Besides being retailers, what do Oshman's Sporting Goods, Helzberg Diamonds, Ohrbach's and Best Products have in common?
The answer is: Steve Soboroff, real estate broker/developer, whose Santa Monica firm Soboroff/Moskowitz Co. has exclusive agreements with all of these companies.
He is also the originator of an annual UCLA seminar that will be given for the 11th year on Dec. 5. It's called the "Shopping Center Game."
His students nicknamed him: "Dean of Shopping Centers."
Learned From 'Father'
He's only 37. Might seem a bit young to be a dean, but he learned from a fellow who has been known as the "father of California shopping malls": Joseph K. Eichenbaum.
In his homey office on Montana Avenue, Soboroff reminisced about Eichenbaum, whose picture hangs on a nearby wall:
"I worked for him for eight years, and I'm still close to him. He's 85 and still active."
In 1950, Eichenbaum developed the Lakewood Shopping Center, which has been called the state's first regional shopping mall. The 165-acre project was one of the world's largest malls when acquired by Macerich Real Estate Co. of New York in 1975.
Genius in Deals
"He owned a department store in Chicago before he came here," Soboroff continued. "He has the mind of a merchant, not a real estate man.
"So he is a genius in putting together successful deals. Like West Covina's Restaurant Row. He put together 10 restaurants on 30 acres with one parking lot. That was a first."
Soboroff was working for Eichenbaum when that project was conceived. How he came to work for the well-known developer is a lesson in business strategy:
"I was a sophomore, studying about shopping centers at the University of Arizona, and I sent him a college project that I had done and asked him what he thought of it. He said, 'Your project is lousy, but if you ever get to L. A., come and see me.' "
Soboroff went promptly and asked Eichenbaum's advice about what subjects to take. Eichenbaum counseled him on undergraduate courses and then urged him to get a master's degree.
"I found that I was in the fourth percentile of graduates that year, and I thought that was great," Soboroff recalled, "until I found out that I was in the fourth percentile from the bottom, not from the top."
He was formally rejected from graduate school, but he went to the dean's house. "I told him that it was important for me to get a master's for the job I wanted and that I was going to attend classes anyway. So they let me in, and I got all As."
It would have been tough for Eichenbaum to turn Soboroff down for a job after Soboroff did all that Eichenbaum suggested, and Eichenbaum didn't. He hired Soboroff in 1971.
Big Timer Specialty
Four years later, Soboroff came up with the "Shopping Center Game" idea. "I thought there was a void in the marketplace," he said, "and I thought it would be a way for me to meet the big timers."
Big timers are his specialty. His firm represents, on an exclusive basis, some national retail chains expanding in California.
"We find them locations and negotiate the leases, and I develop where I have an interest," he explained.
Typically, he takes one big client, like Circuit City, based in Richmond, Va., and concentrates on it. "This year, I spent 80% of my time on Circuit City. A couple of years ago, it was Best Products."
Taking over the old Akron sites, Circuit City, which sells electronics and appliances, has opened six stores in the greater Los Angeles area since Nov. 1, and plans to open 12 more in Southern California including one in Torrance on Wednesday and another in Bakersfield within six months.
"Each store is about 30,000 square feet, and they have a $12-million advertising budget for the first year," Soboroff said.
Handling leasing for the new Circuit City stores was a real estate broker's dream. It would have appealed to real estate companies with 50 or 60 brokers. Soboroff's firm only has two brokers, himself and Marty Moskowitz; an assistant, Sue Redlich, and part-time office help, UCLA student Franklin Linden.
Not only that, but Soboroff does not believe in written contracts.
Never Lost Client
Is this any way to deal with a big client? Must be, he says, because he has dealt with many and never lost a one.
He has bought old buildings and renovated them for New York-based Kinney Shoes and generally acted "like their real estate department in California."
When his firm was selected by Dayton Hudson of Minneapolis to find locations in California, it was the first time Dayton Hudson used an outside broker on an exclusive basis.
"The real estate was great though they wound up selling the operation (Plums)," he said. "They wound up selling their real estate locations to Ross Stores and salvaged their investment. So they were happy with me." His company has since done numerous jobs for Dayton Hudson's Target and Mervyn's divisions.
Fixed Up Buildings