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Deb Szima signed on as the first national director of real estate for SRS Distribution, a fast-growing building products distributor in August 2021.
Her chief tasks were to build out a centralized corporate real estate team (incorporating the existing greenfield branch expansion team and strategy into a larger, more cohesive real estate umbrella), ensure efficient third-party vendor use, and create a process to better align real estate data analytics with business strategies.
Szima’s formative professional roles focused on operations and brand marketing before she pivoted to real estate. “I feel that I have a good breadth of real estate knowledge,” Szima says. “My background not being entirely rooted in real estate, though, has helped me to understand how the transactions I negotiate impact the organization as a whole, including cross-functional partners in accounting and marketing and the field.” Thus, Szima says she is attuned to the company’s big picture strategies—a strength that those more heavily steeped in real estate may not enjoy.
SRS Distribution is fueled by an ambitious acquisition strategy. Company leaders face the challenge of knitting together multiple organizations into a cohesive whole and supporting strong organic growth. As the first person to head the real estate function at the national level, Szima assembled a team to manage some 600 leases, negotiate with vendors to get better deals leveraging the company’s growing scale, and look for ways to make the central real estate function more efficient.
Two personality traits—being “a perpetual student” and an affinity for building relationships—made Szima well suited for these challenges, she says. While choosing people to fill key roles including a portfolio manager in charge of leasing, a construction and facilities manager to oversee development and maintenance, and specialists to support those managers, she prized a few key personal attributes. Recruits had to bring a positive attitude, be highly collaborative, honest, and have low ego. By Szima’s way of thinking, these characteristics are even more important than technical expertise.
“I’d rather bring in someone who is collaborative and hungry to learn with some unchecked boxes than someone who has the skills but lacks humility and falls short on collaboration,” she says.
Once hired, Szima aims to “empower” and “trust” her team members, words that are much more than trendy aphorisms, she points out. Giving people space to accomplish goals their way, with reasonable oversight, is critical to the larger goal. “I am trying to build a department where people share a vision and own projects as if they are the leader of the department,” she says.
Part of the team-building process, she believes, is to liberally share recognition of the team’s successes, taking care to not take credit for the work of others. Getting the word out companywide about real estate’s accomplishments and team members’ roles in those success stories—a form of internal marketing—is not meant as a chest-beating exercise for the department. Rather, it is intended to make the team function more effectively.
“As a team, we are going to be better if people trust us,” Szima says. The demands on the real estate team are simply too great for a top-down management philosophy to work. Szima encourages team members to seize initiative, which they are doing and thriving at, she says.
Among the team’s accomplishments to date is a deal with a national racking vendor to stockpile 5 to 10 warehouses of metal racks to be deployed where and when needed as operations expand. With supply chains currently constrained, obtaining that essential product used for shelving can take as long as 16 weeks. Stockpiling them cuts the wait to about four weeks, she says. The resulting three-month advantage on a warehouse fit out translates into an extra quarter of revenue for the site.
A new initiative will take a deep dive into data analysis to improve how SRS allocates real estate resources. Through a national full service real estate engagement with JLL, Szima and her team will evaluate complex sets of metrics to forecast demand in various geographic areas. “It’s not just the typical market demographics, but data that helps you understand what drives your business. Where will demand be over the next five years? What markets can support a new location? Analytics that are traditionally effectively leveraged by retailers but not necessarily as widely adopted by industrial users.”
The project is an example of how the real estate function can be a strong contributor to corporate strategy. And Szima, who recently completed her MBA and has been promoted to vice president of real estate, is driven—and well equipped—to make real estate more than a cost center, but a resource that enhances the bottom line.