California Centers, a sister publication of Shopping Center Business, recently spoke with Brad Umansky, president of Rancho Cucamonga-based Progressive Real Estate Partners and the newly appointed president of the Retail Brokers Network. As Umansky assumed the volunteer role in May, the nation — and the retail real estate industry — was in the throes of dealing with closures and stay-in-place orders brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. He spoke with the magazine about assuming his role for the network at this time, and how its members are helping each other cope with the changes that the pandemic has brought to their businesses and their clients’ businesses.
CC: How did you get started in the commercial real estate business?
Umansky: I graduated from the University Pennsylvania in 1990. I had a short stint in the luxury hotel business; I quickly realized that wasn’t for me. My girlfriend at the time — now my wife — was from Southern California, so I moved here. I started doing retail leasing for a small brokerage. I learned the market. I went to Grubb & Ellis, where I was for four years, followed by four years at Lee & Associates. I then moved to investment sales, spending seven years at Sperry Van Ness. In 2007, I decided to become a developer. About 15 months after that, I realized that was going to quickly drive me to bankruptcy with the recession looming. In October 2008, I launched Progressive Real Estate Partners. At the time, the industry was in need of strong brokerage companies. Prior to that, the industry was so busy most brokers had become order takers, or they had been in the business for 25 years and didn’t want to start at the bottom again. In 2010, I really made a conscious effort to grow the company. Over the past decade, we have become the leading investment sales and leasing company in the Inland Empire. Everyone here is homegrown; we don’t have anyone who joined with more than five years experience in brokerage.
CC: What were you spending your time with pre-COVID versus now?
Umansky: It really hasn’t changed much for me. I spend a lot of my time leading the team and problem solving. One of the things I like about running a brokerage business versus being a broker is that it gives me the time to focus on all the areas of the business and help our brokers with a lot of deals. I spend a lot of time with our brokers helping them accomplish their goals.
CC: You’ve led an independent firm for 12 years now. How has your involvement with Retail Brokers Network (RBN) helped you?
Umansky: It is enormously beneficial to have relationships with other people who are in your same shoes throughout the country. The major benefit to me has been the sharing of information. We all face similar problems. Sometimes, just knowing that someone else has the same problems you have is helpful.
CC: You’ve recently taken over as president of RBN. How does membership assist in a time like this?
Umansky: Our members would tell you that being a member is more advantageous during times when business is challenging than in times when it is rocking and rolling. We have a number of council calls — a restaurant council, a tenant council, an investment sales council, a marketing council and now we have a president’s council. Participation in these calls has doubled in some cases recently. Our members are looking for ways to acquire information that will help them navigate their businesses. We’ve done a lot of education training; the other day we had a training on using drones for leasing. A lot of the calls consist of members sharing best practices with other members. The pandemic is forcing us to become better users of technology.
CC: What are some of the challenges ahead for the retail sector?
Umansky: There is no doubt that retail will have some severe challenges in the near term and some for the long-term as well. That being said, retail is always evolving. One of the greatest challenges is that the retailers who helped us recover from the Great Recession are the ones who are suffering the most right now: fitness, food and entertainment. Having those tenants come back and being able to survive is going to be critical for the retail sector. Part of the fun of going to a retail store is being able to touch, try on and be comfortable. If you can’t do those things, the interactivity disappears. Think about the makeup counter. The experiential part of retail is being taken away for a window of time. Another challenge is that a large percentage of people who shop physical retail stores are senior citizens. They are not able to get out right now.
CC: How do clients benefit from working with an RBN firm?
Umansky: One of the great benefits has been the exchange of information on specific retailers. Rent abatement has been a hot topic lately. Certain retailers are not in distress. They have market capitalizations of tens of millions of dollars. Some tenants are not going to their landlords, they are just sending it whatever rent they feel is appropriate. Because so many members work with these tenants across the country, it’s given us an opportunity to exchange information on how landlords are counteracting these rent requests from corporate retailers. We’ve also been able to compare notes on financing issues and work together to create strategies for our clients.
CC: As you begin your term with RBN, what goals do you have for the network over the next year?
Umansky: We set up a system a few years ago, where there’s an executive committee. The president leads the executive committee, but there is a clear order as to who will be the next president. It is difficult to have too many goals in that short time. The leadership of RBN knows each other really well. The owners of the firms all know each other very well. However, there are another 700-plus brokers in our firms who we want to understand RBN well and we want them to see the benefits of their firms being members of RBN. We want them to ‘think RBN.’ I’m also creating a President’s Council that is a meeting of the owners and managers of our firms where we are going to discuss how we operate our businesses. Last, we are going to create a mentorship council. We used to have a next generation council for people who had less than five years’ experience in the business. The problem with that was that most brokers who have less than five years in the business are just trying to survive. There is a lot of turnover as well. We’d have six people leading the council and by the end of the year, three of them were gone. We are taking our senior members — past presidents and members of our advisory board — to mentor our younger members. It is a great time to create this because anyone who has been in the business for less than 10 years has never been through a downturn. One of the best benefits we can give our member companies is to help them help their younger brokers survive this part of the cycle. Anyone who survives a downturn comes out of it so much better. Downturns create relationships that carry forward in the good times.
CC: Networking is a big part of RBN. How are you staying connected aside from the council calls?
Umansky: We are asking members to reach out to others in their geographical regions. In addition to our council calls, we also have regional calls. We are trying to strengthen presence on those calls. I’m also sending a president’s letter on a regular basis as a method of communicating with everyone. The lack of in-person communication right now is painful. There’s no doubt that the inability to gather together creates a barrier to creating better relationships.
— Interview by Randall Shearin. This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of California Centers magazine, a sister publication of Shopping Center Business.