Drew Alexander drives success at Weingarten Realty by following the rules of good parenting Featured

8:00pm EDT August 31, 2012
Drew Alexander, president and CEO, Weingarten Realty Investors Drew Alexander, president and CEO, Weingarten Realty Investors

Drew Alexander is probably one of the first to admit that supermarket-anchored shopping centers are very recession-resilient. Good properties in good locations don’t hurt either, as well as good practices. But that’s not the entire story.

Alexander, the president and CEO of Weingarten Realty Investors, which dates back to his great-grandfather’s first dry goods store in Houston, knows that good people are a large part of the equation. And it was the conjunction of being a new parent as well as a manager of people that gave him the insight that there are a lot of similarities between the two roles.

“I found the two things surprisingly similar,” Alexander says. “I think you need to be as consistent and honest as you can. You need to set reasonable goals. You need to show tough love and sometimes separate some people or punish kids when they’ve done something wrong. You should be supportive when folks are down and a bit of a cheerleader when things are tough — and they have certainly been tough for the last several years.”

Is it easy being a tough-love parent/tough-love boss?

“It can be difficult, but I think the keys are leading by example of doing the right thing of working smart, thinking through things, gaining the knowledge in one’s mistake and really treating people as you would want to be treated,” he says. “I think there are a lot of similarities.”

When you have tenants such as Target, Walmart, Ross, Marshalls or TJ Maxx anchoring shopping centers, you could well expect the $542 annual revenue Weingarten received in 2011. But again, the rest of the story is the family-themed culture that has helped keep occupancy above 90 percent not only in the recent financial crisis but in the mid- to late 1980s crisis as well, when the Texas economy was devastated as the oil business crashed.

Here how Alexander imparts a family spirit at Weingarten Realty that helps drive its success with the 16 million square feet in commercial property and shopping centers it owns across the nation.

Communicate casually

Most organizations recognize that communication is a top priority in operating a business. Meeting with your direct reports and having them cascade the information down to other levels is a very common method. But it shouldn’t be the only one.

“It is also important to spend some casual time with employees, to go to lunch with them, to have a cup of coffee with folks and to meet with them in their offices, maybe have a drink after work occasionally and hear what’s going on with them,” Alexander says.

The talk may even include some disagreements about operations. While they are eventual — you can’t expect agreements all of the time, you can learn to exercise control how you respond so you don’t make matters worse.

“Always try to walk the talk,” Alexander says. “When somebody disagrees with you and says you’re wrong, or when somebody gives you some difficult feedback or says that something isn’t working, always try not to retaliate in any way, shape or form.”

In short, the easiest answer is to control your tongue. But it may be one of the hardest things to do since you’re feeling you have to defend your opinion among feelings of resentment, frustration and anger.

“Don’t get into an argument,” Alexander says. “Maybe ask a little bit more about why they think that to really solicit other feedback. I may not always agree with it but I learned a long time ago if you want the honest feedback then you have to accept it graciously.”

Keep as much of the anger out of the conversation — this way you will not be as tempted to say anything that could be construed as hurtful.

Delegate responsibility

How your business is structured will affect how it you manage it. A business with one central location is akin to a nuclear family — and a company with a headquarters and several offices is not that different from an extended family.

But the key to effectively managing either is delegating authority.

The first step, as in raising children or grooming a new manager, is that you walk before you run. So start your own informal training course for delegates.

“When you have a new manager you need to try people with a little bit of training wheels,” Alexander says. “Give them a project, see how they do. I’m a big believer that the vast majority of the time if people come to you with a proposal, they should have a recommendation for what they want to do.

“You can allow exceptions, but you should always be signposted in advance as they come in and say, ‘Look, I thought about this for a minute, and I am really struggling. I don’t have a recommendation, I just want to role play some different scenarios off you and brainstorm with you for a minute.’”

With a solid proposal in hand, the would-be manager will have covered his or her bases and can move on to the review process.

“If they signpost up front, you can be a lot more tolerant about it versus if you perceive that they are coming for you to do their job,” he says. “You need to be a big believer that you want people’s recommendation. Then you evaluate the quality of folks because obviously you don’t want to delegate the same amount of responsibility to everyone because everybody’s ability and skill sets are not the same.

“You have to take a measured approach of trying things out small and giving people more and more responsibilities; then you check with them frequently at interim status reports,” Alexander says.

The last step is to judge the talents of your potential managers after your trial runs are complete. Obviously, you should focus on the traditional qualities of a good performance but keep an open mind.

“I think work ethic is important, but in today’s world, it’s increasingly hard to even judge that on any sort of scale because in part of the communications age that we live in ... I have colleagues who are obsessive about checking e-mails over the weekend when I’ve actually said you are entitled to but you don’t have to!

“So I don’t think burning the midnight oil is even a differentiator any more because it’s just too hard to measure,” he says.

What is easier to measure is the potential manager’s proposal for his project. It should be clear what the recommendation is.

“I use the example that it’s like junior high school math,” Alexander says. “You’ve got to show your work. You have to tell why you favor making that decision. What are the key factors? Even when people come to a conclusion that is different than yours, you like to see how their thought process works.

“Then a lot of times if it is a little more of a tactical decision about how to do something, I am a big believer that if somebody has a plan to get from point A to point B that’s a little different than mine, but they feel very strongly about it, I’d rather have them work their plan that they are passionate about than work my plan because, unless, it’s sort of like a burden of proof thing, that what they are proposing is substantially wrong.”

Along with reviewing the specific proposal, you should look at how it fits into the bigger picture.

“Look at how the judgments are made, what were the factors and don’t get so hung up on the details,” he says. “I use the analogy of driving directions. There are tons of different ways to get from point A to point to B. If you want to take the scenic route because you think it’s pretty, or if somebody else wants to go on the freeway and deal with the traffic, I don’t care.”

Once you have chosen your delegates, make use of them. Assign them as much as you feel they can handle.

“If you run a pretty decentralized organization, the troops who are in the field — the folks and the COO — are your boots on the ground and make the vast majority of decisions,” Alexander says. “When it comes to major capital expenditures acquisition and new development, the CEO obviously gets involved but even then the troops are the ones who input most of the data to create the pro forma so they have a lot of input that drives the return on investment and whether or not it’s above your hurdle rates.”

The CEO may ask a lot of questions about their assumptions and method and point out some inconsistencies from other deals.

“But generally even then, they are driving it a lot,” he says. “So whether it’s your CFO or COO, you may get involved in something but you would tend to delegate a fair amount either directly or just by the nature of your processes. You would really only get involved if there are big dollars or longer-term, human resources involved, anything to do with the brand or investor relations.”

Earn loyalty

There are some differences, obviously, in terms of the unconditional love a parent has for a child. You can’t fire a child. If a worker is not performing, you have to protect the right things.

“I don’t know any CEO who likes firing people,” Alexander says. “It is something every manager recognizes that you have to do it for the good of the organization. The people who I have talked to who are so-called turnaround specialists don’t like the idea of going into an organization and eliminating a third or whatever of the workforce but they do it because they think it is necessary so that the company survives.”

The termination process is difficult but you will be doing the right thing for all the stakeholders.

“I was fortunate enough that I took over this company from my father, Stanford Alexander, and still work closely with him,” he says. “So you look back and find that a lot of the things that your father taught you as a kid are important today. As a firm, you pride yourselves on integrity and your desire to do the right thing for all your stakeholders, shareholders, retailers, associates and vendors and to take the very long-term view.”

One of the major benefits to come from instilling a family spirit in a company can be a tremendous loyalty from your associates

“This translates into some very hardworking people, who are creative and passionate, who care about the company, care about their co-worker, are very team-oriented people who help each other and are nice to each other,” Alexander says.

“By running a public company but with a little bit of the spirit of a family that cares — that loyalty will show up for you in tenure, work ethic, passion and esprit de corps.

The folks will care about the company. They have a lot of emotion and feeling toward it. You obviously will want to offer competitive salaries, have good benefit programs, a nice work environment, a lot of wellness programs, education programs and scholarships to associates’ children for college. Do a lot to hire and retain good quality people.”

Simply put, with everyone pulling in the same direction, the team will reap the benefits.

“A consultant once used the expression with me that there are basketball teams and then there are track teams,” Alexander says. “In basketball, the team wins and everybody wins. In track, it’s nice when your friend wins his or her race, but you really want to win your race.

“You really want to be more like a basketball team where everybody wins. You may be the QB gets a lot of the attention and gets asked to do the interviews, but it’s really about the whole team. If a lineman doesn’t do what he is supposed to do, then all of us are going to suffer. So we are all incented to pull in the same direction.”

How to reach: Weingarten Realty Investors, (713) 866-6000 or www.weingarten.com

The Alexander File

Drew Alexander

President and CEO

Weingarten Realty Investors

Born: Fort Worth, Texas. I go by Drew, and my real name is Andrew. But nobody other than my high school principal called me that.

Education: I started out at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and did a couple of years there. Then I transferred to and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. My degree is a bachelor of business and administration with a focus in real estate.

What was your first job?

I was about 7 years old and we had the supermarket company at the time. I worked in the stores helping customers unload their carts to be checked out. I wasn’t a carryout at the other end of the process because my mother didn’t want me in the parking lot. She thought I would get run over. So I was doing a job that doesn’t exist anymore. I helped the customers unload from their cart to the conveyor belt to be checked out. One of my other jobs in the supermarket was labeling all the prices on things.

I think I learned from that job to go to college and work in something that wasn’t so manual. Also, I think I learned the value of customer service. I got paid a whopping 10 cents an hour, but frequently, principally housewives would say, ‘Now you’re a nice young man, do you get paid?’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. I get10 cents an hour.’ ‘You’re so hard-working. Here’s a quarter.’ Occasionally, I got a dollar. That was a lot of money in the early ’60s to a kid. I think I put a lot of it into baseball cards over the years.

What was the best advice you ever received?

I think that would go back to advice from my dad in terms of doing the right long-term thing and treating people as you would want to be treated.

Whom do you admire in business?

I think many of the strong leaders, Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon, Steve Jobs. And certain parts of this are their creativity and passion although certainly not everything. Then as I mentioned before — my dad. It’s corny, but it’s the truth.

What’s your definition of business success?

It ties into the goals, and that’s where I think when you get to the end, whatever that is, having done the right term thing is a success. So clearly there are things that go into that in terms of share price and total return for shareholders, being well thought of by all the stakeholders and that would be shareholders, employees, vendors, tenants, etc., but that’s where I think if you are doing the right long-term thing, then all those other things will flow from that.