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James Maurin, chairman of Covington, LA-based Stirling Properties, is completing his one year term as the 44th chairman of the International Council of Shopping Centers. Maurin will be replaced at the ICSC’s Spring Convention in Las Vegas by a yet-to-be named industry executive. During the past year, Maurin has traveled to ICSC meetings and other events throughout the United States and in nine other countries, logging about 120,000 airline miles in the process. The Spring Convention will be the 45th ICSC-related event he has attended the last year. After completing his term, Maurin expects to stay involved as a volunteer for ICSC, specializing in legislative matters. He recently spoke to GSR about his tenure as chairman.

GSR: After becoming chairman, what did you realize was the biggest challenge facing the industry?

Maurin: Obviously, having been in the shopping center business for 30 years and being active in ICSC for about 20, you go into this job thinking, “The reason they gave me this job is because I know all there is.” The humbling part of this job is that you come out of it and realize that in that one year how much you didn’t know and how much you have learned. It is an eye-opening experience, particularly the travel. Any of us in the business tend to be focused on our backyard, on our country, or whatever. The two biggest eye openers for me, one was more North American and one was more international. On the North American side, it’s the role that government continues to play in terms of either trying to interfere with our commerce or our business. Obviously, I was aware of that, but I really got a first-hand look this year talking to developers around North America. On the federal side, the biggest issue is the e-commerce issue where the federal government will not allow a level playing field between traditional shopping center formats and electronic formats. And on the state and local level, the growth-management issues, the big-box legislation, the ballot-box zoning, those become more apparent.

On the international side, every country I went to, I got a chance to meet the developers there and to visit a lot of centers. Internationally, our biggest challenge is also our biggest opportunity. That is the tremendous growth that’s occurring in the developing countries of the world, like India and Eastern Europe. It’s only been a few years since they had their first shopping center built, and the shopping center, as we know it, was kind of a new thing to consumers in those markets as they emerged and became more affluent. I think ICSC’s biggest role is, as shopping center retail emerges in these countries, we’ve got to be there to serve our developer and retailer members in helping them understand how things work.

GSR: Do you get the sense that the industry is making progress in its dealings with local and federal government?

Maurin: On both levels, we’re making progress, particularly on the federal level. ICSC, just like the rest of the real estate world, got caught with their pants down back in 1986 when the Tax Reform Act was passed. We weren’t there, we didn’t weigh in, and that one piece of legislation now almost 20 years later is clearly given credit for a the problems that the whole real estate industry had in the late 80s and early 90s. ICSC changed that when it opened its Washington office shortly after that. Earlier this year, we had our Leadership Summit in Washington, and we had about 160 people, volunteers from around the country that came there, and we probably saw 60% of our congressmen and senators. We’ve been doing that religiously every year for the last 12 or 13 years. The shopping center industry is known in Washington. We have a very active PAC. We support the people who support our industry and I think the biggest evidence of that is the Bankruptcy Reform Bill, which was just passed and signed by the President. We’ve been lobbying that bill for eight years. That’s a reflection of how things happen in Washington. They don’t happen very quickly, and you’ve got to be persistent. You’ve got to be there every day. ICSC has made tremendous strides on the federal level. They know our issues, but we’ve got to be patient.

GSR: Do you think most developers are conscious of the role government plays in getting a center built, do they tend to overlook these issues?

Maurin: Developers entering the industry find out from day one. It’s all about your first project if you’re a developer, and to get that first project done today there’s a myriad of federal, state and local permitting that it takes to get the project off the ground. Unless you can get your wetlands permit from the federal government and the zoning and land-use permits from the local governments, you don’t build a thing. You become savvy about that real quick.

GSR: You’ve done a great deal of traveling as the chairman. How were you able to balance that with running your business?

Maurin: There is no balance. I’ve been gone from my company probably 70% the time since I took office. I think what is good is that I found out four months before I was going to be chairman that I would be nominated as chairman, so with that kind lead time, you can make plans. For a small company, we made provisions for that, knowing that I would be gone. The ICSC staff in New York does such a marvelous job orientating the new chairman as well as handling your travel and scheduling. With that kind of lead time, you can make plans. For a small company, we made provision. ICSC does such a marvelous job in orientating the chairman as well as handling your travel and scheduling. They try very, very hard. But you basically agree to give up almost a full year away from your company to serve the industry.

GSR: On the other side of that, was there anything about the experience that will end up helping your company?

Maurin: The biggest thing that I got from it was a humbling and profound understanding of how important ICSC is to my business. By today’s standards my firm is small – I’ve got about 300 employees, and we’re strictly a regional developer in the Gulf South. In going to these local meeting, I realized how much ICSC does for us. We have the opportunity to bring people together that we really need to meet to get our deals done. And as a result of meeting and seeing so many people around the world, there are more people today who know who Stirling Properties is. That doesn’t hurt.

GSR: What are the differences between international and domestic consumers that you encountered in your travels?

Maurin: It’s not so much a difference between US and foreign consumers, it’s a difference between consumers in the developed world and in the developing world. I saw a great similarity in both shopping center formats and what the consumer wanted when I was in Western Europe, Canada, the US and some of the major cities in South America. But when I went to China and traveled into Eastern Europe, it’s very clear that the consumer is just getting introduced to the shopping centers we have taken for granted. They’re excited about it, they’re very curious about it and beginning to embrace it wholeheartedly, but they’re still trying to figure out how it works. The retailers that are looking to get into those markets are working very hard to figure out what that consumer wants versus the consumer that they may have been serving in the United States. The differences are significant. What works for Gap, for example, in the US is not necessarily going to work for them when they go to China.

GSR: Do you feel like one term is enough to get things accomplished in the position?

Maurin: To get the leaders of our industry that are active in the business, which is an important component of being chairman of ICSC, the sacrifice of one year is the most any active leaders of their company can do. I know the past 10 chairman very well, and I studied what they had done. I sat down with every one of them, and I said, “What would you have done differently?” I’ve looked at what their initiatives were, what they accomplished and didn’t get accomplished. I think you set your goal by saying, “What can I accomplish in a year?” You work very hard to meet that goal.

GSR: Is there any advice would you give to the next chairman?

Maurin: Get ready; it’s a tremendous ride. Try to meet as many people as you possibly can. You can so easily get caught into a talking head kind of position here, and the most important part of this is to maintain perspective. When you have the opportunity, get as much sleep as you possibly can because you’re going to spend a lot of time on airplanes. But be prepared to have your eyes open in terms of the importance and significance of the retail industry. No matter how long you’ve been in it, you’re going to get a totally different perspective. And enjoy it, because it’s a very rewarding opportunity.

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