How Chris Maguire led SRS Real Estate Partners through a crisis by going back to basics and taking small steps Featured

8:00pm EDT September 30, 2012
How Chris Maguire led SRS Real Estate Partners through a crisis by going back to basics and taking small steps

Talk about getting hit with severe hardship right off the bat. In 2008, SRS Real Estate Partners split off to become a standalone company when its parent, Staubach Co., merged with another real estate firm. Then, a month later, the U.S. financial crisis began and flipped SRS’s world upside down.

“We sold all of the Staubach Co. assets to Jones Lang LaSalle except the retail business,” recalls Chris Maguire, SRS’s chairman and CEO. “We closed the sale in August 2008. We were just starting to adjust to life without Staubach. Then we got hit with the financial crisis.”

Virtually all U.S. business sectors were affected by the subsequent recession, but two markets that suffered especially abrupt, deep and lasting cuts were real estate and retail. And those markets are SRS’s bread and butter.

“In the real estate industry, I think anyone would tell you that of the four food groups, the retail business got hurt the most, because it’s led by consumers, and consumers got hammered,” Maguire says.

“When retailers shut their pipelines down in September and October 2008, it resulted in dramatic revenue declines for our business. Our brokerage business, peak to trough, was off 60 percent. And that went on for about two years before we were able to stabilize our business.”

The downturn was a rude shock for SRS. The company found itself thrown back on its heels with business drying up and bad economic news coming from all directions.

“We weren’t sure where the world was headed, much less how we were going to adapt our business,” Maguire says. “It was a scary, unbelievably uncertain time for our business.”

Get back to basics

As SRS’s revenue began to take a dive in the last quarter of 2008, the company’s leadership team members got together and circled the wagons. The threat level they faced was hyper-urgent. They had to find a way to rally their staff and stanch the bleeding.

“The first six months was the worst,” Maguire recalls. “Today, I remind our people all the time about that: Don’t forget how bad it was from September 2008 to March 2009. We really didn’t know what was going to happen to our business.”

The first thing SRS’s leaders recognized they had to do was to guide the company back to the basics of what had made it successful during the two decades-plus that it had operated as a unit of Staubach Co.

“What we realized we had to do was drill down to our core business,” Maguire says. “And our core business at SRS is transactions. We receive fees when transactions are executed. As long as transactions are taking place, that’s how we get paid.”

The financial crisis slammed the retail sector hard, and SRS began feeling the reverberations immediately.

“It was unlike anything I had seen in my career,” Maguire says. “We started seeing retailers who for years had been growing their business by opening new locations not only shut down their new-growth pipelines, but they also were scrambling to figure out how to get out of some of the deals they’d previously committed to.”

Therein, though, lay a key to SRS’s chances to reverse the tide and get back on its feet. Transactions were still taking place in the retail real estate business. It’s just that they were transactions of a different type than the Staubach Co.’s retail division had been used to seeing in normal economic times.

“We were clearly going from a period of growth to a period of contraction,” Maguire says. “That meant our clients were going to need help on the disposition side — getting rid of dark stores, restructuring existing leases. And our landlord clients were going to be doing a similar type of thing: Trying to figure out how to lease their centers in a very uncertain economic environment.

“So we knew the market was going to be difficult for growth. As a result, we had to focus on where the transactions would be. We had to shift from being a business focused on retailers growing to a business focused on retailers shrinking.”

Manage tough transitions

While SRS’s leaders and staff members knew retail real estate transactions were out there, uncovering them proved to be a tough learning curve for the company.

“It was rocky,” Maguire says. “Really, for 24 months, it was very tough going for us.”

Exacerbating the business problems were issues of insecurity related to SRS’s parting with its longtime parent company.

“We were not only dealing with an uncertain economic environment and a continual stream of bad news as it related to the consumer and retailers, we also were dealing with a company that for 22 years had been part of the Staubach organization and was now split off on its own,” Maguire says.

“So we got the double whammy there. It was hard enough going through an economic period that none of us have ever experienced, but to compound it, we were trying to teach our people that life is going to be OK without Staubach.”

The former football star had been an inspirational business leader, and many in the company found it difficult to adjust to having new leaders.

“It was hard for some people to grasp that, for it to sink in,” Maguire says. “Roger was an incredible leader. He had a great reputation. Being part of that company was important to people. And, well, I’m not Roger Staubach; I don’t have a Heisman in my trophy case. But I’ve been in this business for a long time, and our management team has been together for a long time.

“So we had to focus on the details, and on stabilizing our business. We had to focus on teaching our people how to deal with the market and the realities of where the transactions in the retail business were happening at that time, which were very different than where they’d been for the last 20 years.”

During the recession’s deepest depths, staff morale was a particularly tough issue to deal with for SRS’s leaders.

“We’re in a business where most of our people on the SRS side are independent contractors,” Maguire says. “They’re brokers that get paid commissions. It was hard to motivate them, as well as our own employees, when all they read in the papers every day and all they watch on TV is bad news. They walk into the office with their head down every day.

“We had to find a way to show them that, ‘Look, you can’t think about this day to day. You’ve got to ignore the bad news. You’ve got to come in here and focus on what you need to get done. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve been through a number of cycles, and we will get through this. But it’s going to be tough, day to day. It’s going to be a marathon.’ And that’s clearly what it turned out to be.”

Focus on the achievable

For a few months, Maguire and his leadership team found their own morale running low, and that made it extremely difficult to motivate their staff. They learned that they would have to dig deep to find reserves of strength and hope within themselves.

“It was hard because none of us had ever experienced a downturn like this,” he says. “There were times early on when I stood up in front of our company and said, ‘Look, we’ve got to focus on our core business; we’ve got to focus on our history and our track record and the fact that there will be transactions there; if we do these things, we’re going to be OK’ — and for about six to eight months, I’m not sure I even believed it. But I had to get up there and project a positive attitude.”

Concentrating on taking small steps and improving the company’s standing little by little was an approach that began to turn the tide for SRS.

“There was nothing we could do at that time that was going to dramatically slow the decline in our revenue or stop retailers from shutting stores and from shutting off the new growth,” Maguire says.

“So we had to focus on small, achievable goals and wins. I looked at the situation and said, ‘Any progress we can make day to day is important.’ At the beginning of the downturn, five out of five days in the week were bad days. My goal initially was to just find a way to have one good day a week, then two good days a week, then three good days a week.

“Even in good times, not every day is going to be a success, and you’re going to have problems. But we really had to get our people focused on, ‘OK, what are you going to do today? How can we make a difference with these clients who we’ve had long-term relationships with, who still need our help — they just need it in a different way?’”

Not everyone was able to adapt to the new business realities that SRS faced. Some of the company’s longtime staff members found themselves unable to make the transitions that needed to be made.

“We had some people who had rode the wave for a decade,” Maguire says. “They were surfing a wave that was cruising along, and all of a sudden, that wave hit the rock shore and was gone, and those people got up in the morning and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ Our management team’s message to them was, ‘There are transactions out there. These retailers need our help. But you’ve got to get out and you’ve got to be proactive.’ And I’ll be honest with you: We had a number of people that had been very successful with our company that couldn’t hack it. And they had to go do something else.”

Be transparent

Communicating with staff is a tough thing to do when all of the news coming at you is bad, and Maguire concedes that he didn’t communicate very well at the beginning of the crisis.

“It was hard for me early on,” he says. “I like to communicate a plan: Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s our goal, here’s how we’re going to get there, here’s how the company’s doing financially.

“But everything was really uncertain. And I think probably one of my biggest mistakes early on was not communicating up front and talking about all the bad things — the bad news, the uncertainty. I had to work through that.

“My management team and others encouraged me to spend more time talking about those things: ‘Look, these are the challenges, and frankly, if this revenue decline doesn’t stop, we’re not going to have a business. So here’s what we’re facing. Let’s figure out how we can overcome it.’”

Thus, Maguire says a key piece of advice he would give CEOs facing a similar predicament is to be transparent and to convey all of the news clearly from the outset.

“Communication is the most important thing,” he says. “And not just the good news. Not just, ‘We have a plan.’ It’s much more than that. It’s, ‘Where is our business today, really? Where do we stand? Good, bad or ugly, let me know where we stand.’ And then, ‘Let’s put a plan in place to fix it.’

“One thing I’ve learned that I’m not sure I really appreciated before is that employees really want and need to know. I was concerned that if I give them too much bad news, they’re going to curl up and not be able to accept it. But the reality is people are smart and they deserve to know the real news, not just the CEO rah-rah.”

Eventually, haltingly, after rocky transitions and some shakeout, the U.S. retail business began to recover. And SRS’s business began to grow again as well. The 350-employee company now has about $45 million in annual revenue.

“For us, stabilization came when we saw the bottom,” Maguire says. “Our revenue flattened out, and then we started seeing growth. In fiscal 2010, we grew our business at just under 10 percent. Then for fiscal ’11, we were at 12 percent. And this year, we think we’ll be at 15 percent or so.

“Historically, our target has been 20 percent growth. As you get bigger, it becomes harder to hit that level because the numbers are bigger. But for us, we’d love to get back to 20 percent. It’s a bit of a stretch for us right now, but that’s our goal.” <<

How to reach: SRS Real Estate Partners, (214) 560-3200 or www.srsre.com

THE MAGUIRE FILE

Name: Chris Maguire

Title: Chairman and CEO

Company: SRS Real Estate Partners

Born: Trenton, N.J.

Education: University of Texas at Austin

What was your first job, and what business lessons did you learn from it?

My first job was delivering newspapers here in Dallas. It forced me to be accountable. I had to be there every morning on my bike picking the papers up and putting them on the doorsteps of all the people in the neighborhood, because if you didn’t deliver, they weren’t happy.

Also, we had to go out and knock on doors and collect the monthly fees for the papers, and some of those people were hard to collect from, but if I didn’t collect, I didn’t get paid. So that was some early insight into how the business world works.

Do you have a business leadership philosophy that you use to guide you?

In our business, you have two things you have to protect at all costs: your reputation and your relationships. If you do that, and you build a track record, you’re always going to do the right thing.

What trait do you think is most important for an executive to have in order to be a successful leader?

You’ve got to have vision. People want to work at companies that are going to grow, that are exciting, and that can be leaders in their industries. And in order to have that, you have to have a vision that’s not Disneyland. It has to be a vision that you can actually achieve over time.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Roger Staubach had a lot of good advice. One thing he said that has stuck with me over time is “There’s no traffic on the extra mile.” It’s about putting in extra effort and working a little harder, because most people don’t do it. Hard work doesn’t necessarily ensure success, but it goes a long way toward achieving it.