How Crisis Led to Opportunity for DDR

Christa Vesy shares how DDR grew stronger as an organization after the Great Recession, and how improving internally strengthened not only the company, but also the Cleveland-area community

Christa Vesy, DDR Corp.

Ten years ago, the Great Recession forever changed the real estate market in the United States—it also left a lasting impression on the nation’s cultural and political climate. Periods of economic decline often have the strongest impact from a geographic standpoint. For example, the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s impacted tech hubs such as San Francisco and Denver.

But in 2008, the Great Recession was most notably attributed to a decline in the housing market and its impact on the financial markets. The aftermath hit cities across the nation, particularly along the Rust Belt, including Detroit and Cleveland. It was a tumultuous time for everyone, including major companies such as DDR Corp., a real estate investment trust headquartered just outside of Cleveland that owns and manages shopping centers across the United States. But as Christa Vesy explains, a combination of a talented team, strong leadership, and sound fundamentals made the difference between DDR’s success and failure in that challenging time.

“The recession played a real role in creating the accounting organization that my team runs today, because with every crisis there’s an opportunity,” explains Vesy,  executive vice president and chief accounting officer at DDR. “The recession was actually an opportunity for my team in particular to strengthen our operation. Due to the decrease in deal flow, my team was able to focus our resources on developing best in class systems and business processes. When we emerged from the recession, and everybody was doing business again, we were able to emerge with one of the strongest operating platforms in our industry.”

Vesy and her team were confident DDR would emerge from the recession, so the question turned to how it could help the organization grow when the economy turned around.

To start, Vesy ensured the accounting team was viewed as a valued business partner. She encouraged her team to further cultivate internal relationships across the organization and break down silos.

“The fact that we were facing these challenges together provided us that terrific opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from every department and let them know what we were going to bring to the table,” Vesy says. “In a very short period of time the tangible benefits of that collaboration were obvious, and they had grown to where they are today.”

With a seat at the table, Vesy and her accounting team focused on implementing sound strategies that would help ensure DDR’s sustained success. Included in the team’s value proposition was changing processes to produce accurate and more detailed financial information in accelerated time frames to better support business needs. It also included incorporating innovative technology across the entire platform related to the automation of processing tenant leases, disbursements, tenant receipts, as well as electronic content management to provide the entire organization with easy access to information in a timely manner. The company also announced plans to spin-off a portfolio of fifty assets into a separate publicly traded REIT known as Retail Value Inc. (RVI). The transformation will simplify DDR, improve focus, and maintain scale and balance sheet strength.

“We all believe we have made enormous strides to date improving DDR’s portfolio quality. Looking forward, we  have some genuinely exciting opportunities embedded in our post spin-off asset portfolio,” Vesy says.

Relief Beyond Borders

For years, the DDR team has taken pride in giving back to the Cleveland-area community, but in September 2017 when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the DDR team ventured outside its borders.

DDR owns twelve shopping centers in Puerto Rico, so when the hurricane hit, the DDR team immediately took action to aid in relief efforts.

“I have never been so proud of working at a company as I was at DDR during that time,” says Christa Vesy. “Our management team and all our employees from all over the US banded together and provided much needed support and supplies for our staff on the island, which included shipping generators, propane stoves, and water. It was amazing to see how our organization pulled together. This was a situation where out of devastation you really saw the impact that a cohesive team could make. Within a relatively short period of time after the storm, nearly all of our shopping centers were open, our employees were safe, and the economy has been bouncing back. We’re really proud of that.”

Like every company, DDR’s strategies and portfolio have evolved over the years. But what hasn’t changed is the company’s values, which include developing and building talent internally. One of the ways to accomplish that is through DDR’s women’s mentorship program, which pairs women mentors and mentees together resulting in stronger camaraderie throughout the organization, Vesy says.

“You’re never too tenured in your career to learn,” Vesy says. “People at all levels bring different ideas and thoughts to the table, and I believe to really stay relevant you have to make sure you’re in touch with that.”

DDR also offers a Women of Influence Program, which promotes an inclusive culture, Vesy says. DDR strives to a be a destination place for top-talented women, so the program encourages networking opportunities, educational opportunities, and giving back to the community. Top women in the industry have also come to DDR to speak about opportunities and career development.

These programs directly correlate as well with giving back to the community, a passion that is shared by Vesy and the entire DDR team. Together with the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland, Vesy and members of DDR have created positive influences and connections through various outings. Vesy has personally been involved with the club for more than ten years, having served on the executive committee as treasurer and has assisted with event planning.

“One of the things I’ve learned the most is how important it is for everyone in a community to play a role in giving back,” she says. “For me personally, the greatest fulfillment from my volunteer work is knowing you’ve influenced someone in a personal way, that you’ve made an impact on their life, and created a positive change for them.”

Giving back is not only important to Vesy, but also to everyone at the company as they work to create fulfillment and strengthen the community, particularly in Cleveland.

“I absolutely believe, particularly when you’re a public company, that you have a responsibility to the city that you’re in,” Vesy says. “As a large employer, we definitely feel like it is important to have our executives and employees involved in our community.