A little more than seven years ago, high-quality retail real estate company GGP, which specializes in shopping malls, emerged from bankruptcy. By the time James Cummings arrived—now senior vice president, controller—executives at the company were already crafting the values that would not only lead the company to financially flourish, but also motivate and inspire members of the team.
The result was five core values: Humility, attitude, do the right thing, together, and own it.
Since crafting those values, GGP’s success has skyrocketed. And Cummings has been there every step of the way, proving that a strong culture is a recipe for victory.
Few things are more humbling than declaring bankruptcy. For GGP in 2010, it might have been an inevitability.
“Decisions were made without consulting other departments,” Cummings recalls. “Communication was poor.”
One could say financial turmoil was a blessing in disguise, though. It allowed GGP to regroup, reassess, and strategically plan the next move. Communication is key across all of the company’s departments, Cummings says, but even more so when mistakes are made and especially at a company with more than 120 mall properties.
“I’d much rather have bad news right away than have it as a problem down the road,” Cummings says. “I tend to be level-headed. When mistakes happen, they happen. We just have to talk it through.”
Humility, Cummings says, is about not taking success for granted. Even though GGP has risen to become one of the top mall owners in the country and in the S&P 500, growth doesn’t stop. “We’re still evolving,” Cummings says. “I don’t want people to get stuck in the mind-set that we’ve made it.”
Change can be daunting, and retail is constantly evolving. Rather than being threatened, Cummings views change through an opportunistic lens. This opportunity-rich attitude is what he wants to cultivate at the company.
“There are systems to do data calculations and fewer places where humans touch the data, so human interaction is that much more valuable,” he says. “We need people who really understand that data and who will ask the right questions.”
Good accountants and developers are common. What matters is the kind of thinker and teammate the person is. In fact, not coming from a traditional accounting background has given Cummings the leeway to ask questions about systems that have long been in place. He encourages that same curiosity in his team.
“One of my pet peeves is when I ask why we do something, and the response is that we’ve always done it that way,” he says. “I tell new hires not to take that as an answer.”
DO THE RIGHT THING
Doing the right thing means ensuring that everyone follows the rules—even when shortcuts are the easy way out. Cummings admits that doing the right thing also has its own set of challenges.
“We have goals for revenue and expenses, and sometimes people want to make deals as flexible as possible,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’ve had to tell clients that some things won’t work.”
At times, Cummings has had to step in with clients to let them know the answer for a request is no. He also tells his team to ask for support. Playing by the rules is no small feat, especially in accounting. Doing the right thing is about being courteous and kind, too, Cummings says.
“People are judging you every day whether you know it or not,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to do the right thing.”
Cummings’s favorite value—together—directly affects all other performances across departments. As he explains, with more than 250 people in accounting, it’s crucial for everyone to be involved in the happenings across the company.
Cummings recounts his first assignment in January 2012. His team was preparing for an earnings call and discovered that a $12 million item in the budget was unaccounted for. “I went around to four or five people in the accounting department and in finance,” he recalls. “Nobody wanted to help. They said, ‘Go away, I’m busy’ or ‘That’s not mine to worry about.’”
Ultimately, the item ended up being taken out of the budget. It proved a valuable point: The culture of GGP needed to change—and fast. Now, others are more receptive to helping one another.
Beyond the office, Cummings encourages the team to get to know the managers at their malls. “It’s as simple as calling up the GMs to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on at your mall? What can we help you with?’” Cummings says.
When people understand what’s happening in other departments, they feel a clearer ownership over their work, Cummings says. “They aren’t just checking a box,” he says. “What accountants do affects the mall, developers, and leasers. They know it’s important to put out a good product.”
Looking ahead, the next big development for GGP is an overdue software update. Considering the last update took place a few years ago, Cummings views this as an opportunity to bring the property accounting and financial operations teams together. Cummings says this will not only develop team camaraderie, but it will also allow both teams to better understand the updates and take ownership of the work.
With a team that prioritizes communication, innovation, transparency, and an eye toward the future, it seems like the only way for GGP to go is up.