisco clothing purveyor — Forever 21 — will launch its first area store at Hamilton Place this spring. Sephora and Teavana will arrive soon.
Sales grew, income figures improved and stock performance climbed more than 80 percent in 2010, says Stephen Lebovitz, 49, CBL’s president and chief executive officer. Such signs lead company executives to expect continued growth this year. “It’s nice to be past the worst of the great recession,” he says.
Confidence in the marketplace is so high that Hamilton Place is scheduled for a makeover. “It’s due,” says Michael Lebovitz, 47, CBL’s executive vice president for development and administration. “We last renovated the mall in 1997.” Details of cost, size and scope of the project will be forthcoming but construction will focus primarily on the interior, particularly colors, flooring and furnishings. A new outlet mall — the company’s first — is set to open next year as well, in Oklahoma City, Okla.
A little more than a century ago, Charles Lebovitz’s grandparents emigrated from Kiev to Chattanooga. In 1961, Charles joined Independent Enterprises, the family’s development business. He formed CBL with five partners in 1978, and with his management team took the company public in 1993.
Today, CBL & Associates Properties, Inc., builds, owns and operates shopping centers from Massachusetts to California. Its fleet of 158 properties includes 84 malls or large open-air centers. In the Chattanooga area, CBL owns or manages 12 facilities.
After working with his father for nearly three decades, Lebovitz now operates CBL with his sons Stephen, Michael, and Alan Lebovitz, 43, CBL’s senior vice president for asset management. His daughter, Beth Backer, lives in Boston while her husband, Dan, is a leasing manager at CBL’s regional office in Boston.
An Executive Family Interview
Chatter recently caught up with four members of the Lebovitz family who direct CBL & Associates
Chatter: Did you always plan to work together?
Charles: Michael always enjoyed the business. At 10, he was helping me adjust the parking lot lights at Eastgate Mall — they had to be changed manually every season — and he understood it better than I. After Stephen finished his MBA at Harvard, he wanted to raise his family in Boston. It worked out nicely that we were able to open our first regional office there and Stephen felt comfortable joining the company. Alan, the third-born, thought about it for some time, then decided he might as well follow along.
Chatter: What’s the best thing about working with your three sons every day?
Charles: I have no question of their loyalty and commitment. I know their goals, desires and priorities go hand-in-hand with mine. That’s a very comforting feeling. It’s a wonderful experience.
Stephen: One reason it works so well is that my dad allows each of us to have significant responsibility, but not in a competitive way. He’s created the space that makes it work.
Charles: I learned that from my dad. He did exactly that. When we organized CBL in 1978, he said that if I was going to be the head of the company he did not want to take an ownership position. If I were to be the lead, he said, I should be fully empowered.
Chatter: Will you pass the legacy on to the next generation?
Charles: There are 14 grandchildren, so we have 14 opportunities.
Stephen: It depends on their interests. My oldest is 25 and in college, and he doesn’t have a clue what he wants to do (laughs). But it’s a great opportunity, if they’re interested.
Chatter: What are the challenges for CBL in 2011?
Stephen: We’re focused on making the experience of shopping more than just buying — it’s meeting at the mall, being entertained at the mall.
Chatter: How do you deal with the growth in Internet sales?
Michael: Most retailers have adopted a bricks-and-mortar and Internet strategy.
Stephen: We’re working with them on social networking on Facebook and Twitter, and doing more advertising promotions such as coupons through e-mail.
Chatter: How’s business?
Stephen: We had less than a one percent decrease in our net operating income, even in the worst of the 2009 recession. We’ve been able to preserve our bottom line because we don’t have the volatility and the risk that a lot of businesses and other forms of real estate had.
Charles: Of all our malls, Hamilton Place is enjoying the highest growth in sales this year. That’s a reflection of the vitality of the Chattanooga market, with all the new jobs being created and the construction work taking place.
Chatter: You said relationships are essential. Why?
Charles: Our outstanding relationships with a few key banks have been a major part of our ability to continue to grow. On our side, we perform. We’ve never defaulted. We’ve respected those banks and, in good times, stood by them when we might have had options to go elsewhere.
Stephen: Having strong relationships in general is a key success factor. The toughest thing about our business is that everything has to happen right to be successful. When you work with so many different parties — the city, the retailers, the highway departments, architects, engineers — you have to be careful about every detail.
Chatter: Two years ago, you planned a $100 million expansion. Is that still in the works?
Stephen: No. When companies like Circuit City went out of business, retailers went into those spaces. There’s excess capacity, so we’re not pursuing an expansion.
Chatter: How were you creative during the recession?
Charles: In St. Louis, we turned a Lord and Taylor’s department store into an attractive, exciting grouping of restaurants and retailers, with an attached courtyard.
Alan: We attached new stores to the outside of a typical, enclosed mall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to give the property a vibrant streetscape look.
Chatter: Does this make CBL a “trendsetter?”
Michael: No, we’ve always been traditional. But we’ve tried to be smart in the way we adopt trends. We think our conservative nature allowed us to avoid the pitfalls of unsuccessful trends.
Chatter: How does 2011 look?
Alan: We have a certain amount of optimism. Retail development has slowed so much our properties are even more attractive and relevant to new retailers. Because of our track record, they’re more likely to want to choose to come to a CBL property versus some other property owner, who may, perhaps, shut down.
Stephen: We’ve seen the financial markets improve. Interest rates are low. Consumer spending is starting to come back and sales have been strong since August. We take our lead from the retailers, and they’re bullish about their sales for next year.
Chatter: What’s the best thing about working at CBL?
Charles: It’s a tough business, but it’s fun.
1961: Moses Lebovitz, Charles Lebovitz and Jay Solomon, principals of Independent Enterprises, start out developing commercial and shopping center real estate.
1970: Independent Enterprises merges with Arlen Realty & Development Corporation, a New York public company with a large portfolio of shopping centers primarily located in the eastern half of the United States.
1977: Charles Lebovitz becomes the president of Arlen's shopping center division.
1978: Charles Lebovitz and five associates form CBL & Associates, Inc. to develop regional malls and community centers. The newly formed company developed its first shopping mall, Plaza del Sol, in Del Rio, Texas, which opened in March 1979.
1988: CBL opens a regional office in Boston, Massachusetts, to focus on developing properties in the New England region and throughout the Northeast.
1993: CBL becomes a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) named CBL & Associates Properties, Inc. and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. (NYSE: CBL)
1995: CBL enters the acquisition arena with the purchase of WestGate Mall in Spartanburg, SC
2001: CBL acquires 23 properties from The Jacobs Group - the largest single acquisition in the company's history.
2004: CBL opens a regional mall on the East Coast, Coastal Grand-Myrtle Beach in Myrtle Beach, SC.
2005: CBL celebrates the grand opening of its first mall on the West Coast, Imperial Valley Mall in El Centro, CA.
Today: CBL is one of the largest mall REITs in the United States and the largest owner and manager of shopping centers in the Southeast. CBL actively pursues new development and acquisition opportunities. CBL also continues to enhance its mall properties through re-tenanting and redevelopments including lifestyle expansions and big-box additions.
Just Like Family Vice
Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer John Foy, one of five associates joining Charles Lebovitz to establish CBL in 1978, remains among the company’s most influential executives. Foy entered the shopping center industry in 1968 when he joined the Lebovitz family’s shopping center development business. Along with Charles and Ben Landress, CBL’s executive vice president of management, Foy is the only executive still involved with the company 42 years later. A member of numerous local boards including UTC’s board of trustees, Foy has served as a director and CFO of CBL since its initial public offering in 1993.