Originally Published in September 2014 issue of Shopping Centers Today magazine.
Pine Tree Commercial Realty has had a banner year thus far, buying or breaking ground on shopping centers across five states, and padding its portfolio to 24 properties totaling 3.2 million square feet in the process. And more deals are afoot for this Northbrook, Ill.–based development firm. But with a bountiful deal flow also comes mounting complexity, particularly as concerns due diligence and underwriting. This is where Erin Bremen, a 10-year retail real estate finance veteran who joined Pine Tree this spring, will be no small help. Bremen, the firm’s new vice president of acquisitions and due diligence, will hardly be intimidated by any of the robust volumes or the multitasking.
In Bremen’s last gig, as acquisitions and asset manager for the Allstate Investments real estate equity group, she honed her deal-approval and business-development skills working from the insurer’s $2.5 billion real estate platform, juggling portfolio management, loan workouts and REO disposition duties in the process. In a job with Chicago-based Wrightwood Capital, she underwrote structured-debt, mezzanine and preferred-equity investments. “It’s been hugely beneficial to understand the perspective of each part of the capital stack,” said Bremen, who holds a finance degree from the University of Illinois. “One great piece of advice I received at Wrightwood was to prepare everything as though the CEO of the company would be reviewing my work. That taught me to double- and sometimes triple-check my numbers.”
Bremen appreciates Pine Tree’s high levels of corporate collaboration, which give the staff a sense of collective ownership in company projects. She recalls her first meeting at the firm, a due-diligence kickoff for a property that had just gone under contract. “The room was filled with almost the entire office,” she said, “and each individual was assigned to certain tasks — whether it was lease abstracts, third parties or talking to tenants about the center. Everyone rolled up their sleeves to help.”
Bremen’s prime roles at Pine Tree will be to evaluate potential acquisitions and manage the due-diligence process for properties under contract. But her deal involvement will not end at closing. “Given my asset-management background, I really enjoy staying involved in a deal post-close, which may be counter to a lot of acquisitions professionals out there,” she said. “But I like to see the pro forma assumptions come to fruition and the business plan executed.”
Among Pine Tree’s deals so far this year is the purchase of Sparks Galleria Shopping Center, near Reno, Nev., for $26.2 million, in partnership with Wanxiang America Corp. This transaction will soon spawn a 120,000-square-foot addition to the 214,000-square-foot center. The firm also entered -development partnerships with Inland Real Estate to build two shopping centers measuring about 100,000 square feet each — one near Chicago, and the other in Boise, Idaho. “We have the in-house expertise to evaluate deals from every angle,” Bremen said. “And repositioning doesn’t scare us; we’ve found a lot of success in the value-add sector, due to those in-house capabilities.”
Pine Tree is seeking opportunities throughout the U.S. and is poised to make other value-creation acquisitions, with strategies ranging from repositioning and retenanting to the development of center outlots, Bremen says. “We understand how dynamic the retail property sector is, and we seek to find the best opportunities in each market,” she said. “We don’t limit ourselves to specific strategies; we assess the risk-adjusted return, get a clear understanding of what’s driving people to the center and try to be on the best corner, with good access and visibility.”
Bremen’s decade of experience in shopping center real estate and her understanding of acquisitions and asset management “make her a valuable asset,” says Todd Zinsmaster, Pine Tree’s executive vice president of acquisitions and development. Another of Bremen’s strengths is her understanding of a deal’s underlying real estate, says Linda Weber, a former colleague and a group senior vice president at Cole Taylor Bank. “She has exceptional insight and perspective of the market, and she is technical with her analysis of the financials,” Weber said. These skills enable Bremen to be creative in structuring deals that meet the objectives of both borrower and lender, Weber says. “Erin is always the calm in the storm,” said Carrie DeWees, associate director of the Allstate real estate equity group. “What attracted us to Erin, and what she’ll bring to Pine Tree, is what everybody wants these days: multiple skills.”
The CMBS lending market “is definitely back and appears to be ramping up,” said Bremen. Given the improving economy, she says, the maturing CMBS debt that has been the cause for concern in the industry will pose no material threat to the retail sector’s fundamentals. Regional banks are also healthy, she says, and there is plenty of debt and equity out there pursuing retail opportunities.
Bremen is married to a commercial real estate lender, so there is lots of shoptalk in the household. “It’s fun to bounce ideas off of each other,” she said. “It allows me to know what is going on with regional banks and how aggressive and competitive [lenders are].” She and her husband have two young children, a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old. Bremen’s post at Pine Tree offers another big plus: “My commute is only 12 minutes, which provides for nice work-life balance,” she said. “I will only miss bedtime if I’m traveling.”