An entrenched Southern Californian, Sandy Sigal has endured fires, floods, mudslides and other calamities. “I thought I had seen it all,” said the founder and CEO of shopping center developer and property manager NewMark Merrill Cos. “I hadn’t.”
In fact, no one had seen anything quite like the sudden retail shutdown wrought by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. But Sigal isn’t one to lay dormant in the face of tumult. He launched the Waves of Kindness program. Through the program, NewMark Merrill and restaurant tenants provided meals to more than 2,600 healthcare workers in California, Colorado and Illinois. NewMark Merrill and grocery tenants also doled out $14,000 worth of groceries to nearly 400 families. “Our communities needed us,” Sigal said.
Sigal helped his struggling tenants obtain relief through the Paycheck Protection Program, too, then ventured out into the field — albeit cautiously — to chat with and hopefully inspire the people he calls “industry first responders,” such as property managers, security guards and landscapers. “It has been heartwarming to see their positive attitudes and strong customer orientations.”
Videoconferencing has sufficed during COVID-19 but feels unnatural, said Sigal, who’s been heading to his office daily, often shadowed by his 19-year-old son. “We sometimes forget how much communication is nonverbal.” The cancellation of this year’s RECon only reinforced that sentiment. “The beauty of ICSC has always been the discovery element and the ability to meet people in an accelerated way. Nothing replaces that.”
Reopening regulations have been a jumble in the three states where NewMark Merrill operates, Sigal said. “They all had varying spacing and mask requirements; rules were different for every state, every county and every city.”
In general, day-to-day business “has really been a 24-hour-a-day, multilevel chess game,” Sigal said. “We’re remote, tenants are remote and communication has become huge with them, as it has with local, state and national leaders,” Sigal said.
For all the pain it inflicted, the pandemic has accelerated industry trends that would have arrived more slowly, he said. “We’ve had to be hyperefficient in changing as [providers of services to tenants], and that’s going to serve us well. In some ways, we will come out of this stronger and better,” he said. “And we’re also going to see a lot fewer people flying cross-country for one-hour meetings!”
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