The University of Virginia softball star will next lead shopping center giant as it navigates the challenges of the internet era.
By Karen Brune Mathis & Mark Basch • Jacksonville Daily Record
Lisa Palmer recalls meeting Albert Ernest, president of Jacksonville-based Barnett Banks Inc., for lunch at his country club in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It was at the suggestion of her father, Jon Palmer, a C-suite Barnett executive who had moved to Jacksonville, hired by Ernest.
A Philadelphia native, Lisa Palmer had just graduated from the University of Virginia, class of 1989, with a degree in economics and several softball records as the school’s star pitcher.
“He was my network connection,” she said of Ernest, a UVA graduate who now lives in Charlottesville.
Six years later, after working her first career jobs and earning an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, she called Ernest to network for positions in Jacksonville.
He referred her to several companies, including Stein Mart Inc. and CSX Corp., saying her dad had her covered at Barnett, and to Regency Centers Corp.
All are Jacksonville-based except for Barnett, which was absorbed into Bank of America in 1998.
It came down to CSX and Regency. She chose Regency, because, at the time, it wasn’t big.
Having worked at General Electric and Anderson Consulting Strategic Services, Palmer wasn’t looking for another large company, like CSX.
“It was more about joining a smaller company, which I felt was a little more entrepreneurial and had more of an opportunity to make an impact more quickly,” Palmer said this week.
On Aug. 1, Regency announced that Palmer, 51, will become CEO effective Jan. 1, succeeding Martin E. “Hap” Stein Jr., 66, who transitions to executive chairman.
She has been and will remain president, a title she took three years ago.
“I keep telling people all the time how fortunate I am,” Palmer said.
“I have the opportunity to lead a special company with exceptional people and an exceptional board,” she said.
“The fact that I get to do it with Hap still here and involved and by my side is a pretty tremendous opportunity.”
Years in the making
Palmer joined Regency in 1996 and worked her way up the ranks, becoming chief financial officer in January 2013 and president in January 2016.
Her appointment as CEO is part of a “well thought-out succession plan,” Palmer said.
“It certainly has been discussed and planned for a number of years,” she said.
Palmer said Stein has been gradually handing over more responsibility to her to prepare for the promotion.
“It’s not just an overnight all-of-a-sudden title change. It really just feels natural,” she said.
Regency has grown tremendously since Palmer arrived 23 years ago. The company operated 36 properties in 1996, mainly in Florida and a few other Southeastern states.
It’s now a nationwide company operating 421 properties, mainly neighborhood shopping centers anchored by grocers.
“I think we had probably 30 employees when I joined. Now, we’re up to 480 nationwide,” Palmer said.
“The fact that we’ve been able to maintain the culture of just having really good integrity and values and always doing what is right, I think is pretty special.”
Palmer is ascending to the top spot at a challenging time for the industry, with traditional brick-and-mortar retailers under threat from e-commerce businesses and many longtime players going out of business.
“If it was easy, it would be boring, right?” she said.
While some stores have closed, Regency maintains a strong occupancy of about 95% at its properties.
“We very actively manage our tenant base, as well as our entire portfolio,” Palmer said.
“We call it proactive portfolio enhancement, selling centers and buying others, and continually trying to raise the quality bar of our shopping centers.”
She said Regency’s attention to location and the quality of its tenants differentiates the company.
“We really like how well-positioned we are. We actually think that those centers become even more important to the retailers because they’re going to be willing to pay to be in the right place,” she said.
Palmer is confident that strong retailers will continue to attract shoppers into the stores.
“Bricks and mortar is still a critical component of all retailers’ system. The best located, the most well-merchandised centers, are going to continue to not just survive, but actually thrive,” she said.
Analysts are expecting a smooth transition from Stein’s leadership to Palmer’s, and they don’t expect to see any changes in Regency’s approach to the business.
“If you were to go talk to investors and say ‘give me three words about Regency’ I think they would say ‘honest, open, transparent,’ ” she said.
“It is something that we have tried to remain committed to from the time that I joined and especially when I moved into the investor relations role in 1999.”
Regency’s roots trace back to a company founded by Stein’s parents in 1963, so this is the first time in more than a half-century the business will be run by someone outside of the family.
“I don’t take that lightly,” Palmer said.
“I’m honored that Hap has the confidence in me for that to be the case.”
Regency’s culture won’t change as the new CEO comes in, but Palmer expects Regency to continue adapting to the changing retail landscape.
“I say retail’s always evolving,” she said.
“There’s no question that Regency’s really evolved and adapted even from the time I joined in 1996 and that’s going to continue to be the case, or else we’ll be left behind also.”
Palmer also continues to spend time when she can at the University of Virginia, where she and her mother endowed the Lisa and Frances Palmer Scholarship in 2014.
It’s awarded annually to a Cavalier softball player.
They also made the lead gift for a new softball stadium, which is expected to be completed before the start of the 2020 season.
“They have not invested anything in the program since I’ve been there,” she said.
Palmer is a former UVA pitcher who was the first player in program history to have her jersey number, 22, retired, according to the university.
She holds the school’s single-season record for shutouts, 14, among other accomplishments. Her career earned-run average is 0.94.
While the name has not been formally approved by the university, the stadium is likely to be named Palmer Park.
‘Great for our city’
Palmer’s role as the only woman to serve as CEO of a public company in Jacksonville sparks attention in the city’s leadership ranks.
“It’s incredibly significant,” said JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis.
“It’s important for the chamber to continue to push for more female representation at executive levels and C-suites,” Davis said.
Palmer serves on several area nonprofit boards, including at the chamber.
Davis acknowledges Palmer is busy with her new responsibilities, while considering her “great for our city and great for our organization."
That could mean the potential for higher levels of chamber volunteer leadership.
“We think there is an opportunity for us to showcase the success of Regency with Lisa at the helm,” Davis said.
Palmer is attentive to her role too.
“We have a significant number of remarkable women leaders in Jacksonville and that should not go unnoticed. At the same time, I acknowledge that being the leader of a public company comes with just a bit brighter light and it’s rewarding to me that I’m able to serve as an inspiration and role model for all generations of women in our community.”