Matthew Harding, president and COO, left, and William Farber, CEO, Levin Management Corporation
NORTH PLAINFIELD, NJ—The secret to keeping a retail shopping center viable in an era when bricks and mortar stores are buffeted by online shopping is having a great grocery story on the property, according to Bill Farber, CEO of Levin Management Corporation.
“First and foremost is trying, wherever possible, to make sure we are anchored by a modern, up-to-date, full-strenght supermarket,” says Farber. “Because outside of the city, where you have the Internet food-selling such as Fresh Direct, in the suburbs, grocery, food shopping, is still a hands-on, go-to-the-store experience, and the shopping center that has the best supermarket is the center that has the best chance of success, Internet or not.”
The North Plainfield, NJ real estate management services firm is celebrating 65 years in the commercial real estate space. In a wide-ranging interview with GlobeSt.com, its two top executives reflected on founder Philip J. Levin’s pioneering efforts to create the earliest retail shopping centers in the 1950s.
Today, the privately held, North Plainfield-based maintains a diversified, retail-focused management portfolio of approximately 95 properties totaling 13 million square feet in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
According to Farber, change has remained one of the only constants through the company’s history. “When Philip J. Levin pioneered shopping center development in 1952, he recognized and responded to shifting consumer shopping patterns tied to post-World War II suburban development, spurred by the automobile,” says Farber, who joined Philip Levin’s development organization (subsequently named Levin Properties) in 1970.
The Levin organization created an extensive retail real estate portfolio throughout the nation. As one of its inaugural projects, the company built New Jersey’s first open-air center, the still-thriving, 260,000-square-foot Somerset Shopping Center in Bridgewater.
The firm faced early challenges from cyclical trends in the retail sector. Many of Levin’s early clients were variety store chains like E.J. Korvettes, and when those stores declined and failed, Levin was left with properties that needed to be redeveloped and repurposed.
Listen to our exclusive interview with Matthew Harding and William Farber of Levin Management Corporation in this podcast player.
“All of these stores that Philip Levin did business with and with whom he developed thes centers, all went bankrupt eventually,” recalls Farber. “It put us in a position of having to redevelop and in many ways reinvent these shopping centers.” Korvettes stores were large footprint, two-level properties with associated stores on the sites.
“We basically were left with gaping, gaping holes, difficult configurations that required total reimagination and reinventing,” he says. “We survived all of those, and we think that in terms of how to deal with adversity and challenge, the mega-retail bankruptcies were our baptism by fire.”
Many retail centers today are redeveloping to include businesses that attract people for activities other than shopping, such as entertainment, dining, and fitness centers, Harding says. “Encouraging people to come to a center to just hang out,” is an important factor, Farber says.
“Today as a third-party services provider we are witnessing an interesting and encouraging tale of bricks-and-mortar endurance, illustrated by the ongoing transformation of shopping center tenant mixes,” says Matthew K. Harding, Levin president and chief operating officer. “Open-air centers, which comprise the bulk of our portfolio, are transitioning from places that simply offer goods and services to sources for recreation and community. The changes are not singular – or linear. We are seeing new types of retail space users and the evolution of established brands working to adapt to digital-age demands and socio-economic shifts.”
From these roots, Levin Management, which originated as the management arm of the organization, evolved to deliver a full range of third-party services to other retail property owners beginning in the 1980s. Led by seasoned executives with long-term company affiliations, Levin Management has experienced consistent growth.
The late Janice Levin assumed leadership of the entire Levin organization following her husband’s death in 1971. Farber was named chief operating officer of Levin Management in 1985 and chief executive officer in 2001. That same year Harding, who has been affiliated with Levin Management since 1986, assumed his current position. Farber and Harding have led the company’s expansion and have overseen the emergence of Levin Management as a trusted single-source commercial real estate services provider for institutional and private owners.
Today, Levin Management helps its clients evaluate options, operate properties and create case-specific solutions to protect and improve asset value. The company offers leasing, property management, financial management and reporting, construction and development, lease administration, marketing services, and acquisition and disposition consulting services. It specializes in repositioning and renovating commercial real estate with a particular emphasis on resolving vacancies and enhancing tenant mix – areas that have become particularly vital in an increasingly competitive market.
“We have distinguished ourselves as a firm large enough to excel in assignments of any scale while continuing to employ a hands-on, proprietary approach,” Harding says.
Levin Management has become an industry thought leader as well. Its Retail Sentiment Surveys gauge the strength of the retail industry from a street-level perspective. Levin Management polls the store managers of its 1,000+ tenants three times annually, gathering information on current sales and traffic numbers, and on performance expectations. The surveys also ask timely questions about hiring patterns, the evolving impact of ecommerce, key events and other socio-economic factors that may be influencing progress.
The company says its survey is reporting that its tenants enjoy a positive outlook. “About three quarters of respondents in our recent Outlook Survey said they are optimistic about their anticipated 2017 performance – the highest percentage in the poll’s six-year history,” Harding says. “From our vantage point we are seeing a very positive story – one illustrating the ongoing relevance of physical stores. The retail industry will continue to transform itself, creating opportunities for new and expanding players. We look forward to being part of that story for another 65 years – and more.”