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Mary Lou Fiala, president and COO of Jacksonville-based Regency Centers, will take over the chair of the International Council of Shopping Centers at its May convention in Las Vegas. She spoke with Real Estate Florida during a recent ICSC conference in Hollywood about her upcoming tenure.

ReFla: With economic challenges ahead, is this bad timing for you to become ICSC chair?

Fiala: It’s not going to be as easy as it has been. We’ve been in a cycle for almost the past decade of upward sales, upward trends in terms of occupancy, rent growth and all those wonderful things. I believe over time there will be more retail bankruptcies and a slight decline in occupancy in most portfolios, and not the kind of rent growth we have had.

You have to stand back, do what you need to do and wait for the credit markets to turn back around. When that occurs, be prepared and make sure you have a lot of liquidity, like Regency and many of our peers have, so that you can take advantage of the opportunities.

I like doing things when they’re more difficult, so this is an exciting time for me. I think tough business times make us do things better. Sometimes when retail sales are strong, people open stores that they shouldn’t and developers build projects that they shouldn’t. When things get difficult, everybody’s wiser and more prudent in their decisions.

ReFla: Is this a time for retailers to get back to basics?

Fiala: I’ve told this story in ICSC board meetings. My father was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne in World War II, and when times got tough he’d say things like “hunker down” and “tuck and roll.” It’s time to tighten up and keep moving, and I believe good retailers and good developers will continue to do that.

ReFla: What’s Regency Centers’ game plan going forward?

Fiala: We have a ton of financial flexibility that we’re able to use to continue to grow our development program and respond to acquisition opportunities. We’ve got great investment partners to be able to use lower-cost capital and that we can reinvest in our development program. We’ve developed up to $600 million of shopping centers on average over the past couple of years, and we have more than a couple billion dollars worth of development in process or in our pipeline. I believe the pie is going to get smaller when it comes to development and retailers expanding, but because of our core competency, our pipeline and our relationships with cities and retailers, we will get a bigger piece of that pie. We’re very confident in our business model and our ability to grow.

ReFla: How will the economic downturn, whether it’s a recession or not, affect grocery-anchored shopping centers?

Fiala: Traditional grocers, specifically in a downturn, have better sales because people stay home and cook. You’re just not going to spend the same money to go out to eat. Discount grocers will have slower growth than they have historically, but it will still be positive growth. You have shoppers who normally go to a traditional store and go to a discount store only on occasion, but now they may go to a discount store more frequently because they can get more for their money. Grocers are more resilient because people have to eat.

ReFla: With more supermarket brands planning expansion into Florida, do you see any effect on Publix’s market domination here?

Fiala: It’s a wait-and-see, and good grocers like Publix will adapt. They will come up with their own 20,000-sf convenience stores offering fresh foods, just like Publix has done with their Greenwise stores within existing supermarkets.

One of the strengths of Publix is that they have done a wonderful job understanding their consumer. They are the Florida grocery store, they have such dominant market share and they meet their customers’ needs in their individual markets. Florida has such a diverse population and the fact that they have been so adaptable has made them successful. I don’t believe that they will lose market share because they are such a strong operator.

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