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ICSC’s next generation

These 4 Under 40 honorees are already making a significant impact on the retail real estate world.

This year’s recipients of ICSC’s fourth annual 4 Under 40 award are poised to leave their mark on the future of retail and retail real estate. “Our committee is thrilled and excited to continue the legacy of 4 Under 40 with a very bright and talented group of men and women who are proven leaders from a variety of backgrounds, including leasing, asset management, development and consulting,” said Whitaker Leonhardt, chairman of the ICSC Next Generation Leadership Board and a senior director in the Orlando, Fla., office of commercial real estate brokerage HFF. “This award means that these four individuals are regarded by their peers as leaders within the retail real estate industry — not only for their professional accomplishments, but also for their outstanding reputation and contributions to the industry through ICSC volunteering or mentoring or other ways of giving back.”

The honorees, recognized in July at the ICSC Next Generation Conference, in Toronto, are featured here.

Jay Drexler, National Vice President of Retail Leasing, Oxford Properties Group

It was never Jay Drexler’s aim to stay at any company for as long as this. And yet today, 11 years after joining Toronto-based Oxford Properties Group fresh out of college, Drexler is still here, as the firm’s national vice president of retail leasing. He has held eight titles during his tenure at Oxford, all of them focused in one way or another on retail leasing. “I had every intention of working for a smaller, entrepreneurial firm,” said Drexler, 33. “I didn’t originally intend on staying here for as long as I have, but it’s been incredibly positive.”

Drexler oversees Oxford’s Canadian portfolio, comprising 11 shopping centers and street-front and mixed-use retail space, totaling some 14 million square feet. He leads a 30-member team stationed coast to coast, from Québec City to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Oxford has been the real estate arm of the $100 billion Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System since 2003 and has offices in New York City, London, Berlin and Singapore. “There is connectivity of the retail platform throughout those offices,” said Drexler, “so I do consult and assist in retail projects in those markets, and in Paris as well.”

Drexler says he hopes to help the pension fund double in size over the next several years. “The great thing about our organization is the commitment to retail [in the] long term and the commitment to adapt, to evolve and to lead, as opposed to following and being reactive,” said Drexler. “We have a very change-oriented CEO, and we run a very bottom-up approach to the organization and [to] decision making. It is much more of an entrepreneurial environment, where we allow people to have accountability and responsibility over their assets and their various responsibilities.”

“We are not in a complicated business, but the relationships are paramount, and I have always approached the biggest and smallest relationships alike with trust, respect and honesty”

Drexler knew real estate would be his career path since as far back as college; he earned a bachelor’s degree in urban development from the University of Western Ontario. He remains motivated by the retail industry itself, he says. “The access to businesses at various stages of their growth and development — everything from start-up mom-and-pop entrepreneurial organizations that have great ideas and may need assistance, all the way through to major organizations that are global — and the access to really quite incredible people throughout those businesses is something that continues to be very attractive to me and continues to motivate me,” he said. “And frankly, I learn from that.”

He also knows the value of relationships, as they have helped propel his career. “We are not in a complicated business, but the relationships are paramount, and I have always approached the biggest and smallest relationships alike with trust, respect and honesty,” he said. “I think for some it can be overcomplicated, and I always try and go back to simplifying it and approaching the biggest challenges with that kind of context.”

Drexler is an avid skier and coaches ski racing on weekends. He is a loyal fan of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and is a volunteer for the team’s fundraising and charity arm, called Jays Care. “I love getting out in the world and experiencing everything that is out there to offer,” he said. “It’s a pretty amazing place when you get the free time to go experience it.”

Jeff Preston, Managing Partner,North American Development Group

Jeff Preston credits his law studies with giving him the knowledge and skills to make a successful career in retail real estate. Preston, 36, is managing partner for the Southeast region at Toronto-based North American Development Group, which his father, John Preston, founded in 1977.

But joining the family business was never a foregone conclusion for him. Initially, he had wanted to become a lawyer. He earned a bachelor’s in finance from Southern Methodist University and a law degree from the University of Miami. His first official job was with the law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani (today called Bracewell LLP).

“I went into that thinking that I would be there indefinitely — no thought of a short-lived legal career,” said Preston. “But I think subconsciously I always knew that I wasn’t in law for a career; I was more into law for the experience and the training for business.”

After two years, in 2008, he joined the family business. “2008 was certainly an extremely scary time, but it was an incredibly interesting time, and, fortunately for us, we were very defensive on the way up to 2008,” said Preston. “As a result, we weren’t subjected to the same problems that many of our peers were going through. My father looked at the times and said that there would be no better time for me to learn the ropes.”

“Never lose your discipline. There are times when you look around and your peers are doing something that you just know isn’t right, but they are having success at the moment, and it is very easy to jump in. We just don’t do that”

Preston spent two years at the company’s Toronto headquarters, shadowing and learning from some of the executives. Then North American Development began to look at an aggressive expansion into the U.S., after having essentially treaded water from 2005 to 2009. “There was a huge opportunity to revive [North American Development] and [to] be aggressive and opportunistic in Florida,” said Preston. “We really hit the ground running, and we started buying existing shopping centers. It has been an awesome period for the company.” Under his leadership, since 2009 North American Development has acquired or developed 45 properties, totaling some 7 million square feet.

Preston’s advice to anyone seeking to grow in the profession is straightforward. “Never lose your discipline,” he said. “There are times when you look around and your peers are doing something that you just know isn’t right, but they are having success at the moment, and it is very easy to jump in. We just don’t do that. We are very convicted in our vision, we are patient, and, I would say most importantly, we are very disciplined in what we do.”

North American Development is now developing 10 projects across the Southeast, totaling about 2 million square feet. Three of these exceed 350,000 square feet each. Among them is the 450,000-square-foot Tomoka Town Center, in Daytona Beach, Fla., part of a 100-acre mixed-use development. The first phase is scheduled for completion this month.

“The success that we are having at each of these projects proves there isn’t an existential crisis in retail,” said Preston.

As for what comes next in his career, Preston is keeping an eye on how the industry evolves. “The next five years in our business really are going to be extremely interesting,” he said, “and we are going to continue to work as hard as we possibly can, take advantage of opportunities when we see them, and, importantly, have fun along the way.”

Lee Schaffler, Executive Director, J.P. Morgan Asset Management

Lee Schaffler got an unusual introduction to the retail real estate industry. As a child, he created a make-believe shopping center he called The Six Cousins Mall, with six relatives.

“This was the equivalent of kids playing house or cops and robbers,” said Schaffler. “We used to go to each other’s homes and we would go right to the basement, and we would play in the ‘mall’ — and we had stores, and we had fake currency. My dad used to photocopy money [for us] to use in the ‘mall’; people probably thought he was in the counterfeiting business!”

Today Schaffler, 38, is an executive director at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, in New York City, where he oversees commercial real estate investments on behalf of institutional investors — most surely using real, not fake, currency. He holds a bachelor’s in policy analysis and management from Cornell University and a Master of Science from Columbia University’s Real Estate Development Program. Schaffler joined J.P. Morgan fresh out of college 17 years ago, but he did not start out in the real estate division — he spent four years working in equities and the public capital markets.

“The biggest challenge for retail is that consumer preferences and the way people allocate or spend money changed almost overnight, and so retailers, landlords, market participants, lenders — everyone — had to pivot so quickly”

“The [pretend] mall obviously was kitschy and fun, and we did that as kids, but I always felt that real estate had this alpha advantage — when you talk about the ability to produce alpha and excess returns as an asset manager,” said Schaffler.

In his role at J.P. Morgan, Schaffler is keenly aware of the challenges facing the retail industry these days. “The biggest challenge for retail is that consumer preferences and the way people allocate or spend money changed almost overnight, and so retailers, landlords, market participants, lenders — everyone — had to pivot so quickly. And I don’t think anyone saw it coming. There is just so much demand today from experiential-type services and subscriptions that weren’t around five years ago, and so you had more share of wallet back then.”

Schaffler seems to have internalized is how to avoid letting things become routine. “When the learning curve has flattened, I have always raised my hand to take on something new,” he said. “It has felt like I’ve had a new job every four or five years.”

That aligns with the advice he says he would offer anyone entering the industry. “It is important to do a lot of different things early on in your career,” he said. “It is so important for young folks to be well-rounded, but [also] to make sure you have one skill that sets you apart, that you are the expert in and [which] everyone relies on [and] that makes you indispensable.”

Rachel Wein, Founder and President, WeinPlus

Fresh out of graduate school 10 years ago, Rachel Wein had designs on becoming an architect, but she found retail real estate instead. Wein, 39, is president of WeinPlus, a real estate consulting firm in St. Petersburg, Fla., that she founded in 2008, just before the recession hit, when she was only 29 and pregnant with her first child. (Today she and her husband have three boys.)

Among the firm’s clients are Alexander & Baldwin, Brixmor Property Group, Kimco Realty, Kroger, Publix and The Sembler Co. Her largest client is the educational endowment for Kamehameha Schools, which owns 360,000 acres in Hawaii, including 2,500 acres in urban Honolulu.

She is a graduate of the University of Florida, and she holds master’s degrees in real estate and architecture, as well as an undergraduate degree in design. Wein never did put all that architectural education to use as an actual architect. Instead, after graduate school she joined Ernst & Young’s transaction real estate and construction advisory practices. “They were looking for folks that had architecture, engineering and construction backgrounds, along with finance, all of which I had.”

“I think of things in terms of people, process and systems; if you can get those three things right, there is really no limit to what you can do”

That is where she caught the retail real estate bug. She worked on several large mergers and acquisitions for retailers, including Baskin-Robbins, CVS, Dunkin’ Brands, Eckerd, Nextel Communications and Sprint. Wein uses her consultative skills to help large real estate owners and retailers going through major structural, organizational and operational changes. “It has really been incredibly exciting for me,” she said.

After four years with Ernst & Young, she joined Sembler as a development executive, two years after which she went on to establish WeinPlus.

“At the end of 2008 I started my practice really in light of the changing economy to work with companies that were undergoing change,” she said. Sembler became her first client and has been loyal to her for these 10 years. Through Sembler she was introduced to Publix.

Whatever the future may hold, Wein is eager to make a significant mark. “I want to contribute to a team that is pushing our industry forward,” she said. “I think of things in terms of people, process and systems; if you can get those three things right, there is really no limit to what you can do. And I do think that there is a lot of change yet to come.”

By Ben Johnson

Contributor, Shopping Centers Today

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