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Commercial Real Estate

How the Retail Connection Became a Real Estate Powerhouse

A common vision has helped Steve Lieberman and Alan Shor to build their business.
Photography by Bud Force

The co-founders of The Retail Connection don’t have a whole lot in common when it comes to their backgrounds—or their personalities. The energetic, talkative Steve Lieberman is a master negotiator who has spent his entire career in the retail real estate sector. The low-key, serious, and sometimes wry Alan Shor worked for more than a decade as a corporate attorney before shifting to the operations side of business, running a national jewelry chain.

They knew each other tangentially when a common friend brought them together in 2003. At the time, both were looking to start their own concern. “You guys are perfect for each other,” the friend said. “You’re what you both need. You each bring things to the table that are complementary; you fill gaps for the other.”

Lieberman and Shor discovered they had distinctly different skill sets, but a common vision for the kind of business they wanted to build. So in January of 2004, they co-founded The Retail Connection.

The partners were determined to create a firm that would reinvent how landlords and tenants work together. The focus: Driving the expansion plans of retail clients and extending the reach of their real estate programs. They’d grow, they figured, by helping their clients grow.

TBS and Chick-fil-A
Shor was born in Liberal, Kan., where his father managed television and radio stations (and at one point worked with Alf Landon, the Republican candidate who lost the 1936 Presidential election in a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt). When Shor was 4, his father’s job took the family to Albany, a blue-collar town in Georgia, and that’s where he was raised. Shor earned his law degree at the University of Georgia, then joined a large national firm, Troutman Sanders, working in corporate litigation before transitioning into a business advisory role. He had two primary clients—Turner Broadcasting Corp. and Chick-fil-A—and worked closely with the companies’ leaders, Ted Turner and Truett Cathy.

“I got a crash-course education in business from two of maybe the greatest entrepreneurs ever,” Shor says. “They were very different. One was hyperactive and loud in the way he approached his business, and the other was a very devout, religious man who did things quietly. But both built multibillion-dollar empires.”

Shor found working on the business side, versus law, to be much more dynamic, interesting, and strategic. “I also realized that you couldn’t create wealth being an attorney, unless you were on the plaintiff side, which I had no interest in,” he says.

He had a good legal career—making partner at a young age and being tapped by the firm to open and lead its Washington, D.C., office—but moved to North Texas in early 1995 to serve as general counsel of Irving-based Zale Corp. Shor was intrigued by the opportunity to help turn around a struggling business, and by the promise from the CEO that he could join its management ranks once the company’s legal affairs were in order. That promise was kept, and Shor had the opportunity to oversee nearly every area of the business, eventually serving as president, chief operating officer, and a member of Zale Corp.’s board.

“We  grew revenue from about $600 million to $2.3 billion,” he says. “The stock went from about $8 a share to $60 a share. We had our bumps in the road­—it wasn’t perfect—but it was a pretty good run.”

Shor resigned in 2003 and began looking for his next venture. “I had the good fortune to work with a great team fixing a very broken business,” he says. “Now it was time to build something from the ground up.”

Chameleons and Kites
Lieberman was born and raised in North Texas, a third-generation Dallasite and son of a highly renowned cancer surgeon. Many in the family hoped he’d one day follow in those footsteps. He had a very close relationship with his father, but felt more professionally aligned with his grandfathers. One operated Lieberman’s, a small chain of dry good stores throughout Central and South Texas. The other was a traveling salesman who turned his business into a wholesale operation, selling  leather goods and accessories to customers that ranged from mom-and-pop stores to JCPenney and Neiman Marcus.

Growing up, Lieberman couldn’t get enough of two board games—Monopoly and Stock Market. He also had a series of business ventures with his best friend, selling chameleons and snakes and setting up other buddies in vacant lots next to retail centers to fly and sell kites.
He attended Tulane University, because it placed a high percentage of undergrad students in its med school. But by the middle of his first semester, it was clear to Lieberman that he wasn’t destined for a career in medicine. He met with an aptitude specialist and found he scored a 6 out of 100 in the sciences. “Where I was off the chart was foresight, marketing, and entrepreneurial-related measures,” Lieberman says. “I was advised to get  into marketing or anything where I’d negotiate.”

He switched to the business school at Tulane, then went on to grad school at The University of Texas. He thought he’d go into marketing and maybe work for a friend of his father’s, Dallas advertising guru Liener Temerlin. It was Temerlin who strongly encouraged Lieberman to get into real estate. “He thought I had a good marketing career ahead, but that I could really reach my potential in real estate,” Lieberman says. “He was the most highly regarded business person I knew. That direction from him was almost like being anointed.”

Lieberman finished up at UT, came back to Dallas, and interviewed with several real estate firms. He accepted “the worst offer, by far, on face value,” from Henry S. Miller Co. “Everyone else seemed to be afraid of them,” Lieberman says. “Only the best could get away with making an offer that bad. I wanted to be the best, and it only counted if I was in the best shop.”

Lieberman focused on project leasing and quickly found success. But he soon switched over to the emerging specialty of tenant representation, realizing brokers who worked on that side of the table truly controlled the deals. When Henry S. Miller colleague Herb Weitzman left in 1989 to form his own firm, Lieberman joined him at The Weitzman Group. In the 14 years he was there, Lieberman became president, partner, and one of the most successful brokers in Dallas. He was at the top of the food chain, but yearned to create a bigger chain.

‘A Race with No Finish Line’
After Zale, Shor had a number of opportunities at other public companies. But he wanted to leave the bureacracy behind and strategically lead a business long term, rather than shooting for quarter-by-quarter numbers. When colleagues found out he was going into business with Lieberman, they were concerned. “I had people calling me and asking me, ‘Are you nuts?’” Shor says. “I’m sure Steve got the same calls, because we have such different personalities. But we knew if we combined our respective skill sets, we could build something special.”

The yin and yang relationship has obviously worked. The Retail Connection now has 85 employees and represents more than 240 retail and restaurant clients and more than 25 million square feet of retail projects. It has four offices statewide—in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. Last year, it grew both its headcount and brokerage business by an impressive 20 percent, representing clients in $1 billion in transactions, including monetizing more than $200 million of the firm’s own investments.

Through spinoffs, it’s one of the most prolific retail developers and investors in the Southwest. By focusing on tenant-driven collaborations, it has acquired 1.3 million square feet of centers and triggered more than 3.5 million square feet of new developments in the past 18 months.  It has a strong management operation and is in the merchant banking business, too. In the past year, it saw the successful IPOs of two of its portfolio companies.

“The point is—and the strength is—everything is connected,” Lieberman says.

Lieberman has been no slouch on the brokerage side, either. Last year, he put together 38 deals totaling more than 1 million square feet and $100 million in transactional value. For Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., he brokered 16 deals totaling 450,000 square feet. Other clients include Nordstrom Rack, Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft, Sports Authority, and PetSmart.

When asked how they’ve managed growth, the efficient Shor gives a one-word answer: “Responsibly.” Characteristically, Lieberman elaborates: “This is where the magic of our relationship comes into play. We used to say that I focus on the top line and Alan focuses on the bottom line, but we’ve always aimed at the same objectives. The reality is, we have a very complimentary vision and we’ve balanced a very strong desire for growth with a very necessary and valuable need for discipline. And that combination has served us very well.”

“We are in a race that has no finish line,” Lieberman adds. “I truly believe we’re in the first steps of where we’re going to take this thing. The real story is all ahead.”