As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Garrison.
Jeff Garrison’s passion is to create dynamic, community-changing mixed-use centers that encompass connection, walkability and activation. He believes development should drive neighborhood engagement and bring people together for experiential shopping and dining. His key strengths lie in shaping the future of a community layout and thoughtfully converting urban infill into thriving neighborhoods that benefit residents in meaningful ways. Jeff is a partner at S.J. Collins Enterprises, a privately held commercial real estate and retail development firm, and has been with the company since its 2007 inception. He handles the intricate mechanics that bring a vibrant development property together — from locating new sites, building tenant relationships and communicating with neighborhood groups to hiring contractors and shepherding the project to its final phases.
His first career in finance — trading derivative options in Chicago and London — bolsters his financial acumen and complements his development experience. Prior to making the transition to development, he was also a real estate investor and brings a wealth of retail development experience to his role at S.J. Collins Enterprises. Over the past decade, he has developed more than 5 million square feet of retail and mixed-use space across the country. Current projects include The Interlock, an award-winning $450 million mixed-use center rising in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, and Southern Post, a multi-use property soon to transform a much-needed section of Roswell, Georgia.
Jeff graduated magna cum laude with degrees in real estate and speculative finance from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a Georgia real estate license and is a member of the International Council of Shopping Centers. He currently serves on the board Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, where his children attend school.
Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My career began in finance. I attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a degree in finance with a concentration in real estate and speculative finance.
I began my career as an options trader in Chicago trading SPX options. After 7 years, I moved to London to expand a 10-year partnership and began as a junior trader on the trading floor, covering Euro Stoxx 50, The Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index (FTSE 100) and Deutscher Aktienindex (DAX). In 2004, I decided to come back to the U.S. and my home town of Atlanta to start a private investment firm and focus on real estate.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As part of my responsibilities on the trading floor, I entered all of the trades. I completely inputted a trade backwards, which is a tragedy in a very fast-paced environment. It ended up making us a lot of money, and despite being a hero at the time, it was not an ideal situation. The lesson I learned that day is that sometimes slow is fast.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Two great books are “Good to Great” by James Collins and “One Up on Wall Street” by Peter Lynch. I strive to model the methods mentioned in these books regarding surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, building a culture of collaboration, finding your niche and that consistent hard work wins in the end.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I think the purpose of any business at its core has to be to make a profit so that’s an obvious essential element. The purpose of our firm is to make money but to also create a culture that makes life enjoyable for us, our clients and our employees.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The №1 principle we operate by as a development company is to be honest to a fault. In all of our dealings, we always aim to benefit others over ourselves. We want to be known as honest beyond question.
For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like all families, the transition to the school-at-home and working-at-home models all under the same roof was a challenge that has become more manageable over time. Our daughter in college had to be moved out and came back home very quickly. Our two boys — one in high school and one in middle school — had to transition to online classes. At the same time, I had to manage a business from home as well. Our family had to find the space and time, develop new schedules and make sure we were still eating well, exercising and getting outdoors — all of which was a challenge. We have now built new itineraries around the new world in front of us.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I do think the modern world lives in a 24-hour news cycle. You can get so wrapped up in wanting more and more information when none is available that it can drive anxiety. People should focus on the things that they can control that will actually have a profound impact on their lives today and going forward, such as health, eating well, exercising, getting outside, soaking up the sun, breathing fresh air and adjusting your sleep schedule to match your new work schedule, etc.
Students can still excel at school being distanced from teachers. It’s a whole new system, but one that if you can adjust, then you can continue to grow — not only from the material you’re learning but for the rest of your life as a self-education tool.
Thinking about the future, this is a limited phenomenon. It may trail into 2021, but we will beat this just as we have with smallpox, measles and other tragic diseases. When thinking about the future, it’s always critical to ask yourself questions like how are you going to be better and more capable? How are you going to rebuild or reinvent yourself and see new opportunities? That’s true even without a world pandemic, and they are questions every business owner should always be asking.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We treat our retail, restaurant and office users just as you would want to be treated as a friend. We are focused on the mutual partnership vs. the monthly rental check. We are making investments today that will hit our bottom line in order to help small businesses and restaurants navigate and persevere this challenging time and thrive when this is past.
We know the value of a vibrant mixed-use center in the future will prove itself more valuable than others if it has a stabilized and prosperous tenant base. We know that by harnessing our relationships and being true partners with our tenants, we are not only making an investment in the well-being of these businesses but also investing in an asset that will grow over time.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
From a dining perspective, certainly, restaurants that previously did not offer to-go sales, online or delivery services have adapted. Patrons are now hyper-focused on cleanliness and that will be done on a much higher level to ensure people feel safe dining. The challenge will be how do we ensure people are healthy and keep the same number of seats but in safer ways. I think you will see a lot more outdoor dining and unique table spacing. Restaurants will have to expand their footprint to accommodate for more outdoor spaces and/or utilize the same number of seats but spread them out.
A big opportunity exists for restaurants to increase their online presence. Two examples are Chipotle and First Watch, two restaurants that had almost zero online presence before COVID-19 but now have huge numbers when it comes to online and to-go sales. First Watch launched an online ordering app within three days, which now represents somewhere like 15–20 percent of their sales. That won’t go away. Their business will come back stronger when they figure out spacing and how to safely accommodate people in person because they will be open for business but will also maintain the robust online presence they have grown.
The Internet has proven to be the big winner of COVID-19. People who never purchased groceries online, like my parents, are now ordering groceries online and finding that it’s an effective tool for them and it’s safer. As more people connect with technologies, online sales volumes and convenience services volumes will go up as well.
The work space will forever be impacted by the new-found technologies to work from home effectively. You don’t have to travel for three days for a meeting that we can do on Zoom for an hour. Office spaces that were starting to put 6 people per 1,000 square feet in an office building will now start spreading people out back to the previous model of 3 people per 1,000 square feet in a co-working space so people feel safe.
For soft goods retail like clothing, the idea that you can come in and try something on at a store or look at it in person is over. The way people shop and experience retail will be completely different. I think it will continue a trend that we’ve already been seeing over the past decade of online shopping and will expedite the death of enclosed, indoor shopping malls and experiences. People will avoid dressing rooms and enclosed spaces now and will buy even more online; it will take a while before people are comfortable going inside a dressing room again.
From a commercial real estate perspective, COVID-19 was the iceberg and malls were the Titanic. That enclosed experience is going to go away even faster and more and more commercial real estate firms will have to create shopping centers with more outdoor spaces, easy to-go pickup areas and open areas where people can be without being overwhelmed by smaller enclosed spaces.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid economy?
We are focused on building relationships with clients and will work with them in the future. We aim to be a resource — financially, mentally and socially — to make sure they are successful and act as partners and not just their landlords. Our hope is to help them build successful businesses that will survive COVID-19. We will improve existing centers and those relationships can be a part of future mixed-use projects. We are here for those partners in the good times and the bad. Your partnerships are defined by these moments, and we want our retail, restaurant and office businesses to know we are a true partner in every sense of the word.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to be kind and to help each other. Try to make the most of opportunities and innovate yourself. The world is always going to be a fast-changing environment, and even under stressful circumstances, we need to be able to grow, innovate and become better individuals.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My life lesson quote comes from an old friend and colleague. He is a pilot. The mantra behind pilots who fly jet planes is ‘speed is life’. It comes from the idea that when you are in a plane, and things go wrong, you never slow down. That has always stuck with me and is the way I run my business. It’s even in my email signature.
It’s easy to want to slow down and enjoy what you built. But the fact is that we always need to be working as hard, as fast and as anxiously as we can to continue to innovate and improve who we are as individuals and a company.
How can our readers further follow your work?