Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRT) CEO Don Wood Presents at Bank of America Securities 2022 Global Real Estate Conference (Transcript)

Federal Realty Investment Trust (NYSE:FRT) Bank of America Securities 2022 Global Real Estate Conference September 13, 2022 3:40 PM ET

Company Participants

Craig Schmidt – Bank of America

Conference Call Participants

Don Wood – CEO

Jeff Berkes – President & COO

Don Wood

Well great. Thanks everybody for taking the time today to be here. I think most of you know Federal one extent or another, I do say because I think it’s more important now than it’s ever been that the quality of the portfolio of both retail and mixed used properties I do believe is a giant differentiator, been a crazy couple of years, and, I’m not sure it mattered as much as it probably should in a more normal circumstance in terms of that differentiation.

We’re sitting here at a time where we don’t know what’s going to come next year. Whether it’s going to be better than we think, whether it’s going to be worse than we think, but it’ll be what it’ll be what it’ll be, but I can tell you from the company’s perspective, when you sit back and you think about whichever direction it’s going to go, I’d like to make the case for you that this is both a defensive and an offensive stock, a defensive and an offensive company.

For all of our 60-year existence, this company was about how to create a sustainable long-term cash flow growing business plan. And the way we did that was multifaceted. It was not one way only and that meant starting with making sure we’re acquiring not on a portfolio basis, because every portfolio has some good stuff, has some bad stuff and has some middle stuff, but rather on a one-on-one basis, selected properties, retail based always, that we believed we could create IRRs and excessive our cost of capital through both higher rent or through redevelopment, through development and certainly operating efficiencies along the way.

As you know, we’re in nine major markets including on the East Coast, down through the Mid-Atlantic South Florida, as well as California and now Phoenix, Arizona also. And when you sit in here, you think about what those three or what those nine markets have in common? It really is all about three things that matter. A lot of people, with a lot of money and barriers to entry and it’s fundamental to the understanding of whether the retail, how those properties are going to perform over the years in good times and in bad, because this is a cyclical business. It always was a cyclical business. It always will be a cyclical business.

Frankly, that diverse business plan worked really well through ups and downs, except for one period of time and that was COVID 19, the global pandemic, and the reason we took our hits disproportionately more than kind of a typical grocery anchor shopping center company was twofold.

The first reason and the largest reason was that the markets that we are in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, outside of Philadelphia, Washington DC, California, they were shut down and they were shut down for a long period of time. And then secondly, when you take tenants that include gyms and include restaurants that include some theaters, if you think about it in the middle of a global pandemic, there probably aren’t any worse type of uses for a time when people are afraid of getting a virus.

And so as a result for the first time in well, my history and I’ve been there 25 years now as has my President and COO, Jeff here, for the first time we wound up with more vacancy than we had had. We were down in the eighties overall in the mid-eighties for the small shop stuff and when you sat back and you looked at that, you said, okay, what is the future? And where are we going to go? And so here’s what happened. And it was a really important thing that happened during COVID. People rediscovered the socialized, the importance of socialization.

When you sit back and you looked at it, there were some great periods of time over the next — over the last 20 years, the O2 through seven period was extremely strong. Global financial crisis gets hit. We do extremely well during the global financial crisis and then we have a run from 2011 to 2016 or so that was — is just equally good. By ’17, ’18 and ’19 before COVID, the conversation in our industry about online shopping, bricks and mortar, is it necessary at all? What role does it perform? Does it serve was really at its unit [ph], and so there was a malaise of a period of time there in terms of stock performance certainly, as people figured out what was going to happen. Not earnings growth continued to grow earnings, but stock performance was that uncertain period.

Coming out, going through COVID, I think COVID did the industry the best favor it could by saying, yeah, you know, maybe these things do live in tandem. Maybe there are distribution methods that can work together, but at the end of the day, we need bricks and mortar and so out, we come from COVID. As we come out of COVID, our hours as along with most of the industries, incomes or leasing was extremely strong. It remains that strong today, and so leasing back up from the eighties into the mid-nineties was happened much faster frankly than we thought it would and it resulted in our outperforming significantly on an earning basis over the past eight quarters or so.

So here we are at a predispose. Now we sit here in September of 2022, a more uncertain future than we’ve seen ex-code in a very long time and so the question really is what makes this place different because it’s not all the same. Shopping centers are not all the same and one of the single biggest things that I need you to understand is that on average in the United States, about half of the shopping centers that are out there, serve communities three miles around them with less than $75,000 of household income, 10% of federals shopping centers serve communities with less than 75% or $75,000 of household income. 90% are over that.

And I bring that number up because there are number of CEOs of retailers. Macy’s is the one that comes to mind first that specifically use that amount of money where they see softness when it comes to the consumer. So if you believe that more affluence, more population barriers to entry, importantly are important to performance of a shopping center without $5 trillion of stimulus in the boosting the entire economy. Then I’d like you to think about this.

Within three miles of federal centers, there are on average, 175,000 people. Those households earn on average, $150,000, $150,000, 175,000 people suggest that there’s over $10 billion of spending power, of earnings power within three miles of federal shopping centers. Nobody else can say that.

How important is that? How important is that going to be? If history is any indication during downturns in the cycle, it’s going to be pretty darn important. And so we take that and build upon that with the other facets of this business plan that do include $800 million, $1 billion of development that was started in 2018, ’19, got caught in the middle of ’20, the money is spent. It is out, the income is not yet in fully, and that happens more anymore per year.

That’s it additive potential where by the way, and the rents have not been reduced in anything that we’ve seen in those assets post-COVID. When you take that, you take the $1 billion or so worth of acquisitions that we’ve made over this period of time with which by the way, more than a dozen leases done, since those acquisitions are at better than 30% rent bumps since — from the old tenant to the new as we improve those shopping centers and we have a few arrows in our quiver to be able to protect on the downside, to the extent things are bad, grow heavily on the upside. So the things are not as bad or good.

And so with that, maybe let me turn it over to you. That’s us in a nutshell.

Question-and-Answer Session

Q – Craig Schmidt

[Indiscernible].

Don Wood

We are. And, I may be, I said this the other day. I may be the wrong guy to ask. I’ve been expecting this to tail off, I guess, for six quarters or so once we came out and it has not. It has stayed extremely strong. I expect that for the foreseeable future to stay that way. I’m waiting just like everybody else for there to be a tail off and tail off shows itself in a number of different ways, including slower times to get deals done more kvetching they get things over the transom and things like that. But as we sit here on September 22, I feel very good.

Jeff, do you have anything to add to that or.

Jeff Berkes

No, I’d echo that. Our leasing pipeline now Craig is deep and broad as it’s been for the last eight quarters and, in addition to getting new leases signed, we’re working very hard and been very effective narrowing our sign, not occupied GAAP and actually getting tenants open and paying rent, which is a good sign too, because if things aren’t good, tenants tend to drag their feet on doing what they need to do to open a store and that’s not the case. We’ve been able to pull that in roughly a hundred basis points over the last couple of quarters.

Don Wood

Let, me make that point, if I can there’s or an add to point to that, if you were last, if we were sitting here last year, and you said, Don, what are you most worried about? And how did you underwrite for 2022. Probably the number one thing would’ve been supply chain disruptions and worrying that although we had done a ton of leasing that Elise is step one and it’s not the end.

So, there’s your contract. you’ve got a design space, build out space, permit space to get rent started and so we had some conservative assumptions with that, given all the supply chain conversations. I think, I’m very proud of the way we managed through that. And, through a combination of very strong tenant relationships, to be able to share duties order certain things far in advance, further in advance than we nor normally would. Work with contractors and do some business ourselves that we wouldn’t normally do.

In total, we have been above ahead of where we thought we would be in terms of getting tenants open. And that’s why signed but not occupied that has shrunk. There’s still, whatever it is, 200 basis points, that should come in another a 100 basis points. We should not have 300 basis points of room between something that’s signed and not occupied based on the volumes that we’ve been doing. So I’ve been very pleased about how we’ve operated the company also.

Craig Schmidt

[Indiscernible].

Don Wood

I don’t have any evidence of that at this point, and again, you’re talking about, it’s a little different than in the mall business, where you get, where you get sales reported from every tenant. We don’t have that data. What we do have is traffic. We have traffic that is above 2019 levels and very strong. We have restaurants in particular.

I don’t know if that are doing extremely well. And, this does take me back and makes me think about 2008 and 2009 and I’m not saying it’s the same as that. It’s obviously a very different economic time. Every recession’s a little different, no question about that. But every investor or analyst told me in 2007 and 2008, Federal’s going to get hurt worse because of our restaurants. We had 15% or something like that, of the income stream, which was restaurants, and as the smoke cleared and we got into 2009, 2010, the best performing sector were restaurants, and that certainly wasn’t the case nationally or globally. That was the case in Bethesda, Maryland, or the case in Santa Monica, California, and there’s something just, it is just very important to keep remembering how local a business that this really is.

And by having a company with only a 100 assets, not 500 or 600 or something, we’re tied to every one of those assets and we’ve been around a long time. So, we know them and it’s not just about doing a lease with a restaurant. It’s the right restaurant or the right other tenant, because if you do that as best you can, it’s very likely that that entire shopping center will perform better. That merchandising is a very important part of what we do.

Craig Schmidt

[Indiscernible].

Don Wood

I think about it a lot. The notion of margin pressures and the impacts of inflation in general, whether you’re talking cost of money or the cost of operating your business, clearly will be a challenge for businesses that many have not to your point had to deal with to the extent that they’ll deal with now.

As a landlord, I got two things I can do, and there’s really only two things I can do. Number one, try as best we can to be in markets and I think we’ve done this where the possibility is more of a probability at being able to pass those costs on to the consumer and honestly, that’s a lot easier to do in Bethesda, Maryland than it is in many other parts of the country and, I still think there’s a lot that goes back to demographics. There’s a lot that goes back demographics for a reason that way in times like this and so that’s number one.

I do believe inflationary pressures between triple net leases themselves and the ability in the markets they are to pass them on are two very important things. The second thing is to the extent it doesn’t work out. How valuable is your property? What choices do you have, who wants to get back in there? You’re very — you don’t lose people in the middle of the night as a rule. It happens once in a while, but as a rule, it doesn’t happen.

And so you’ve got time and when you see tenants who are beginning the struggle, which by the way, we don’t have a lot of those signs yet at all, today, you start working on that space.

What’s very interesting to me is what we were doing as a practice during COVID. And a lot of the leasing that has been done has been proactive to replace a tenant who is not performing as well as they can with a stronger tenant. The fact that we went into COVID with a lot of those weaker tenants, kind of vetted out, is it positive, without question. So overall, balance sheets are better, but your point is spot on. That’s how you try to mitigate that as a real estate person.

Craig Schmidt

[Indiscernible].

Don Wood

I think so, but I don’t know and I try, it’s going to sound, I don’t want this to sound the wrong way. I’m not the retailer. I’m a landlord and our job is to build the tightest contract that we possibly can to protect us for things that go wrong. I love to say, I just think this is so true. What, no investor gets to see is the detail in leases. We’re a business of contract. We’ve got over contracts. We’ve got over 3,000 contracts.

What we report, what everybody knows about is the rent and the time. What nobody knows about is what’s on the other 78 pages of that lease. And the other 78 pages of that lease, that’s the tug of war between a landlord and a tenant. The landlord wants controls and protections to the things aren’t to the way, to the extent things are not rosy. The tenant wants control to the things that are not rosy. Whether you’re talking about kick out clauses or go dark provisions or redevelopment restrictions, that tug of war is what takes all the time. It’s not the rent in there, because we have better properties.

Empirically, I believe I can’t prove it that over 3,100 contracts, that those contracts are stronger than they are if the property was weaker. And so to the extent, seeing where we’re going through this fall, it’ll be real interesting where a week and a week past Labor Day, I don’t know how this will play out.

But again, my job’s not really to know whether they’re going to have a good Christmas or not. Job is really to protect the company as best we can, to the extent they don’t and that’s really been the focus,

Jeff Berkes

Our tenant base, too, Craig, while there are certain tenants that see a big uptick for back to school and for holidays, that’s the exception, not the rule within our portfolio. There’s not many businesses across the 3,100 tenants in our portfolio that are super holiday dependent like you might find at an enclosed mall, for example,

Craig Schmidt

[Indiscernible].

Jeff Berkes

Well. It’s always a little too early to know, but he is disappointed right now, Craig. I’m going to be disappointed. But Don said in his opening remarks, in the stuff we bought in the last couple of years, we’ve done, 12 deals at 30% higher rents of the prior tenants were paying. Now, obviously some of that was expected and part of the reason why we bought the properties, but we’re really happy with what we bought, where it sits and the go-forward prospects for all the acquisitions that we’ve done and you’ve known us for a long time and you know us well enough.

We’re all about buying good real estate that we think we can do something to over time to grow the income stream or densify the property and we’re really focused on IRR, not cap rate and all the assets that we bought fit that bill, if you will. There’s something to do at every one of them where we can improve the physical real estate, the operation, the leasing, and the income growth and so far very happy with everything we’ve bought.

Don Wood

Sure. Big dominant center, middle and Northern Virginia, with a job base growing like crazy in a market where we believe the property’s been undermanaged, where we see upside in rent rollover and another piece in increasingly dominant part of our — geographic part of our portfolio. And that is those three Northern counties on the first ring outside of Washington, DC. Yeah, 200.

Jeff Berkes

Two $200 acquisitions, basically, two $100 million acquisitions basically and they’re both closed now. And the capital, there’s no massive redevelopment plan expected of that property. We’ll spend some capital to make the assets look a little bit better freshen them up and a little bit of tenant capital here and there, but it’s mostly existing cash flowing. Like Don said, undermanaged asset where we think we can put our shoulder into the leasing and do better. So yeah, it’s management the leasing play. It’s not a redevelopment play.

Don Wood

There is one other thing to add to that though and this is absolutely a bias how many acres this takes so…

Jeff Berkes

45 acres, we want big properties and the reason you want big properties, and this has just worked out really well over a lot of times is, you can’t handicap or underwrite all the possibilities on a piece of land when you buy a bunch of leases in a property, mark my words. Something will happen. Something will be able to be moved, to create a redevelopment opportunity. That’s very hard to do in a six or seven acre shopping center.

There is a basically the shopping center business is a commodity business. It is a slow growing alternative to a utility or something like that, generally in the country. We didn’t think that that belongs as the business plan for a public company and so everything we try to do puts us in a better position, nothing guaranteed, but to put us in a better position, to be able to create value.

As far as I know, there’s only five ways to create value in a shopping center. Raise the rents. Redevelop parts of it. Develop in a bigger way, intensify it should choose that way. Acquire and do something with it once you acquire and there used to be something called balance sheet management that can reduce the overall cost of capital and great value there. Well, that one’s gone for a while.

So when you sit and you think about it, the size of the property, not in every case, because we do a lot of different things, but gives you opportunities that maybe you can’t see at the acquisition date.

Don Wood

Yeah. Well, a great thing happened last Tuesday and Apple got all their people to come back to work three days a week. And Silicon Valley’s been waiting for that for months, literally. Everybody was set to bring employees back before Omicron hit and then Omicron hit and that delay took eight plus months, before we started to see people come back to the office.

And out there, Apple and Google kind of dictate the terms that the rest of the tech companies can put in play for their employees. So getting, getting Apple back to work last week was great and the tech CEOs that we talk to, or the CFOs heads of HR in the leasing process of one Santana West, everybody wants their employees back in the office, maybe not five days a week, but certainly for four, three or four, if they can get them back in and everybody knows in order to get their people back to the office, they have to give them a great environment and a great place to go to work.

It’s, got to be a new, clean, safe building and the building needs to have amenities. So if you sit back and kind of take a look at the landscape in Silicon Valley, we have in one Santana West, the only large state of the art building, that’s fully amenitized. So we’re confident we’re going to get a leased, but not exactly sure when, but it will get leased and there’s a lot of movement in the market right now. We saw this one NetApp took 700 Santana row. We saw it with another tenant in the marketing process of one Santana West that unfortunately we weren’t able to nail down and we’re seeing in some of the market activity right now.

There’s a lot of companies that, hey, we don’t need the amount of square footage that we have. But it’s located in a suburban office park or we’re in multiple locations. Or there are 20 year old buildings without state of the art HVAC systems and outdoor spaces and they’re looking to consolidate downsize, relocate to places where they can get their people back to work. And we think that plays great for one Santana West. So more to come on that, but, we think everything’s lining up to be successful, to get it filled up.

Jeff Berkes

Maybe it’s also a good time to remind folks that, of all of that construction that was underway into COVID, we’re basically done with lease on virtually all except Santana West. And while we’re done with lease up, the income hadn’t started yet. So, when you look over at the building we’re building for the building we built with Puma in it at assembly and all of the other tenants, it’s now 94%, 95% lease building, but all that income hasn’t started.

When you look at pike and roads, we opened up our headquarters on August 10, 2020, as the only tenant in that building. 18 months later, that building is a 100% leaked, but all the income hasn’t started yet. So when you sit and you think through it, and even Santana West was basically leased once COVID hit, basically at least a second time, Omicron hit back to now, and yet is the best product in the marketplace. That’s where our confidence comes from.

So at the end of the day, there was a $270 million state of the art building in a $13 billion asset company that is delayed in terms of its lease. Put it in perspective.

Craig Schmidt

[Indiscernible].

Don Wood

No, I see. I see ourselves as more, when you sit and you look and you look at the markets we’re in, you say, okay, what do you want? And that’s a pretty limited list. We’ve got a hit list with about 200 properties on it that we work. Now, things get added to the hit list 200 today, a hit list of what we don’t own okay, that we would like to own. Now you may get in there and, you may convince the seller to give you a look, you get a look. You don’t like what you see, but there’s so, but there’s this preliminary list and things get added to that list and things get taken off of that list.

It often takes decades. You’re working to create relationships with owners of the properties you want. It’s a proactive way to go at it and so that’s why, if you look at our last 10 years, we do plenty of acquiring, but we do it in convulsions. There’ll be a year with $800 million and then a year is $0 and then a year of $300, and then a year $0 and then a $1 billion and then, so it depends. It may look like it’s random, but it’s not random. It is a list of assets that we think make federal a better company preliminarily.

So we can get in there and look at it and I like that approach so much better than buying a portfolio. That’s got, the five assets you were dying to have. Now you’re spending the rest of your time trying to get rid of the 25 that trying get forced as part of it. And so, I would just get — I’ll give you a number right now, 112. You know what I’m saying? Some kind of rational way to keep approaching proactively those assets we want.

Craig Schmidt

A rapid fire, which of the fall is the greatest macro challenge facing the US public weeks today? A, risk of higher rates; B, discover recession; C, the rise of private equity?

Don Wood

The rise of private equity and NTRs.

Craig Schmidt

Which is the following greatest sector, specific risk, one, labor issues, two, supply capital markets.

Don Wood

Capital markets.

Craig Schmidt

Seen any sign posts on the weekend, the band.

Don Wood

No.

Craig Schmidt

Great. Well, thank you for coming. Have a good rest of the conference.

Don Wood

Perfect. Nothing. Thank you guys all for the time. Appreciate it very much. Thanks Craig.