These unprecedented times have hit retailers hard, but the news rarely highlights the fallout for smaller landlords. Retail shopping center investor Beth Azor shares the inside story on a Joe Fairless Best Ever Show podcast. Investing in commercial properties catering to retail is ideal for the active investor who enjoys hands-on management.
About Beth Azor
Beth owns Azor Advisory Services, a retail real estate development, management, and education company. She has over 30 years in commercial investing and currently manages a portfolio of retail shopping centers worth $80 million. Based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Beth owns six local shopping centers. She has adapted to competition from online selling and the current pandemic and has tips on thriving in this market.
Why Retail Shopping Centers?
Beth enjoys active investing and the variety of working with different types of businesses in this challenging sector. She also appreciates that managing commercial properties means dealing with companies instead of individuals as tenants. Beth prefers not to be responsible for an individual or family losing their home because they could not afford rent. Though evicting anyone is always uncomfortable, she finds it a little easier when it’s a business and not, as she puts it, a person losing a bed.
When asked about the perk of receiving discounts from her retail tenants, Beth stresses she forbids the practice. Accepting a concession or freebie means the retailer might leverage a quid pro quo situation and not pay full rent on time. Though tenants often try to offer breaks to Beth’s employees and family, the potential fallout is not worth it.
Manage the Rent Rollercoaster
Like many other landlords during COVID-19, Beth spends considerable energy on obtaining rents from distressed tenants. She learned the hard way that the time and emotion involved could overtake her week. She also discovered that small business owners behaved differently than national retailers and needed a different approach.
As a result of these insights, Beth started blocking off set times each week to work with both types of tenant. She reserved Tuesdays and Thursdays for small businesses and Mondays and Wednesdays for national companies.
Mom and Pop Struggle to Survive
The pandemic has shut down many smaller stores reliant on in-person traffic for sales. Beth has her share of these tenants and tries to work with them to persevere for mutual benefit. She finds that these businesses are often unable to pay full rent due to being effectively closed. The owners are understandably upset but eager to discuss options.
When evaluating the best recourse for a distressed tenant, including payment programs, Beth considers several variables. One factor is how easily she expects to lease the space if vacated or when the lease is up for renewal. Other considerations are whether the tenant has significant infrastructure installed or exclusive rights to sell a specific service, such as nail care. Sometimes a business will retain the rights to services but not offer them. If the tenant leaves, the landlord can recruit another retailer in that same popular niche.
Beth notes that she and many retail landlords prefer to grant rent deferrals rather than outright waivers. For example, a struggling tenant might pay half rent for two months and allow the landlord to take the difference out of the security deposit. The tenant agrees to pay any remainder the following year when in-person shopping presumably recovers. Beth avoids moving the balance to the end of the lease as she wants to encourage the tenant to renew at the market rate.
As part of giving back to her local community, Beth interviews small businesses for her YouTube channel and website. The increased exposure raises their profiles and helps bring in more customers. Beth does this marketing work gratis and finds it very rewarding.
National Tenants Play Hardball
Working with national retailers presents different challenges. These tenants quickly adapted to pandemic conditions by offering online, pickup, or delivery services and associated customer incentives. Though their revenues have fallen, deep corporate pockets will keep most of these businesses solvent and able to pay rent.
However, Beth finds many of her national tenants demand forbearance and aren’t always polite about it. Their message is, “I can pay this month’s rent, but I’m not going to.” The nationals often have representatives tasked with delivering the harsh news to landlords and other business partners.
Beth has dealt with real estate managers, lawyers, and CFOs in her quest for resolution. Perhaps because they feel ambivalent pushing for potentially unfair concessions, some representatives communicate unprofessionally. Negotiating with them is time-consuming and often unpleasant, and so Beth siloes time each week to do so.
To illustrate, Beth notes the national coffee retailer that sent well-publicized letters to landlords demanding rent deferrals for a year. What observers may not realize is that many commercial landlords are small investors such as Beth. These owners have far less financial backing than the nationals, and a drastic cut in rents could prove catastrophic.
Hold ‘Em: A Retail Portfolio Strategy
Beth favors a hold strategy for her portfolio. She bought her oldest holding in 2008 and has averaged an acquisition every two years. She then focuses on developing the new center, sometimes from scratch. As one example, Beth bought and demolished a vacant former strip club and built a shopping center in its place. The new center has five tenants, including Starbucks, Verizon, and Blaze Pizza.
In another transformative move, Beth bought a dated office building from the 1970s, razed it, and built a shopping center featuring a Starbucks on one side of the land. She is holding the other half to develop when the opportunity is right.
Beth’s holdings are a mix of anchored and unanchored developments. Anchored shopping centers are those with a well-known tenant to drive traffic, such as a supermarket. The anchor tenant typically pays less rent while the smaller tenants pay more to benefit from proximity to the anchor.
Unanchored shopping centers feature tenants of similar size where no one business draws significantly more customers than the others. For example, one of Beth’s developments boasts Verizon, Starbucks, Blaze Pizza, Select Comfort, and an ice cream store.
Prospect on Social Media
When prospecting for tenants, Beth has found that smaller businesses respond well to social media outreach. Unlike national retailers with marketing departments, small business owners usually monitor online channels to keep tabs on customer satisfaction. Beth has had particular success with high response rates on Facebook and Instagram.
For example, Beth might direct message business owners on Facebook and receive a 40 percent response rate within a day. Out of that pool, about 10 percent will express interest in her properties. This return is excellent compared to the old world of knocking daily on numerous company doors.
Prospecting national retailers requires a different approach that relies on networking. These large companies work through exclusive tenant representatives, local market experts who broker deals between landlords and tenants. The landlord pays the broker for a successful match.
If Beth has a vacancy and a tenant in mind, she reaches out to that company’s rep about doing a deal. She likely would not even meet the corporate real estate manager until a property walk-through.
Fund Managable Deals
Beth chooses to focus on smaller deals that she can personally fund. Her sources include income from other properties, personal assets, or funds from friends and family open to passive investing.
As is common in commercial investing, Beth used to work with institutions. She stopped this practice after a major deal funded by BlackRock went south.
Beth cautions not to let one stellar success blind you into overconfidence. Giddy investors can quickly become wedded to one perspective at their financial peril. In her case, she and a partner were doing a BlackRock-funded deal and leased one space to Staples for a pricey $20 per square foot. Emboldened, she and her partner decided to hold out for $15 for the remaining space, even though Walmart expressed strong interest at a lower rate. They ended up losing the property and $5 million.
How to Get Started in Retail Investing
You may be wondering how to break into the business of retail shopping centers, especially if your background is in passive investing. First, keep in mind that this niche is best suited for the active investor who enjoys operations and social interaction. Your best bet, says Beth, is to shadow a property owner to learn the ropes.
Beth started as a leasing agent with a real estate license, a path she recommends for those interested in active investing. Owners are looking to fill vacant suites, so be the person who can deliver the tenants. If done well, this role is gold.
Beth cautions against starting at a brokerage as you must obtain your own listings, which is extremely difficult. If you shadow an owner, you may land an internship and possibly a paid position. The upside of this apprentice approach is that you can trial the work while maintaining your current activities. Even if you are a seasoned real estate investor, a firsthand look at the dynamic retail world is well worth your time.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as an offer to buy or sell any securities or to make or consider any investment or course of action.