He didn’t plan to be a shopping center expert, it just sort of happened. But today Greg Jones has the ability to look at a retail property in decay and immediately discern if it is salvageable or not, and if so, he can provide the necessary road map to get it back on track. It’s a skill that’s in high demand and worth millions of dollars.

The Guelph native was an air force brat, who spent his high school years in St. Thomas and then decided to go to Ryerson University in Toronto. “When I went to Ryerson I had no intention of being in the shopping center business, that was not a career I had even thought of, I didn’t know people did that. I originally started off in their hotel administration program. But I took a course called ‘Applied Geography,’ which dealt with the selection of sites for retail and industrial purposes and for some reason I did really well, and Ryerson just happened to be starting an ‘Applied Geography’ program at the time.”

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So Greg switched over, and the new program had between its third and fourth years a work-study component to it whereby students had to find a job related to what they were learning. It just so happened that Bramalea Limited was entering into the shopping center business, and the company was starting its own internal program to train people to run its centers. Greg went for an interview and was immediately impressed by the VP of Shopping Centers, Bruce Pattison. He was also very impressed with Greg, hired him and eventually became his mentor.

Back then, the shopping center industry was a new industry as there weren’t any shopping malls until the late 50s. So there was no way to learn how to be in the business, there was no historical mechanism.

Learning the ropes, Greg recalls, “You had to do everything in the shopping center, you worked on maintenance for a few weeks then marketing for a few more, you basically moved all throughout a shopping center for the entire summer and you learned how it worked. I found it very interesting.”

Bramalea was so taken by Greg that the company asked him to stay on, so in his fourth year he went to school in the morning and worked for Bramalea in the afternoon. And then, when he graduated in 1979, he went to work for Bramalea full-time. Greg quickly learned he liked the development side of the business best, but before he could concentrate on that Bruce had him manage a shopping mall in Saskatoon first. The idea being that if Greg was going to learn the business, he had to go somewhere isolated, where he couldn’t call for help every time things got hairy. And he really learned how a shopping center worked on a day-to-day basis, which later became a tremendous advantage because very early on he learned the difficulties of operating one.

Then he returned to Toronto and started working on small development projects in an area called development coordination. He started to learn how to assess properties for acquisition as Bramalea was looking to buy real estate in the US and grow as a company. So when he was 25, he started doing US development for Bramalea including shopping centers in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore, Maryland. These were existing properties that Bramalea renovated and that’s how Greg became knowledgeable about renovations, which is his primary skill in the business. At the time, he also put together a deal where Bramalea bought 12 shopping centers throughout Texas, Colorado and New Mexico.

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Greg Jones, right, discussing plans with architect Geoffrey Cresswell.

In 1985, at age 30, he decided he needed a change, as Bramalea was the only company he ever worked for, so he headed out on his own and started his own company, called the Redlands Group. He first partnered with a group in Halifax and he worked on a couple of small projects there. Then in 1991, Bramalea brought Greg back as a consultant because it was running into financial difficulty and needed help repositioning some of its properties. So he ran a division of Bramalea doing ‘financial workouts’ for problem retail assets.

In 1995, his own company, the Redlands Group, started taking on bigger projects and began to specialize in renovating shopping centers for pension funds in partnership with 20Vic Management, a large shopping center management company in Canada. This included a CAN$50 million project in St. Catharines. Then in 1996 he had an opportunity to go work on the first shopping mall built in Budapest, Hungary, after the fall of communism. “The site was actually on the old Russian military base where they kept all their tanks. It was a six-and-a-half foot thick slab of reinforced concrete stretching 35 acres. We just drilled holes in it, we didn’t dig it up because the structural engineer said it was better than the earth.”

After the project in Hungary was over, he returned to Canada to work on another shopping center renovation, this time a CAN$45 million retail complex in Winnipeg. Then in late 1997, in partnership with 20Vic Management, he took on the development management of the largest shopping center renovation ever done in Canada, a CAN$210 project.

In the early 90s while he was consulting for Bramalea, he did some work for Redlands in Asia including stops in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and China. So after the Calgary project finished, Greg’s good friend, architect Geoffrey Cresswell (whose firm RDG, is a former TCCC company of the year) said Asia and particularly Thailand was starting to rebound from its economic recession. Considering Geoff’s advice he made a decision to market Redlands Group’s services in Asia.

So Greg walked into Golden Land’s office here in Bangkok and found the company had similar interests to his. It was a residential developer, which possessed land with retail opportunities but the company didn’t have much retail experience. So Greg formed a joint-venture with Golden Land to assist the company with the retail development of its properties. Using the Golden Land opportunity as an entrée, the Redlands Group continues to be an independent consulting firm providing shopping center development management services to property owners in Asia.

So what is it about the work that intrigues Greg? “You have to learn and understand the market. And if you come to a country like Thailand you have to understand the culture and the intricacies of the local market. And that happens everywhere in the world; in different parts of Canada, there are different market facts you have to understand, and you then have to take that knowledge and transport it into a physical structure.

“An example would be the Chinook Center in Calgary, which is located along a major strip of street retail in South Calgary. In most enclosed shopping centers, nothing faces the street, but in Calgary we created exterior storefronts in the mall to give the center a street presence. So we took the strip retail that Calgarians are used to, but we upgraded it a notch, applied it to an enclosed shopping mall and gave the shopping center street presence.

“Then in Winnipeg, where people have a social life that revolves around the climate, we redesigned a large food court and added two large fireplaces making it look like a ski chalet. When it’s cold in Winnipeg, people spend hours hunched over their donuts and coffee, commiserating and reading the paper, but they don’t tend to hang out in malls. So we made the mall more of a social spot and people loved it. To find gas fire places that were large enough we had purchase them from the same company that supplied units for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house and another in the villa of a Saudi sheik.

“Another problem we encountered was that people were just not spending enough time in shopping centers. The idea was to ‘get in, and get out’ and they usually spent less than the thirty minutes in the mall, thereby limiting how much money they would spend. So we decided to create more of a social atmosphere, and we started putting in couches, coffee tables and rugs and people started hanging out more and then obviously spending more money. You have to remember that for the building to be successful, it has to adapt to the market. Some tenants were resistant to this at first, but most realized that if people were hanging out in front of their store, maybe they would look at their showcase, maybe they would remember they have a product and maybe they would eventually buy something.”

“When you do a renovation like the Chinook Center, you are taking on a property that has a lot of problems to start with - both physically and business wise. So you have to both physically change it and reposition it in the market, but you have a lot of constraints – it’s an existing structure, so you can’t just do whatever you want. But if you finish it and it works that’s a great thrill because you’ve spent three years of your life on it and you get satisfaction seeing the finished product.”

Editor’s Note: Greg, by the way is not just a shopping center developer. He used to share the goaltending duties of Bangkok's Flying Farang hockey team with Jason Cotsmire. Ironically, the Farangs play all their games in, yeah, you guessed it, shopping centers.

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