Real estate magnate views dealmaking as a partnership
Scott Wolstein is not one to wait for a deal to come to him. His passion to make things happen has helped him build on the legacy his father Bert began when he founded Developers Diversified Realty Corp. Scott became CEO at DDR in 1992 and helped take the company public.
“It was something I just decided was right for us and I told my father, ‘Let’s put our companies together and do this,’” Wolstein recalls. “He gave me his full support and we had a highly successful public offering.”
DDR Corp. now owns and manages 286 retail properties, representing 97 million square feet in the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico. Wolstein left the company in 2011 and now leads The Wolstein Group as partner and developer. One of his primary projects is the $750 million Flats East Bank redevelopment project.
Wolstein sat down with Smart Business Dealmakers to talk about his approach to dealmaking and his commitment to protecting his reputation. What follows is a transcript of the above video, edited for readability.
What’s your dream deal?
I would say probably the most important thing in making a deal with anybody is first and foremost to listen. It’s really important to understand what the other person wants. Whenever I engage in a negotiation, the way I always commence is to say to the other side, ‘If you could make your dream deal, what would it look like?’ Because I need to understand what it is they are trying to achieve and what’s important to them. Then, I can try to figure out if there is a deal there that accomplishes my goals and gives them what they want.
If you spend all your time in a negotiation talking, you can never learn what the other side is really after. You can never make a good deal unless it’s a win-win for both sides and it can’t be a win-win for both sides unless you really understand what the other side needs and what’s important to them.
Don’t be intimidated
The most important thing I’ve done in my career to help me succeed is that I’ve never thought a deal was too big or too difficult. Maybe that’s something I learned from my father. But I’ve never entered into a situation where I said, ‘Gee, this is overwhelming. I don’t think I can ever accomplish this.’ I always assume that I can and then I get involved in the art of the deal. I really don’t focus on how large it is and how significant it is. The reality is it’s just as hard to make a $100,000 deal as it is to make a $100 million deal. The work is the same and the process is the same.
Where there is a will, there is a way
What are the most memorable deals of my career? I think first and foremost was when I took Developers Diversified Realty public in 1993. That was a huge transaction in our family’s history. It was something I just decided was right for us and I told my father, ‘Let’s put our companies together and do this.’ He gave me his full support and we had a highly successful public offering. It was a very large IPO for its time and it was extremely successful. Going to the New York Stock Exchange and watching your company trade on the ticker tape is a big thrill and I was fortunate enough to go back and ring the bell and go the Exchange several times as I ran the company for about 20 years.
Shortly after we went public, we did another deal. There was a portfolio worth about a half-billion dollars that I determined was going to be critical to put our company on the map. I went after it with a vengeance. I really didn’t have the capital to do the deal. I didn’t have any idea how I was going to pay for it. But I figured it was a good deal and if I could control it, the capitalization would take care of itself. And that’s what happened. Our company at the time was only $400 million in assets and this was a $500 million transaction. So it more than doubled the size of the company. I guess you could say it was pretty bold. But that’s just the way I am. I never think anything is too large and too daunting. Once I got control of the deal, the easiest part was finding the capital.
Be mindful of your reputation
The thing I’m most proud of in my career is that if anybody wanted to check me out before they entered into a transaction with me, I don’t think there is anybody I’ve ever done a deal with in my life that I wouldn’t offer as a reference. If you can’t do that, you’re in trouble. That will come back to haunt you. Your integrity is critical. You have to always say what you’re going to do and do what you’re going to say. Don’t try to outsmart people. You don’t need to outsmart people to be successful. You just have to be smart enough to understand what is necessary for both sides to come out of the transaction as winners. As long as you pursue a series of win-win transactions in your career, your reputation and your relationships will take care of themselves.
Special note: While the Wolsteins built their brand identity in real estate, they also hold a special place in the hearts of many Cleveland sports fans for their leadership of the Cleveland Force. When the Cavs and Indians struggled in the 1980s, the Force was a contender each and every year in the Major Indoor Soccer League. In this bonus video, Scott shares some of his memories about the rise of the Force.