There should not be much of a learning curve for Huw Thomas, named recently as Calloway REIT’s full-time Chief Executive Officer.
Thomas, a Trustee of Calloway for the past two years and interim CEO of the REIT for the past four months, is a former Chief Financial Officer of Canadian Tire Corp. and has a good feel for the retail real estate landscape.
“I have a good basic understanding of the company’s operations” and due to his nine years as CFO of Canadian Tire “I understand retail real estate fairly well,” he said.
Thomas, 60, retired from the Tire and had joined a number of boards including Dollarama, Chartwell Retirement Residences REIT and KP Tissue. He is a Chartered Accountant and is soon to be honored with the FCA designation by the Canadian accountancy institute, which is a big deal for CAs, the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award.
Thomas takes over the helm at Calloway from former CEO Al Mawani who left the REIT in March due to a serious illness in his family.
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Thomas was CFO of Canadian Tire at a time when the venerable hard goods retailer was under threat from U.S. merchandisers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Its strategy (since proven to be extremely successful) was to revamp most of its 400-plus store base in favor of larger store formats.
“Canadian Tire was the deer in the headlights in that period in people’s perception, but they totally refurbished their portfolio,” he explained.
Instead of going head to head with Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire has found it can live and even prosper alongside Wal-Mart. “Even though they competed they both wanted to be next to each other.”
That odd couple relationship meant that Thomas is long familiar with a big segment of Calloway’s real estate portfolio as the REIT has a deep relationship with the world’s largest retailer.
Today, Canadian Tire is Calloway’s second-largest tenant behind Wal-Mart.
The close Wal-Mart connection was illustrated with the recent $231.5-million deal to acquire four Wal-Mart anchored shopping centres from sellers Walmart Canada Realty Inc. and SmartCentres Realty Inc. The two companies hired a third party broker to sell the Ontario centres (in Ottawa, Kanata, Niagara Falls, and Port Perry). If nothing else, the arrangement ensured that no one would think that Calloway was getting a sweetheart deal.
Steady as she goes
Thomas does not sound like a CEO who will shake up Calloway’s business. “My sense is the organization hasn’t really missed a beat. We have had a pretty active few months in terms of acquisitions, development, property openings, refinancing … short term at least we have a great group of people and a well-established strategy so I think it is going in the right direction.”
That does not mean the new CEO does not see challenges ahead. Chief among them will be to raise Calloway’s profile and, hopefully, unit price with investors.
“The trust has clearly been able to operate and generate very stable results but if I would look at peer organizations, we have a lower growth profile than most of them,” he explained. “My challenge is to build on what I think is lots of potential, either from the existing portfolio of shopping centers or the relationship with have with Simon Properties Group (and partner SmartCentres) and we opened our first Premium Outlet site last week to great consumer response.”
Longer term, Calloway has its ambitious Vaughan Metropolitan Centre development to work on.
Vaughan Metropolitan Centre – Artists Rendering
Big bet at the top of Toronto
The Vaughan development, a 50-50 joint venture between Calloway and SmartCentres, includes nearly 6 million square feet of new commercial, residential and retail development within the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre (VMC).
The real estate companies together owned pieces of land and development rights to the 53-acre site for a number of years but it was the go-ahead for the Spadina-York subway station, linking the city of Vaughan to Toronto below it that jumpstarted the project.
Calloway had originally planned to develop the Vaughan SmartCentre on the site, which was originally acquired in 2005 from SmartCentres. Leasing and construction was halted after the subway expansion became known and Calloway then began plans for a higher density development.
The development will include a number of commercial with a height in the 12 to 14 storey range. The first building slated for construction under the joint venture will be a 300,000 square foot tower with KPMG as the lead tenant taking about 50% of available space. Designed by Diamond & Schmitt Architects, construction of the LEED Gold standard tower is scheduled to begin as early as this year and will feature a tunnel connecting it to the subway.
Calloway is known as an owner and operator of retail real estate, 27 million square feet of rentable space in 121 value-oriented retail centres. Mixed use development efforts such as the Vaughan project as well as U.S.-style high-end outlet centres represent new areas of growth for the REIT.
Both Calloway and SmartCentres, a private real estate development company owned by Mitchell Goldhar (Wal-Mart’s Canadian developer) which has built more than 250 shopping centres across the country, are relatively new to office and residential development. But they are adding or contracting expertise as required.
Calloway and SmartCentres have a long relationship and extremely close ties. Calloway has been buying SmartCentre-WalMart shopping centres for a decade, and the REIT is headquartered in SmartCentre’s Vaughan headquarters. The two have done some smaller joint venture deals and SmartCentres owns about 20% of Calloway’s units.