Talking Shop with Whitney Livingston
Guest: Whitney Livingston
Topics: Centennial, leadership
Chris Ressa 0:00
This is Retail Retold, the story of how that store ended up in your neighborhood. I’m your host, Chris Ressa. And I invite you to join my conversation with some of the retail industry’s biggest influencers. This podcast is brought to you by DLC Management.
Welcome to Retail Retold everyone. Today I’m joined by Whitney Livingstone, she is the president of Centennial, she has been in the retail real estate industry for 20 years. I am excited for her to be here. Welcome to the show, Whitney.
Whitney Livingston 0:32
Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me.
Yeah. I love that chandelier in your background. That’s very Joanna Gaines. We have one similar.
It is very Joanna Gaines, and I’m in Dallas. So you know, right near Waco.
Yeah, for sure. So, Whitney, tell everybody a little bit more about who you are what you do?
Sure. So I’m Whitney Livingston, as Chris mentioned, I’m the president of Centennial Real Estate. We’re a national owner, operator and developer of retail and mixed use projects based here in Dallas.
As you mentioned, I started almost 20 years ago, in the San Francisco Bay Area, working as a marketing coordinator for a mall and have grown throughout the industry, moved to Dallas about 13 years ago with my husband and we now have three kids here and spend quite a bit of time on an American Airlines flight or in the lounge traveling to our projects and, and loving the real estate business.
Amazing. Okay. I want to get us started with a section we call clear the air. I have a couple questions for you. Are you ready?
I don’t know. But yes, I will be when you ask them.
Okay, question one. What is one skill you don’t possess but wish you did?
One skill I don’t possess but wish I did. Um, I do not love conflict. I am someone that just, I do believe directness is kindness. But I’m not super comfortable and contentious situations, which some might say real estate, probably not the right business for me. But luckily, I’m not at leasing. Um, so I would say just being really comfortable in in contentious conversations would be a skill that that I’ve liked to possess. It’s one I work on on a daily basis. But but not when I’ve mastered.
Understood. We can talk about that offline for sure. I could go into tangents about that. Question two. What is one thing most people agree with, but you do not?
Oh, my gosh, this one is hard. One thing that most people many people agree with, but I do not. I don’t really believe in fate. I am someone that believes that you create your own path. And your decisions lead you in different directions. And I don’t know that I think there’s an you know, an end point for anyone. And you’ll just find your way there, I think you can control your path based on the decisions that you make good or bad.
I love that. So that being said, that kind of lead that was a good lead in for me, whether you know it or not. That’s a good lead in for me in I would say in our industry. You started as a marketing coordinator at a property and you have risen through the ranks of multiple companies in the industry, to the role you’re in today, and it’s a big roll your president how many people are employees associates are at Centennial?
So, you know, part of running a company of 325 people? How what are the decisions you made along the way? Not relying on fate that led you to where you are?
Um, well, the first one is on I am a huge believer in raising your hand. Um, you know, there used to be a saying in our business, and frankly to ICSE foundations credit, I think I would say this doesn’t necessarily exist anymore. But there used to be a saying that was you. You were either born into this business or you stumbled upon it. And I’m definitely in the latter category. I did not have a business degree.
I did not have a finance degree. I had a marketing and psychology degree and liked shopping, liked going to malls and decided one day to move to St. Francis. Let’s go and got a job sight unseen through monster.com. Do you remember that website at the marketing coordinator at a mall, and I’m pretty sure, I thought it was great that I was going to get discounts at retailers.
And, and so but from there, immediately getting into the business, loving it, loving the versatility of the business, um, and from there just raising my hand at every opportunity to try something different, and just being really dedicated to doing it exceptionally well, regardless of whether I knew what all the acronyms were or what the process was.
And so yeah, so I would say raising my hand, I mean, I worked in a pretty much worked in every department in our business with the exception of leasing, back to my lack of negotiation skills. So or comfort in negotiation. So, um, so I think raising my hand. And then the other thing I would say, is just also not being afraid of being vulnerable, and not knowing things and asking questions.
This has traditionally been an industry where, you know, you, again, because of it’s a generational business, you know, it wasn’t always cool or okay to not know the answer. And I was very lucky to have mentors and managers that were really willing to invest the time in me that when I had questions and was willing to ask them, they took the time to teach me. And that made a huge difference, and, frankly, is also the type of manager that I am now as a result.
That’s great. Did is there? Well, I’m gonna save that question. So you, you come from the marketing background? What was it about this industry that said, I want to be deeper in that industry versus what might call just the marketing industry?
Sure. Um, honestly, it was the people, I just immediately met so many great people in San Francisco that were in this industry through, you know, local ICSE events and next gen events. This was in the, you know, early 2000s, and just started creating relationships. And you know, Chris, I mean, this is obviously a relationship driven business.
And so working with great people. And also, frankly, not being pigeon holed, just in marketing, being able to see, see the field, if you will, and be involved in other parts of development and asset management and project management. And much to my marketing departments chagrin, today, I still like to consider myself a recovering marketing manager.
And because I love the creative side of the business, but for sure, the fact that you had so much access to other parts of the business was really interesting to me. Got it?
Oh, I love along the way. Were there any pivotal points where you were like, alright, this was like a career defining moment for me that that has that really propelled you.
Um, there’s probably two, one, I invested my first significant bonus in an executive coach, and I was in my late 20s. And trying to figure out what my path was, I had found myself in a place of being a generalist, I had a couple years in marketing a couple years and asset management a couple of years in project management and development and was really trying to figure out, you know, if I was what I was a specialist in, if you will.
And so that was an incredible experience. I’ve actually never stopped having a coach. I’ve had different ones since then, based on different points of my career, but having someone to really help me focus on me and what I needed to do better or what I needed to learn was was one of the best decisions that I made again, in my in my mid to late 20s. And then the second piece, can you give,
I’m gonna give I don’t mean to get too personal. Can you give like to someone who’s listening in their mid to late 20s? How much dollars that was that you took out of your own pocket and like put into your career? How much did you spend on an executive coach? Yeah,
Probably, it was probably 20 grand 2025 grand.
So that then probably at that time, pretty sizable. percentage of your total income 20 grand. So I think that’s like probably striking to a lot of the people in listening right now that because I think there’s this thought like, and I’m not saying companies shouldn’t, but there might be a thought that the company should pay for. But you were just like, I’m an investor myself, this is where I want to go. This seems like a lot of money, but I’m gonna dive in, and I’m gonna, I’m gonna do this.
Yeah, well, also, the benefit to me paying for it, I was I was not only, you know, fiscally and invested in it, I was personally mentally invested. You know, I’m emotionally invested in it. And I also wanted it to be for me, like, if a company was paying for it, it was how am I a better employee?
Or what can I do better for the company, I wanted it to be about, you know, about Whitney, and we spent a lot of time on, you know, not only just what did I need to learn to be a better professional down the road, whether it was taking finance classes that I didn’t take in college, or, but it was also personal branding?
And what do I need to be doing to build a brand in the industry, that’s who I am. And that will ultimately help me get, you know, navigate through my career to you know, where, wherever I wanted to be. And at the time, I didn’t even know where that was. So, um, so yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s been a process and like I said, I’ve never not had one since then. And still paying for it.
And I imagine their price here today for the ones who are going in inflation. So what was career defining moment number two, you said to,
So I was at Madison market for about 13 years. And about seven years into my time there, the company was going from being a regionally organized company to a national platform. So for the first six years that I was there, every region had a president, every region had a head of leasing, head of marketing, and cetera, et cetera.
And so when they were moving to a national structure, and there were four regions, there was going to be one president, and one head of leasing, and one head of marketing. And so the President came to me, and offered me a job to be the head of property management. And the irony was, I had never managed a property. And I remember and I knew him, well, I had worked for him in the regional office, he had been a great mentor to me.
And he just said, went, You’re a problem solver, you’ll figure it out. You don’t need to know how to calculate a cam recovery, or you know, what the SOP is today. But you need to organize teams, and you need to understand the risk management of the business and the experience, we want to deliver it our properties, and then you need to motivate the property teams and the regional teams to execute.
And so I think for me, it was a time where I never would have had the competence and myself, just strictly based on the words on the paper. I wasn’t, I didn’t know property management. So how can I run a national organization of 20 million square feet of property management professionals?
So I think if he gave me the competence that I, you know, needed, and it was something that in going into any new situation now. You know, there’s there’s not going to be anyone going into the room. That’s, that’s more confident in what I can do them myself.
All right. Love that. So I love that story. Because it connects a little bit my head of property management, our Senior Vice President property management, he was a director of asset management for a few years, we moved him into this you never managed a property before. He’s doing great.
And you know, I would a lot of the same thoughts you had was in his coming from Asset Management a little you know, he had some a lot of the financial background but sure, you know, not a lot about on the facilities portion for sure. Of our property managers in our industry are definitely facilities experts. Right. So learned a lot now he’s, you know, I would call him a facilities expert, even though he hasn’t done and he’s he’s got his own was around what’s going on?
So you took on this role in this new section of the business, and you were leading people. And there’s a lot like, you know, you gotta command respect, I’m sure there’s people out there like, Oh my God, I’ve been doing this for 25 years, this person’s never done it. Talk me through how you got through that, because I wasn’t there massive market.
But I know there was some people there who were like, wait a second, I’ve been running properties for 20 years, this person, what is this person going to help me with?
Yeah, well, you know, add to that I didn’t have any property management experience. I think I might have been 30. And I was female, and, you know, male dominated sector of our industry and property management, right. Um, it was not easy. Um, it had to get worse before it got better. Because I had to earn respect. And I frankly, I think that was probably another really pivotal part of my career was learning that being respected was more important than being liked.
And, you know, we all kind of grow up, grow up thinking, you know, being liked is really important. And I do still think being liked is important for the right reasons. But in business, it was more important that I was respected by these people that were going to be on my team, or the people that were on the team of the people that were going to report to me and so, um, so, you know, there were definitely some difficult conversations.
But first and foremost, I was present and accessible. And I would walk the properties. And I would ask questions, and I would acknowledge that I didn’t know all the answers, but I was going to be a part of the solution with them. And it resonated for some people and for the people that that it, didn’t they, they moved on.
And, you know, candidly, we built an incredible team. You know, that now I call my friends and some, frankly, that were probably the biggest naysayers at the time. And so it was a it was a really interesting process to be a part of. But it was not without its its difficult moments. And I think just building trust and respect was, you know, most important.
So trust, respect, I heard there some vulnerability because you were like, I don’t know this and presence and being accessible.
And so you move on from that, and then you end up at Centennial. So tell me about that process. And now where you are at Centennial and what what your world looks like today?
Yeah, absolutely. So Centennial is a 25 year old firm, started by our founder as Steven Levin, who’s our CEO. And and so Steven and I started talking probably about nine months before I actually joined and he was creating a new role as the CFO, he had never had one, he was focused on growth, we were a small firm at the time, we were 9 million square feet, think 80 employees.
And this was in late 20 2018. Um, and we had always been an owner of our real estate. And so we were not in the third party side of the business. And, and so we’d spent a lot of time getting to know each other and, and ultimately, I took the leap and joined him here in Dallas. And as I mentioned, the I spend a lot of time on airline flights today.
But I was commuting back and forth to San Francisco in DC when I was living in Dallas working for Madison market. So being able to have some roots in the in the city where I lived, and as a mom of three small kids at the time. Three bigger kids now that, you know, that was important to me.
And so we were focused on two things, executing on what we had, which was a growing development business that we had never planned on. We like many mall owners had bought projects and strong markets with great cash flow. And our plan was just to improve the merchandising and increase the cash flow.
And we started seeing the demise of the department store the rise of e-comm, you know, small shop tenant closings, and very quickly realized we had to pivot our business and all of a sudden found ourselves in the development business. And so we had to execute on what we had. And we had to figure out how to parlay that strong execution into growth. And so, you know, sprinkle a pandemic in the middle of that.
We did ultimately move into the third party business in 2020. And then most recently acquired A platform operating platform, formerly called bear properties, which was primarily developer operator owner of lifestyle projects, open air projects, which became really important for us relative to our development projects, which would all include an open air component.
And so we have spent the last I guess, seven months integrating those two firms, and still have a ways to go. But it’s been a it’s been a really exciting almost five years at Centennial. And looking forward to many, many more.
So, a million questions, but I’m going to try to come down. So one, you’ve mentioned a couple of times, you’re on a plane all the time. So I travel a lot. I think it’s interesting. What are you doing in your travels? What do you Why are you on a plane all the time?
Well, I’m a real estate junkie.
Going in your job to the property, what are you doing? Why and why is important for you to do.
Lots of things, looking at new new acquisitions. I was in I was looking at a project yesterday in a new market, I came home like geeking out my husband was like, You look like you’ve had a great day. And I, I left in the morning, I spent the whole day in market, it was a market I wasn’t really familiar with. So I got to learn a bunch of new stuff, saw the projects, all the competing centers, drafted a memo on the flight home about the property.
And you know, it’s all about the real estate. So that was really fun. So seeing new acquisitions, meeting with clients, meeting with Capital Partners, seeing our existing projects, and spending time with our teams, which is a big part of something I’m really passionate about is, you know, staying connected to the people that frankly, do all the hard work every day.
And you know, going back to those two key priorities of executing on what we have and parlaying that into growth without those people we can’t do either. So, um, so it’s a mix of things going to, you know, conferences and board meetings. So, yeah,
okay. And something else you touchdown? Mama, this is a generic question. I’m so curious. Mom’s three president of a company 325 People corporate executive, how do you get the work life balance continuum in there?
Um, someone recently in our company said something like well Whitney responds to emails like 24/7 and an executive responded to that individual and said Whitney is not the model employee. And I’m probably not like work life balance is something that I definitely work on every day.
I mean, I will tell you we you know, it takes a village we’re really lucky that we have a lot of help here in Dallas with family and friends and carpools and and so it works for us but but work life balance is something that I think is really important. I think it’s going to become even more important as our industry continues to diversify. And I think it’s something that index executives myself included have to have to be better examples up so it’s, it’s on the 2023 goals
Yeah, the support I one thing I always tell people is some a little bit in the same vein from a hard working being on all the time but have a very good support system outside of work between family my wife, my in laws and a whole bunch of others that help keep the wheels moving.
Without that it would be you know, my life would be different it would be a challenge so yeah. So okay, thank you for sharing your story and all that about you and what’s going on in Centennial really interesting what’s your take on what’s going on in the industry right now in your in your eyes? What’s your take what’s called out? What do you see it out there?
It’s, it’s really easy. Love that easy to buy projects. Financing. Super simple. Yeah, no, I wish. Look, it’s you know, I’m gonna move away from like the macro economic side of the business.
And I would just tell you, I think it’s one of the most exciting times in my career and retail real estate so in for me, um, we are at a point, you know, a silver lining, I hate to say it, but if we have to find one of what we went through in 2020, and 2021, as an industry, I think we are finally in a place as a business that is willing to look at things differently.
And we don’t have to just do things the way that they had been done previously, we don’t have to just build malls with a ring road and four anchors and way too much GLA in the middle because and stamp that across the, you know, the country. You know, I think we’ve seen a lot in the last couple of years about embracing e COMM And omni channel retailing and the halo effect.
And, you know, I don’t know that 10 years ago and our business, we were as open to change and creativity in the way that we are today. And I think our business will be better for it. I think it makes it more exciting. And I think it creates a lot more opportunity. And, you know, on the flip side, I get it, that’s a little Pollyanna considering where we are in the greater economic climate. But, um, but I think it’s a really important shift in our business that over the next couple of years will be better for.
I think so settle out there, I think, I think for sure. I think the what I’d add to it is I think that the market is actually giving us a moment in time to do that. In particular, if I was going to give one macro thing. I think that the the challenge to build new construction today is giving us the ability to reimagine, and maybe not do things how they were. So I agree. And I think we’re at a point in time where we can do that.
The challenge I see though, on it is we’re slower moving than other industries. When it comes to reimagining I think we’re getting faster as an industry, but we’re slower moving. And it’s and there’s roadblocks and wait, it’s tough to we’re trying to satisfy a demand today that sometimes we can’t deliver to the market for like three or four years, you know, so yeah.
And then who knows if the demand is still there. Exactly. And then
who knows if it’s still there, right? It’s not like we’re coming out with a widget on a hot trend that’s out today. Yeah,
no, it’s a great point.
So anything else that you’re seeing in the market, anything interesting that you’re seeing out there from your vantage point? Anything? Um, what excites you?
What excites me is, you know, disruption breeds opportunity. Right. So we, I mean, our industry has been in a state of disruption for the last. I don’t know, what, 10 years. And, you know, I think we’ve finally pushed off the bottom of the pool, if you will.
And I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity in the next couple of years to buy at the right basis, which has not typically been the case for certain product types in retail real estate, and, you know, we all make money on the buy, right? So hopefully, for those that that can take advantage of about opportunity. I think there’s really great things to come. And I’m I’m excited about that.
Excellent. Was that when the I’m conscious of time, I want to take us to the last part of the show. I call this retail wisdom. I’ve got three questions for you. Are you ready? Ready? Question one. What extinct retailer you wish would come back from the dead?
I’m gonna go way back, way back. Do you remember the limited? Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, I think something great about retail is the nostalgia. So associated with it, right? Like, I don’t, I don’t have any feelings when I’m ordering something on Amazon.
But like, I remember getting my first business suits at the limited I remember buying a, you know, New Year’s Eve dress there for you know, a friend’s 18th birthday, like I so and it was it was a real it was a true merchant in its heyday. And I recognize that that changed a little towards the end or significantly towards the end, but I just personally have great memories of it and and I think that’s one of the real benefits of the brick and mortar experience.
Well, the answer Totally agree. Question two. What’s the last item over $20 You bought in a store?
Um, the last item I’m not going to admit because there’s a very good chance my husband is going to listen to this podcast. And while I was doing some, some canvassing yesterday on my tour, I might have found some some cashmere sweaters that made it in my purse on the way home. So, but I love to shop in stores. I mean, I’m, I understand there’s a place for econ, and I get necessities, through econ for convenience. But when it comes to true shopping, you’ll always find me in the store.
There’s I actually, so I’ll take cashmere sweaters, sorry, Mr. Livingston.
But I did not say the brand.
T shirt. There. There is a place I will say this. I interviewed this guy Dean slackness in 2021. And I asked him the same question, what is one thing most people agree with, but you do not. And he was an E commerce read. He had once physical sort of two physical stores. But he was the largest online party store in Australia. And he had, he was one of the first like in like worldwide, like really, online. Online retailers.
He’s like a really a savant with Google SEO and like, online marketing. And so I asked him that, and he said that E commerce is going to continue to grow. He’s like, I think we’re at a saturation point with EECOM. And I said, Really, and he goes, you know, if I don’t, he’s like, I don’t know what’s going to if it’s not 5g, or 4g, he’s like, I can’t envision in 510 20 years, what the next thing is going to be that’s going to make that grow even bigger.
And so you see all these reports that like, oh, it’s gonna grow to 25% 30%. And I just today posted the clip of me interviewing him and answering that, and then look back to the E commerce as a percentage of total retail sales. And for the last five quarters, it’s been like 14 and a half percent. So found it super interesting. Anyway, last question. Okay. What if you and I were shopping at Target, and I lost you? Would I would I find you in?
Okay, so I’m mom with me, you would find me in the grocery section. I have three, three boys seven, eight and 11. They, they’re eater sounds of food. So that’s just like, the go to Super Target is the grocery section. If for some reason I found myself with 20 minutes. Hasn’t happened in a long time and I walked into a target, you’d probably find me in, in home furnishings. Just browsing.
Excellent. Well, my wife would be as well. So
I’ll see her there. And I suspect your wife doesn’t have 23 minutes either, Chris.
For sure. So with that said, thank you so much for doing this really appreciate the time and for having me. Let’s if we’re not on the same flight somewhere. Let’s get connected in Vegas.
Yeah, for sure. Sounds great. Have a good one.
You too. Thank you.
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