JF2191: Retail Shopping Centers With Beth Azor
Beth is the owner of Azor Advisory Services, Inc. with 30 years of experience investing in retail shopping centers. Beth chooses to focus on retail shopping centers because she likes the variety of dealing with all different types of businesses. She shares some advice on how she deals with small business owners versus well-known companies.
Beth Azor Real Estate Background:
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“The majority of my marketing for new businesses is now through Facebook. Facebook gives me access directly to the decision-maker” – Beth Azor
Theo Hicks: Hello, Best Ever listeners. Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Theo Hicks and today, I’ll be speaking with Beth Azor. Beth, how are you doing today?
Beth Azor: I’m doing great, Theo. Thanks for having me.
Theo Hicks: Absolutely, and thanks for joining us. A little bit about Beth – she’s the owner of Azor Advisory Services, she has 30 years of experience investing in real shopping centers, her portfolio consists of six centers currently valued at $80 million. She is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and you can say hi to her at bethazor.com. So Beth, do you mind telling us a little more about your background and what you’re focused on today?
Beth Azor: Sure, Theo. So I’m really focused on getting rents today during the post-COVID craze. I am an investor in retail shopping centers. I love retail. I’ve been in the business for about 35 years, started investing about 30 years ago, and all of my shopping centers are within ten minutes of my house, which is great. I have tenants from Starbucks to Aldi to Panera Bread to Verizon. I have mom and pop, small businesses and national tenants. For the last four to five years we’ve been challenged with the whole online sales, and now we’re challenged with having our tenants have not been able to be open for business for two months. But the pent-up demand with consumers shows wonderful signs of rebirth, so we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that own shopping centers these days.
Theo Hicks: Thanks for sharing that. So I actually haven’t talked to someone who has retail shopping centers. I know a lot of people that I’ve talked to for Joe’s business who focuses on collecting rent from tenants who are living there. So are you seeing issues with both the small businesses and the national tenants or is it just one more than the other?
Beth Azor: So the challenge is– and I’ve been likening it to the roller coaster of emotions, because finally what I had to do after about the first two weeks is I had to seriously delineate my days off on certain days talking to the mom and pops and on certain days talking to the nationals… Because as a landlord, when you get on the phone with a mom and pop and they’re crying and you’re talking them off ledges and you’re just trying to keep them wanting to reopen when we can, you have to have empathy and understanding and you don’t want a mass exodus of tenants. And these are local businesses that literally had not been able to punch the cash register going on over 72 days in South Florida. So you had to have one state of mind dealing with them.
On the other hand, you got national tenants with huge balance sheets, Theo; huge balance sheets. And many of them were able to do either drive-thru sale or online sales or curbside pickup sales. So their cash registers were still being run somewhat. Certainly not like in pre-COVID, but they were getting a certain amount of customer traffic and income, and many of them– there were some nice ones, but many of them were not very nice, and making demands to landlords that was not very respectful, courteous or friendly.
So the first two weeks I was taking phone calls from one to the other, one to the other, and I did not really have my armor up. So I decided after two weeks, “Okay, I’m going to bifurcate this and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I’ll deal with my mom and pop tenants, and on Mondays and Wednesdays, I’ll deal with which sometimes were very rude national retailers.” Some of them I knew from being in the industry and going to conferences. I think that they were in job-saving mode and they didn’t like coming to me saying, “I can pay my rent, but I’m not going to pay my rent.”
I’m sure you and your listeners saw the article in Wall Street Journal and many other industry magazines or newsletters about a big national coffee tenant who sent all of us letters saying for the next 12 months we were going to need some rental abatement or deferral or waiver or whatever. So I came to the conclusion that these representatives of these Fortune 500 companies or public companies, they knew what they were doing to us, the little guys – I only own six centers – and they felt bad. And I think when people feel bad and feel guilty, they don’t really know how to handle it and sometimes they use different emotions than we landlords would like them to use.
Theo Hicks: Who do you talk to at these national companies? Is there a leasing person they have that you talked to constantly every month?
Beth Azor: There are real estate managers who sometimes are jumping in the fray on this because they’re not out looking for new stores. They can’t travel. So they’ve jumped in to help with their companies with these rental discussions. I have spoken to CFOs. I have spoken to attorneys. So it runs the gamut. It’s not consistent across the board. With the small businesses, you’re dealing with the small business owners, literally the mom and pop owner.
Theo Hicks: So we’ve talked on the show a lot about apartments and the types of deals and payment programs and things like that, that the property managers and the owners are having with their residents. So not talking about the nationals, but the more of the mom and pops. What type of, I guess, agreements have you come to? What are some examples of payment programs that you’re having at the retail shopping centers that are owned by mom and pops?
Beth Azor: Sure. It depends on a bunch of things. It depends on if they moved out, could you release it and how fast, if they have infrastructure in their space that is valuable to either them or a replacement tenant. If they are, let’s say, a jeweler who, a competitor, after waking up in about 30 days saying, “Wow, I’ve got a lot more vacancy than I ever thought. Let me go down the street and try to steal some other tenants that are easy”, midnight move type things. How long is their lease before it comes up for renewal, and what are things that they have we would like back? So maybe a mom and pop has a termination right. Maybe a mom and pop has an exclusive. Let’s say they’re a hair salon and they have a nail salon exclusive. Well, for me to be able to put in a nail salon when this hair salon hasn’t done nails in ten years, that’s very valuable. So you can make some exchanges with the mom and pops and even with the national tenants in exchange to give them some deferral.
Pretty much across the board – and I consult for landlords all around the country – we’ve all been trying to do deferrals like kicking the can, not full out waivers. So where we might do 50%, 30% rents over April and May, maybe take the difference out of their security deposit, and then anything leftover, they are to repay it in 2021; maybe the first six months. We don’t want to move it to the end of the lease term, because we want the tenant to renew and take the bump in the rent that the market rent in an option would include. So trying to get back any difference of any deferred rent in 2021, even if it has to be over 6 months or 12 months, it is not the end of the game there. It’s not a bad thing.
Theo Hicks: Perfect. Thanks for sharing all that information. So let’s maybe transition away from the COVID and talk more about your current portfolio. So you have six centers. Are these things that you’ve had for a long time or are you always actively selling one each year and buying one each year? What’s your overall business plan?
Beth Azor: I like to hold them. So the one that I’ve had the longest I bought in ’08, and then I’ve probably bought a shopping center every two years or developed. I developed from ground-up a five tenant shopping center with a Starbucks, a Verizon, a Blaze Pizza. I built that one from the ground up. I bought an old strip club in town. The town was getting rid of strip clubs. I called the owner and got them to sell me the building, knocked it down and built a five strip shopping center. And then three years ago, I bought an old office building that was built in the 70s. I knocked that down and built a Starbucks center on one half of the parcel, and now I have a future parcel to develop on. Most of my centers are unanchored strip centers, but I do have one that’s a grocery-anchored center, and that is anchored by Aldi. It’s a supermarket in parts of the country.
Theo Hicks: What does that mean, unanchored versus anchored?
Beth Azor: So anchor means a big-box tenant like a grocer or a Walmart or a Target or a large tenant that would anchor the rest of the small retail. So it’s like in the old days with the malls where Sears and Penney’s and Macy’s would drive traffic to the mall. They wouldn’t pay as much rent, but the other ancillary tenants would pay more, and they were paying for the traffic that those other anchors, those larger retailers would bring to the property. That’s the way it is. In our center – I have a Starbucks, a Blaze Pizza, a Verizon, a Select Comfort and an ice cream. They’re all the same size, pretty much 2,000 or 3000 square feet. There isn’t one major anchor that drives the traffic… Versus I have another shopping center that’s 75,000 square feet and 20,000 of it is Aldi supermarket, and they drive a lot of traffic to the center. So tenants will pay more rent to be next to a traffic driver such as a supermarket.
Theo Hicks: Why do you choose retail shopping centers over other asset classes, other retail classes or just multifamily or warehouses? Why would you choose this one specifically?
Beth Azor: I like the variety of dealing with all of the different businesses. One day I might be dealing with an ice cream store owner, the next day with an insurance guy, the next day with Panera Bread, the next day with an athletic shoe store, the next day with a hair salon, Sherwin-Williams Paints… It’s a big variety of businesses and I like that.
Sometimes, we landlords have to evict people. Theo, I always had the motto, I never wanted to manage or own anything that had a bed in it because I didn’t want to evict someone from their bed. I know all of your listeners, unfortunately, sometimes have had to do that. So it’s not a fun time at any time when you have to evict somebody, but evicting someone from their business versus from their home, I can swallow that a little bit easier.
Theo Hicks: Yeah, I like the philosophy. This is an off the beaten path question a little bit, but do you get any discounts at these places like a Target or at all the whatever? I’m just curious.
Beth Azor: No, I would tell you that there probably are some property owners that do that. I learned very early on in my career, and it’s one of the first things I tell anyone that I hire, “Don’t go to the sports bar and ring up the tab, because there’s no discounts.” In fact– and tenants will try to give my maintenance guys or my property managers, “We got you this time”, and absolutely not. It’s a firing offense… Because at the time that I go and collect rent and I’m like, “Why haven’t you paid rent and you’re three weeks late?” “Well, your maintenance guy was in here and look at this bar tab.” I never want to have that conversation. So even my kids who are now 19 and 17, they are always with me hanging around the shopping center, and I have tenants who try to give them stuff, and they know that they’ll be in big trouble if they take anything for free from one of my tenants. But tenants would offer it, for sure, to get on your good side. It’s just a policy that I have to not accept it.
Theo Hicks: What does your day to day look like now compared to when you first started doing this? What types of things do you do now in the business as opposed to what you were doing when you first got started?
Beth Azor: So when I first got started, I would prospect by going store to store, and I still do that, but now I do more Facebook and Instagram prospecting, because I can get through to the gatekeeper so much faster. So back 30 years ago, there wasn’t such a thing as Facebook and Instagram. So I would just literally go hit 40 stores a day, go knocking on stores saying, “Hey, I own shopping centers in the area. What are your expansion plans? Do you want another location? Do you want to reload?” I still do that probably only about once or twice a month, and every day I prospect with social media and Facebook.
The responses that I get, I’ve never, in 35 years of doing business, have seen the response I get from Facebook and Instagram, social media prospecting, because you’re bypassing the gatekeeper. 90% of the businesses that have Facebook and Instagram pages, those pages are monitored by the business owner, because if someone’s complaining about the business, they don’t want their store clerk or their gatekeeper to see that and potentially erase it. They want to handle it themselves. So you can prospect them through direct message on Facebook, and it’s crazy. It’s about a 40% response rate within 24 hours, and of that 40% that responds, 90% will say, “No thank you,” and one or two of the responses will say, “Where is your property? Send me more information.” It’s just remarkable.
Theo Hicks: It’s interesting. So it’s worked for a Starbucks, for example?
Beth Azor: The Nationals, it’s a networking thing. So 90% of the Nationals have what’s called an exclusive tenant rep broker, and they are a local person who knows the local market knowledge and they hire them. They don’t pay them anything because we the landlords would pay the broker if we did a deal, but the landlords choose them as their exclusive representative. So if I wanted to do a Starbucks deal, I would know that this guy Don in our market reps them and I would call up Don and say, “Hey, I’ve got a new deal. I just bought a piece of land. I’m going to develop a shopping center. Starbucks isn’t anywhere around here. What do you think? Are they looking in this area?” And then Don would say, “Yeah, that’s definitely in our path of where we’re looking,” and I would be doing the deal with Don. Eventually, the real estate manager would come in and maybe I’d meet them on a site tour if I didn’t already know them.
So you collect those acquaintances and those connections by attending shopping center conferences. Before COVID we had a lot of those. You could literally be at a conference every other month and that’s where you’d shake hands in the old days and meet who’s repping who and who works for who. So simultaneously, you’re canvassing the locals to fill the local spaces and you’re collecting your connections of the people who work for the Nationals so you know who to call if you have an opportunity that you think would be good for them.
Theo Hicks: For someone who wants to get started in this shopping center, retail niche, what’s your best real estate investing advice ever for that person?
Beth Azor: Try to offer to work for free to a shopping center owner that owns properties, versus a broker. So if you’ve go to work for a brokerage firm, you’ll be responsible to have to go get your own listings, which is very, very difficult. But if you could find someone who owns six shopping centers like me or 20 shopping centers or 100 shopping centers, and anyway you can get in there– I have kids from college that come and shadow me all the time, and I always tell them, “Shadowing leads to internships and internships leads to jobs.” So if retail is something of interest, start figuring out who in your market owns the shopping centers and start knocking on their door. You certainly need to have a real estate license to be a leasing agent, but leasing is the future. I say to everyone always that go, “How did you end up owning six shopping centers?”, “I started as a leasing agent.” If you can figure out how to fill vacancies, you’re very, very, very valuable; very, very valuable. So be that person, learn how to fill a vacancy, and then the rest will be very easy.
Theo Hicks: And then a few other ways to fill the vacancies of what you talked about – social media for small business and then finding that Don in your local area for nationals.
Beth Azor: Exactly, exactly.
Theo Hicks: Perfect. Okay, thanks for sharing that. Alright Beth, are you ready for the Best Ever lightning round?
Beth Azor: Sure.
Theo Hicks: Alright, what is the best ever book you’ve recently read?
Beth Azor: So I have a book club for leasing agents every month, and last month the book was supposed to be The War of Art, but I changed it, Theo, to Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl… Because we’re all going through a lot, and I think state of mind and perspective is crucial. So that was the most recent book that had a lot of impact on me because you can’t compare what we’re going through to the Holocaust. But sometimes when you’re stuck in your house for two months with kids and your business is severely being impacted, you can go down into a deep place. So I had about 100 people on that book club call and we all agreed that it was the perfect book to switch to in this time. So I’ll say that one.
Theo Hicks: Yeah, The War of Art. Make sure you definitely revisit that one. That’s one of my favorites.
Beth Azor: Cool.
Theo Hicks: Steven Pressfield, right?
Beth Azor: Yeah, I moved it up to September, I think. Yeah.
Theo Hicks: That’s a very solid book. Alright, if your business were to collapse today, what would you do next?
Beth Azor: Wow. Move to Hawaii.
Theo Hicks: There you go. I guess you can take your own rowboat right now. You can’t really fly there.
Beth Azor: Yeah, exactly. I’d have to wait, yeah.
Theo Hicks: Besides your first deal and your last deal, what’s your best ever deal?
Beth Azor: Buying the strip club. So I say I bought a strip club and built a strip center, and the city loves me for it. So I get more than my neighbors do because it helped clean up the city.
Theo Hicks: There you go. On the opposite end, what is a deal you lost the most money on? How much did you lose and what lessons did you learn?
Beth Azor: I bought a Winn-Dixie shopping center. We did a Staples office supply. I bought Winn-Dixie. They went bankrupt so I bought their lease. We spent $1.2 million. We had done the Staples lease at 20 bucks a square foot and thought, “Wow, this is awesome. I could probably get the Winn-Dixie at $15.” We never leased the Winn-Dixie. We were never able to lease it. Even though in the beginning, we had Walmart looking at it and a lot of people– I think my arrogance and my confidence in leasing the Staples so quickly at such a high rent blinded me. So once we had got control of the Winn-Dixie, I thought I could get $15, when I should have probably been happy and taken Walmart’s number at about $8 to $10. But my partner and I just believed that market knowledge was key and we just did the staples for $20, so certainly, we could get $15. And we ended up giving the keys back to the bank three years later. We had a balloon mortgage. The note was $16 million. We told the lender we thought it was worth $12. They said we can’t negotiate with borrowers, so we handed the keys back and they sold it later to someone for $12 a year later, and personally, I lost about a half a million and my partner lost probably about 5 million.
Theo Hicks: I had to ask you this earlier… Very quickly, how are you funding these deals?
Beth Azor: So the smaller ones I do personally, just with income from the other properties that I’ve saved up or just earned, and some I do family and friend money. I used to do institutional. That deal that lost the 5 million was BlackRock, an institutional partner, and after that deal, I said, “I would not buy properties that big anymore and have to have clients like institutions,” because I was happy to have them at the time, but it was a difficult relationship, obviously, near the end. So I decided smaller properties with family and friends.
Theo Hicks: Perfect. Okay. Another lightning round question. What’s the best ever way you’d like to give back?
Beth Azor: Well, currently I’m doing something called the Small Business series, and I’m interviewing small businesses and posting the interviews on my website and on my YouTube channel, and I’m trying to promote small business because they need it. Every time I call and ask if they want to be interviewed, they go, “What’s the catch or how much?” Nothing. I want to get the word out that you’re the best nail salon in town, or the best rib guy, or the best personal fitness gym. It’s been so rewarding, and they’re getting business from it, and it’s just been great. So right now, that’s my best way of giving back.
Theo Hicks: And then lastly, what’s the best ever place to reach you?
Beth Azor: Probably LinkedIn. Beth Azor on LinkedIn, but I’m also on Facebook, on Instagram, and my website bethazor.com. So type in Beth Azor, you can find me.
Theo Hicks: Perfect, Beth. Well, I really appreciate you coming on this show. I can’t believe this has been only 20 minutes. We’ve gotten so much information about retail shopping centers in just such a short amount of time. So we started off by talking about some of the challenges you’re facing with the Coronavirus. So we talked about how that’s different at the mom and pops, as opposed to national tenants. You talked about how you’re trying to delineate your days, so you’re not having this emotional rollercoaster anymore of talking to mom and pops who are very upset and national tenants who are not being as friendly as they probably should be. Then we also transitioned to talking about your business plan. So you’re buying and developing every two years. You really like to hold on to your property; the longest one being in 2008. We talked about the two main reasons why you like retail shopping centers. My personal favorite being the second one, which is you don’t want to own anything that has a bed because you don’t want to evict someone from their bed. I think it’s a really good philosophy.
We also talked about reasons why it’s not smart to take any discount or concession from your tenants because they might use that as an excuse to not pay rent. We talked about how your prospecting has changed from a lot of door knocking to now doing it on Facebook and Instagram for the small businesses, and then it’s still the local brokers that you meet at the shopping center conferences for the national accounts. And then lastly, we talked about your best ever advice, which was if you want to get started in retail shopping center, find someone who owns a center and either shadow them or be a leasing agent and help them fill vacancies, because you said that being a leasing agent is going to be the future, and if you can help owners fill vacancies, then you’re gonna be very valuable to them. So again, Beth, really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing your best ever advice. Best Ever listeners, as always, thank you for listening. Have a best ever day and we’ll talk to you tomorrow.
Beth Azor: Thanks, Theo. Thanks for having me.
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