CEO of mall owner with shares down 99% says there's more to life than money

Despite sinking shares and fading relevancy, CBL boss is resolved to 'ride this out'

New York

SHARES of CBL & Associates Properties are down 99 per cent from their peak, but chief executive officer (CEO) Stephen Lebovitz is undeterred.

After all, he started working at the family business in the middle of the savings and loan crisis. When he succeeded his father as CEO two decades later, the 2008 financial crash was still reverberating throughout the US economy.

Now he faces perhaps his most seminal challenge yet: To convince Americans who increasingly shop online that they should keep coming to CBL's malls - even as the novel coronavirus spreads across the US - and persuade Wall Street that the effort will work.

And it will, he says. Cycles come and go. It is just going to take some time to ride this one out.

"If you're measured quarterly and you read all the headlines, then it's a challenging environment to be in," the 59-year-old said in a telephone interview. "But I'm not looking at today, I'm looking at the future."

To others, it is a Sisyphean task. It has been a difficult stretch for most mall owners in recent years, but especially for CBL and others who own weaker properties - so-called Class B or C malls - that have been hit hard by slowing foot traffic and department store closings. And analysts say Mr Lebovitz's plan to reduce CBL's dependence on apparel is far from a certain bet.

"I don't see an inflection point in the B-mall business that will make cash flows grow again," said Vince Tibone, an analyst at Green Street Advisors.

He describes the Lebovitz family as "good operators" who are paying the price for taking on too much leverage before the bottom fell out of the mall business.

Many investors are not taking chances. CBL, a real estate investment trust that owns or has stakes in 108 properties across the country, has a market value of US$62 million, down from a high of US$3.3 billion in early 2007. The company, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, discontinued its dividend last year.

The Lebovitz family's combined stake, once worth at least US$800 million, has dwindled to US$7 million.

Another headwind

The novel coronavirus, which has killed thousands worldwide and is spreading in the US, could deal another blow to beleaguered mall operators.

Almost 60 per cent of 1,900 shoppers surveyed by Coresight Research in February said they would avoid or curtail visits to malls and shopping centres if the virus worsens. More than 1,300 cases have been recorded around the country, and at least 39 people have died.

CBL said that it is working to ensure thorough cleaning of all high-traffic common areas and has placed hand sanitiser throughout its properties.

It is not like CBL and its peers need another headwind. For years, online shopping and changing consumer preferences have diminished once-mighty brick-and-mortar retailers.

Macy's said in February it would close 125 locations. Sears Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018. JC Penney has shuttered one-fifth of its stores since 2015.

Losing these so-called anchor stores is particularly damaging for firms such as CBL. Its properties are in cities like Little Rock, Arkansas, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the pool of potential shoppers is smaller and tends to be less affluent than in bigger metro areas.

CBL's malls generated an average US$386 of sales per square foot in 2019, compared with US$972 for Taubman Centers and US$801 for Macerich, which both focus more on bigger cities.

Class A malls also are expected to weather broad market slumps not only because they are popular destinations, but because the owners, like Brookfield Properties or Simon Property Group, which recently agreed to buy Taubman, have resources to cover shortfalls.

Those on the lower end are in many cases left with two options: spending to spruce up malls, or let their properties slowly die.

Mr Lebovitz is decidedly in the former camp. He is betting that CBL can continue to thrive by returning to what was once the core purpose of a mall: being a community centre.

New downtown

That notion was formed by Victor Gruen, an architect who emigrated from Austria in 1938 to escape the Nazis. He designed the first enclosed regional mall in Edina, Minnesota, in the early 1960s, with air conditioning that provided shoppers relief from the heat of summer. At the centre of the two-storey building, he placed a town square with a fishpond, trees, and a 6.4 m birdcage, all illuminated by a skylight.

He envisioned it as a chance to remake Minneapolis's downtown, without all of its architectural mistakes, a 2004 New Yorker profile of Mr Gruen reported.

Where department stores left gaping holes, CBL brought in less traditional tenants. In the company's Meridian Mall in Lansing, Michigan, what was once a Gordmans store is now a trampoline park, and a go-karting centre now occupies the space that a few years ago hosted a Younkers store. In Madison, Wisconsin, an old Sears store has been turned into a wine shop and a Dave & Buster's.

Shopping aside, the malls also play a social role as the home of concerts, runs and charity events.

"The narrative suggests that they don't," Mr Lebovitz said, "but look in the parking lot and you see that people are still coming."

Extensive revamps can take several years, but CBL has the runway to get it done, he said, pointing to the US$1.19 billion term loan and credit line it secured in January 2019.

In August, Michael Ashner's Exeter Capital disclosed it had bought a 6 per cent stake in CBL and said the shares were undervalued.

In November, CBL struck an agreement with the activist real estate investment firm, granting it two board seats.

Others are not so sure. In recent months, CBL's bonds have tumbled to less than half their face value, with its 2026 unsecured notes dropping to less than 40 US cents on the dollar.

CBL was conceived about six decades ago by Mr Lebovitz's grandfather Moses, who opened a shopping mall in Chattanooga on the site of a drive-in theatre that had been damaged in a wind storm.

Mr Lebovitz's father, Charles, continued building malls in cities like Asheville, North Carolina, and Laredo, Texas.

In the 1970s, the business merged with a New York-based real estate firm. CBL - Charles Lebovitz's initials - was spun out from that company in 1978. It went public in 1993.

Stephen Lebovitz, who studied biology before deciding to focus on real estate, started at CBL after a stint at Goldman Sachs. His brothers Michael and Alan also work for the company.

While the family's stake has declined since 2007, the members still collected more than US$200 million of dividends over those years, according to calculations by Bloomberg News.

The firm has dealt with other headaches. In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission probed four of its loans that originated years earlier. CBL's board commissioned an independent investigation that found no wrongdoing, and the SEC did not take any action.

Former US senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, whom Mr Lebovitz has called a friend, faced scrutiny in recent years over his frequent trading of CBL and other stocks. No evidence of wrongdoing emerged.

The Lebovitz family, meanwhile, has only made modest sales in recent years to offset taxes, the CEO said.

When asked whether the stock plunge stresses him, Mr Lebovitz chuckled. "I need to lie down on a couch to answer that question," he said. "There's a lot more to life than money." BLOOMBERG