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Running one of the fastest-growing shopping center developers, acquirers and management companies in the country requires passion, emphasizes NewMark Merrill CEO and President Sandy Sigal, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. “Our entire company is populated by people who are passionate about what we do,” he insists. “We love it. We work hard at it. It is extremely exciting.” His senior management team has been together for more than 15 years and its members trust each other implicitly, Sigal maintains.
Sigal expects more than 100 percent effort. “We want to be at 110 percent,” he insists. “For us, that’s a huge focus. With passion comes hard work – we want employees to be creative and want people who are going to be loyal and dedicated. Besides being passionate, we’re super-creative. We do Christmas cards every year that are just crazy.”
When people ask Sigal why his company spends so much effort on its Christmas cards, he responds, “The opportunity to involve the whole staff in Christmas cards makes you stand out. I’ve gone to people’s offices I hardly know, and they’ll have our Christmas card on the ledge. Maybe we’ve had Santa parachute into our shopping center or done bungee cord jumps from hot air balloons. We want to make sure that we have fun, and we work differently every day.”
That sense of creative fun and involvement is extended to NewMark Merrill’s customers. “We believe retail is a local business – you have to touch and see and know your retailers,” Sigal stresses. “Our retailers are our customers, and the more we know about them, the better we’re going to be.”
The ever-changing nature of retail has interested Sigal since his first involvement with it. “I’ve always liked retail because it’s so dynamic,” he reveals. “Providing quality shopping in areas that might not have that is pretty exciting. You create a lot of memories over a lot of generations by providing good shopping. We feel pretty lucky that we’re able to do that.”
NewMark Merrill’s customers range from Walmart and CVS Pharmacy to dollar stores in strip shopping centers. It specializes in anything from single-tenant locations up to 500,000-square-foot community shopping centers. “The real buzz for us is we’re in the value space, so we provide opportunities for people to shop that allow them to spend their money a little more wisely but provide a quality environment for them to shop in,” Sigal explains. “The only thing we avoid is the high-end luxury space. We want to provide good retail for the masses. We don’t do enclosed malls – although we just bought one, to reposition – but generally, we don’t do enclosed malls.”
NewMark Merrill owns or manages 73 shopping centers throughout Southern California, Colorado and Illinois, representing almost 10 million square feet with a collective value of more than $1 billion. It provides substantial marketing support for its tenants through marketing plans for each center in which it has an interest.
Retail always is evolving. “The one thing that’s exciting about it also is terrifying,” Sigal remarks. “The average length of a successful retail concept is 10 years, and the speed of change is accelerating because the Internet has a pretty substantial impact. Good retailers are always thinking about how they can stay up with the change that has borne itself out.”
Sigal emphasizes the company’s community focus. “You’ve got to make sure you know your community,” he insists. “That’s the reason this company has always grown, despite never having a business plan. We’ve never given back an asset to a bank investor, never lost money. Our occupancies are never below 92 to 93 percent.”
Sigal’s background is that of a young, smart go-getter. He started programming computers when he was 12 after his junior high school introduced an experimental program to teach young students how to program mainframes using bubble cards. He parlayed that experience into converting programs written for large computers to work on the newly introduced microcomputers.
From age 12 until he was 18, he had a thriving business computerizing accounting departments, selling software through the mail, and even teaching others how to program. While attending the University of California at Los Angeles at the age of 20, he was hired by West Venture Cos., a Southern California-based homebuilder, for a two-week “temporary” assignment to computerize their accounting department and introduce computer modeling on the then-new spreadsheet programs.
After two years of finding various ways to remain at the company, and having temporary jobs selling insurance and demonstrating new computer systems at retail stores – all while remaining in school – in 1987, he founded a commercial retail division for the company called West Venture Commercial, where he built or redeveloped more than 25 shopping centers and oversaw their management. He then became CEO of the overall company, overseeing the shopping center business, the home builder and a related mortgage company.
In 1997, Sigal bought West Venture Commercial with investors, sold the homebuilder, and changed the name of the company to NewMark Merrill Companies. Eventually, he bought out the investors to become the sole owner. Several members of the senior team that founded NewMark Merrill Companies with Sigal remain principals with the company today.
“Most of my education was on the job,” Sigal declares. “I’ve been working since I was in junior high. Probably the biggest factor was having great mentors. That’s been my best education.”