Community//

Fred Bruning: “Down escalator”

For the past 15 years, as a company we have been focused on creating experiences in our projects that draw people from their homes to enjoy life, socialize and relax. Part of this involves creating beautiful parks, with show fountains, beautiful trees and plantings, seating areas that are welcome and generous in their amenities, and […]

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For the past 15 years, as a company we have been focused on creating experiences in our projects that draw people from their homes to enjoy life, socialize and relax. Part of this involves creating beautiful parks, with show fountains, beautiful trees and plantings, seating areas that are welcome and generous in their amenities, and a mix of uses that give people many different reasons to come to our sites to shop, dine, be entertained, to live, to work or just to relax and watch the world go by. All of this in a safe, open-air and socially distanced manner.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fred Bruning, Chairman & Founder of CenterCal Properties, LLC.

Fred Bruning began his real estate career as legal counsel for Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1977 and was responsible for their real estate portfolio in the west which consisted of over 500 assets. After leaving Sears in 1983, Mr. Bruning served as Vice-President of Development for the Torrance Company in Torrance, California, then as Vice-President of Development for the John Price Development Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1985, Mr. Bruning joined the Alexander Haagen Company as a development partner. In his 13 years there, he was the key executive in charge of the acquisition and development of over 40 retail projects. Mr. Bruning was also instrumental in taking the company public in 1993, serving as the Wall Street spokesperson. In 1998, Mr. Bruning along with his partner Mr. Wardy, formed their own development company, CenterOak Properties, LLC, and in 2004 became CenterCal Properties, LLC. In his career, he has been actively involved in over 150 major retail developments in the western United States.

Mr. Bruning is a member of the California Bar Association, the International Council of Shopping Centers and has served on several corporate and charitable boards. He received his Juris Doctor from Loyola University in Los Angeles and his Bachelor of Arts degree from Pomona College in Claremont, California. His hobbies include travel, archaeology, and flying his antique Stearman biplane.

​Fred is married forever to his wife Brandace, who has had a very successful career in retail marketing, fashion and modeling.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have been a part of the commercial real estate industry for 43 years. After working my way through Pomona College and Loyola Law School at Sears in Pasadena, my store manager, Richard Merriweather, was kind enough to arrange an interview for me with Sears’ General Counsel, Vince Jones. After several interviews with Sears attorneys, I was told that a position would be offered to me in the workers’ compensation section. Fortunately for my career, the head of Sears’ real estate law section, Philippe Monet, prevailed on the general counsel, and I was assigned to the real estate law section, and after three years I was promoted to become the head of Sears’ real estate department for the western United States. I have been honored to be a part of this great industry ever since!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have been very fortunate to have met some amazing individuals and worked on many exciting projects in my career, but perhaps one of the more interesting stories might be the years I would take my antique Stearman biplane, along with some fellow pilots with similar planes, to ICSC, the annual shopping center conference in Las Vegas. During the conference, we would give free rides to retailers, bankers and contractors, either as scenic rides or full-blown simulated dogfights. After each flight, we would take a picture with the planes as a background, and would give each passenger a silk scarf as a memento. It always made me smile to see how many real estate executives would proudly wear their silk scarves for the rest of the conference!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

When I first started as Sears real estate counsel, I had very little background or experience in real estate law, much less the specialized documents such as Reciprocal Easement Agreements. When I was assigned to represent Sears at Clackamas Mall after only being in the department a very short while, I was feeling pretty proud of myself, until my supervising attorney pulled me aside and clearly let me know that he had arranged with the other anchor store attorneys to keep a close eye on me and keep me from doing anything outrageously stupid! That for me was a welcome lesson in humility!

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

We currently have a number of fun and exciting projects under construction, including The Village at Totem Lake in Kirkland, WA and Mountain View Village in Riverton, UT, each of which is ideally suited to become a great complement to the communities we serve, as well as to function seamlessly in the post-Covid world. Each of these projects are designed to create value to their individual communities through job growth, sustainable development practices, creation of a strong local tax base, and by thoughtfully building public places that become the favorite gathering place in town.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

In these stressful times, I always try to encourage my team members to reflect on the great work we are doing for our neighbors and friends, and to value the impact they are having for the positive futures of the communities we serve. Each of our team members plays a valuable role in achieving the completed product that becomes a focal point in the neighborhoods.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My career has been blessed by the caring help of others along the way, from Richard Merriweather, my store manager at Sears store 1048 in Pasadena, California, who took it upon himself to get me my first interview with Sears legal department, to Philippe Monet, senior real estate counsel at Sears who took a chance on a young attorney who could barely spell real estate let alone practice it, and so many other retailers and bankers who took a chance on me along the way. Among all these, I feel I owe the most to my business partner, Jean Paul Wardy, and my wife, Brandace, with whom my life has been truly blessed.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Every day I try to think of ways that I could make a positive difference in our world, whether it is a new way to surprise and delight our customers in our centers, helping charities and giving back to the communities we serve. I believe that work in the service of the greater community is a real form of worship.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

For the past 15 years, as a company we have been focused on creating experiences in our projects that draw people from their homes to enjoy life, socialize and relax. Part of this involves creating beautiful parks, with show fountains, beautiful trees and plantings, seating areas that are welcome and generous in their amenities, and a mix of uses that give people many different reasons to come to our sites to shop, dine, be entertained, to live, to work or just to relax and watch the world go by. All of this in a safe, open-air and socially distanced manner.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

In my 43 years in the commercial real estate industry I have been invited at least four times to the funeral of retail, and each time I have had to put away my dark suit as the service never started. I have come to believe that retail is in fact the world’s largest subduction zone, in which old and tired concepts are dragged under while new and exciting concepts are brought to the surface.

One thing that stands out from my experience at Sears is to recall that Sears, as so many others, started its life as a catalog (think online) business. When we would look at opening a new store, we used catalog penetration data to pick our sites, and when the store opened almost always the catalog sales would increase. I believe this is why great new retailers like Amazon are building brick and mortar stores today, and why my personal belief is that Amazon will one day be the largest brick and mortar store operator in the world.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Great stores like Lululemon, Sephora, Costco, Amazon and so many others recognize that they have to invest in their customers to retain their customers. This means offering clean and inviting spaces for their customers to shop, merchandise that reflects the consumers’ changing values and attitudes and always putting their customers first.

Stores on the “down escalator” almost always have tired-looking stores, uninteresting merchandise selections and have somehow failed to capture their customers’ values and desires in their merchandise mix.

The very best way to keep a customer is to honor that customer, and to find ways to surprise and delight them, when they visit your store.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

I think the best way to play defense with respect to direct to consumer companies is to provide an experience in your store or shopping center that cannot be easily replicated, and that will surprise and delight the customer once they arrive. I think this involves, for our projects, creating a multi-generational experience that appeals to the widest spectrum possible within our communities. If you do not invest in the experience, it will be difficult to compete with online in the future.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could think of a movement that might help the greatest amount of people, I think I would call it the “Thoughtful Kindness” movement, and would ask each member to create at least one moment of thoughtful kindness to someone with whom they might come into contact, at least once each day.

How can our readers further follow your work?

If you would like to follow CenterCal’s good work, please go to our website at www.centercal.com, or visit our various properties to see how well we are keeping up to our commitment of being good servants in the communities we serve.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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