BY RANDI FREMUTH | PHOTOS BY THOMPSON BRAND IMAGES
Ahh, The Shops at Wiregrass. For many of the residents of Wesley Chapel and New Tampa, this outdoor mall is a central point in our commute from one end of Bruce B Downs to the other. It’s a meeting location for business lunches, dates and nights out with the family. We all have our ‘go-to’ spot–the restaurant or particular bench in which we find our friends and family most often. With the ever-present development of the land surrounding The Shops at Wiregrass, what will that area look like in 10 more years? New developments are already in the works for the location. In the last 8 years, it has grown from having just a JC Penney to housing over 60 upscale shops, over 20 dining options and offers local events, such as The Fresh Market, the Ranchers Kids Club and Symphony in Lights. This family-friendly center also offers a spa, a children’s play area, a fitness gym specializing in interval training and even a train for the kids. You could spend an entire day shopping, lounging, and dining at The Shops at Wiregrass.
These shops didn’t just appear out of thin air, though. It has taken careful planning, a major commitment and certain know-how in order to build it into the booming business it is today. One of the masterminds behind the huge growth and success of The Shops at Wiregrass is General Manager, Greg Lenners. His energetic, jovial demeanor was instantly contagious as he took us on a tour of the property in the golf cart; describing what the new developments would be and where they would be located. Something many don’t know about Lenners is that he won the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man of the Year award in 2011 for raising about $88,000 in 10 weeks and his wife, Stacie, won Woman of the Year in 2013 when she raised around $40,000 in 10 weeks. During that 3-year partnership (2011-2013) they were able to help in raising approximately $150,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Resident magazine sat down with Lenners to get the scoop on what brought him to The Shops at Wiregrass, what activities fill his days and what’s happening with the new and exciting developments at The Shops at Wiregrass.
RM (Resident Magazine): We’d like to get to know the man behind all of this success. Tell us about your family.
GL (Greg Lenners): I’m very proud of my wife, Stacie. When we moved here from California she worked in the banking industry. She took time off work to put our son through high school; he had just started 9th grade. As he was attending school, she got involved with the PTA and ended up being president of it. Then, when he graduated she returned to the banking industry and now works with Centennial Bank as a portfolio manager for SBA loans.
GL: My son, Zach is in the Army National Guard and will finish up his six years in February of 2017. When he was 17 he came to us and said he wanted to enlist. He attended boot camp between his junior and senior year of high school and did basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He then returned home so he could finish his senior year in high school. So, he completed his senior year and had to go back during the summer to Fort Leonard Wood to finish his training. Seven weeks into it, his unit received notice to go to Afghanistan. He was the youngest person in his unit. He’s back now and is currently a recruit in the Las Vegas police academy.
RM: What do you enjoy reading?
GL: The Wall Street Journal and the ICSC (International Council of Shopping Centers). It’s a worldwide organization that every mall and every strip center belongs to. They have a lot of publications and they always have something interesting.
RM: What is your passion?
GL: When I’m not busy, I like to tinker on my truck. I’ve been a car guy since I was young. I own a ‘54 Chevy truck that has flames on it. You can’t miss it.
RM: What does a typical day look like for you?
GL: In the morning, I’ll workout with the elliptical and weights. When I come in to work, I catch up on some emails. I’ll also walk around the mall to make sure everything is in order. Once a week I’ll walk with our housekeeping team and maintenance team to nitpick on various things around the center. We also plan and strategize for what’s coming up. On a daily basis, I oversee the operations at the shopping center. With the assistance of my local team, I basically built the budget from the ground up for the shopping center. I have an accounting team in our corporate office that also helps, but I’m at the property every day, so I know what’s going on here. I literally build it, present it, and go from there. I’ve done that every year for the last 17 years. In a nutshell, building, maintaining, and protecting the asset, that’s what I do.
RM: How would you describe your management style at The Shops at Wiregrass?
GL: As the General Manager I do a little bit of everything. I have general knowledge of all aspects of the property, whether it’s maintenance, housekeeping or marketing. I don’t claim to be one expert of any particular thing so that’s why I rely purely on my staff. I have four members of management that report directly to me, and they’re the experts. For example, I have a specialty-leasing manager who does a phenomenal job of leasing all of the temporary leases. I have a marketing director who does all of the marketing for the mall and events. We all work as a team and we wouldn’t be as successful if it weren’t for all of their hard work, dedication, and talents. I guess you could say that I am just the conductor.
RM: What life experiences have helped guide and lead you to your current success as a General Manager of such a major shopping center?
GL: A turning point for me was when I got to know the manager at one of the malls while I was a store manager. After we met, I was then transferred to another mall to manage one of the flagship stores. By then, this mall manager was promoted to regional vice president, and they were looking for an assistant general manager. He came to the store and tried to recruit me. I didn’t realize it at first, but he came in a couple of times and he finally said, ‘If you’re ever interested in this position, give us a call.’ I called and left a message for the general manager who held that position at the time. They returned my call and one of the sales people at the store I managed answered the phone, took the message, and never told me about it. Three weeks went by and I thought they weren’t interested in me. I thought that was the reason why they didn’t call back. My wife kept saying, ‘Just call them back. Just call them back.’ So, I made that one call and told them I wanted to follow up. He said, ‘I’m so glad you called. We were getting ready to move on to someone else, another gentleman. Can you interview?’
After previously opening another shopping center in Southern California, when it came to The Shops at Wiregrass, I thought I was done. I got the call to open up The Shops at Wiregrass and I initially turned it down. They said, ‘you have to check it out. It’s a great market. There are some exciting things happening here. You have to come out.’ So I decided to go out and look at it. The only thing built at the time was JC Penney, so I had to paint this picture of what was going to happen, of what it would look like. I fell in love with it right then. It was the best decision I have ever made.
RM: Do you feel the online shopping world affects your business? How do you handle this demand for ‘right now’ shopping?
GL: Retail is an ever-evolving, ever-changing business. They’ve been talking about the Amazons of the world, the Internet online shopping for years, and it’s starting to come to fruition. That’s one of the main reasons as to why you see a lot of these indoor malls across the United States closing. You have to keep evolving, keep listening to your customers, and you need to pay attention to what the demographic around you is doing. Look at your household incomes and try to match your merchandise to what your customers want to buy. Be able to understand who your shopper is.
It is also about the experience!
The Shops at Wiregrass offers a wonderful environment to visit with families, friends as well as to have numerous events. You certainly can’t do that online! We are always evaluating as to what works and what doesn’t.
RM: What can you tell us about the new developments at The Shops at Wiregrass?
GM: The already whopping 642,000 square foot property will feature an additional 120,000 square feet of leasable space. Half of this new development will belong to a possible specialty grocery store and a dinner-style theater, which will house 10 to 12 movie screens. The other 60,000 square feet will include various retail shops and additional dining options. An apartment complex with 150 apartments is also in the works. We are waiting on the environmental permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. As soon as we receive the permit, building will begin immediately.
Wesley Chapel residents can expect the opening of this new site as early as Spring of 2018.
RM: What events should we know about?
GL: Symphony in Lights is our largest event of the year and it runs every night starting November 12th. We’re on our 8th year and it has become a tradition. The Fresh Market is every 1st and 3rd Saturday of the month, and then every 1st Saturday from November – January, because of all of the other holiday events that go on. Every first Wednesday of the month we have our kids’ events—Wiregrass Wednesdays for the Ranchers Kids Club. It’s probably the largest kids club in our entire portfolio and it’s great! We average around 300- 400 kids every time we have the show. That’s been a tremendous hit and Mr. Tommy has been a big part of that. We’re known for having these types of events.
RM: With all of the excitement and new development happening at the mall, let’s talk parking. Is there anything happening with the parking situation?
GL: We’re looking at a couple of things. We know it’s always been tight in the front of the parking lot. It’s more or less a county thing; the initial goal and the object of the parking set-up was to avoid a sea of parking in the front, so we’re coming up with a new signage program to try to get people to park toward the back. It’s a little-known secret that when you park on the upper level of that garage, you just go right down those stairs (or elevator) and you’re right next to all of the stores and restaurants. It’s just a quick hike.
RM: There are some rumblings that the mall might be up for sale or lease soon. What should the public know about that?
GL: Our company, Forest City Realty Trust, has gone through a lot of conversions lately. Earlier this year, they converted to a REIT—a real estate investment trust. The next move they’re looking at—it’s not certain yet but they’re exploring—is to divest the retail portion of the portfolio. Forest City owns office, residential, and retail. The reason for the possible change is because it was very confusing for the investors. They weren’t sure what kind of business we were in. Not to say they’re going to do it, they are just exploring. It’s not just us; it’s all 14 of our malls in the portfolio. By the first quarter of 2017, they’re hoping to make a decision on which direction to go.
RM: If there were to be a sale, how would that affect the customers who enjoy the mall currently?
GL: You won’t see any change whatsoever. It will just be behind the scenes. For example, the new development we’re working on is still full speed ahead. Forest City has done a great job at managing the asset, but who knows, it may actually unlock some new opportunities from an overall new ownership perspective because you have a new, fresh eye on it. You just never know. The customers won’t be affected by it though; it will be business as usual.
Customers of The Shops at Wiregrass are grateful Greg Lenners took the leap when he did. It started with one shop, but he could visualize so much more. He has built the business from the ground up and surrounded himself with a remarkable team. In just 8 years through hard work, persistence, and a belief in himself—and a slight nudging from his wife—he has helped to build a beautiful shopping center and has aided in the growth and development of the Wesley Chapel area.