John Riordan, ICSC’s leader for two decades, has died at 80

Publish Date: June 20, 2017


John T. Riordan, who, as president and CEO of ICSC for nearly two decades, brought strength, stature and global reach to the association, died at his home in Cotuit, Mass. He was 80.

Riordan, a charismatic former teacher and publishing executive, knew, by his own admission, almost nothing about commercial real estate before he got involved with ICSC in the early 1980s. He initially served as a consultant to the association, tasked with improving its magazine and also with making operational improvements to the organization in general.

Riordan joined the ICSC staff in 1982, at a time when the association, founded some 25 years earlier, had about 10,000 members and was international largely in name only. By the time he retired as president and CEO in 2001, ICSC had roughly 38,000 members worldwide and offices on several continents, as well as affiliations with shopping center councils outside the U.S. Upon stepping down as president and CEO, Riordan was named vice chairman. He served in that role until 2003, when he became a lifetime trustee.

“The spirit of ICSC’s founders was still very much alive when John managed the organization, but through his leadership ICSC became more and more professional,” said Bertrand Courtois-Suffit, a past chairman of ICSC Europe and a managing partner of Brussels, Belgium–based Mall & Partners.

Riordan was born in Newark, N.J., and graduated from Bellevue (N.J.) High School in 1955. He attended Montclair State Teachers College (later renamed Montclair State University) on a full scholarship. There he studied French and Spanish, graduating with high honors in 1959. He spent the early part of his career working as a teacher, first in the Princeton, N.J., public school system and later at the State University of New York at Cortland. Meanwhile, he continued his own education, earning a master’s in French language and literature from Université Laval, in Québec City, Canada, in 1963.

Riordan would return to Québec many times over the years and came to consider it something of a second home, partly through his years-long service on the board of Montréal-based Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate subsidiary of one of Canada’s largest pension fund managers. His move into publishing began in the mid-1960s, when The McGraw-Hill Book Co., then the country’s largest educational publisher, recruited him to develop and market textbooks for foreign-language instruction. Riordan’s publishing career also included stints at the Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) and other international tests, and at Houghton Mifflin Co., an educational and trade publisher today called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He spent about a decade at Boston-based Houghton Mifflin. By the time he left, in 1980, he had risen to become senior vice president in charge of the school publishing group. That year he also completed the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School.

Though Riordan knew little about commercial real estate when he joined ICSC, he was keen to listen to members, and he encouraged them to become active in the development and delivery of programs and services. Riordan said that this “partnership with the member-owners” distinguished ICSC from many other trade groups.

“John was no shy leader,” said Rebecca L. Maccardini, a principal of RMResources and an ICSC past chairman. “He was very strong, but he always understood that the organization, in the long run, is only as strong as its volunteers. He always valued the role that members and volunteers play.”

At ICSC Riordan quickly took on positions of increasing responsibility. In 1986 he succeeded the association’s longtime head of staff, Albert Sussman, to become ICSC’s executive vice president. The title was later changed to president. Under Riordan, ICSC rolled out a large number of initiatives — many of them a reflection of the industry’s increasingly diverse constituency and its growing level of sophistication and geographic reach. New conferences, publications, educational programs and professional designations were introduced. Research, public relations and government affairs took on greater importance. In 1989 ICSC opened its first Washington, D.C., office, headed at the time by a former aide to President Reagan.

“John did what a good leader of an organization should do: He worked closely with trustees and took their input, but he also had his own vision,” said Drew Alexander, president and CEO of Weingarten Realty Investors and an ICSC past chairman. “He always talked about the importance of having a good product that played well in the market. The quality of programming — educational programs, meetings and such — very much contributed to growth in membership, revenues and the prestige of the organization.”

An eloquent public speaker, Riordan steered ICSC through periods of significant growth and also kept the organization financially sound during difficult times. From 1982 to 1987, ICSC’s membership grew by about 142 percent to upwards of 23,000. In the early 1990s, however, the industry suffered through a prolonged recession and credit crunch, and Riordan worked with ICSC’s trustees to keep the association afloat as membership declined. “John kept ICSC very sound financially, even when some other organizations had a lot of difficulty,” said Maccardini. “He provided consistency, vision and solid leadership on a day-to-day basis.”

Throughout his career, Riordan remained committed to his first love, education. Firm in his belief that ICSC should strive to continually raise professional standards in the industry, he worked to strengthen and expand its educational offerings. In 2003 one of ICSC’s flagship educational programs, the School for Professional Development, was renamed the John T. Riordan School for Professional Development in his honor. This rigorous, weeklong program (today called the John T. Riordan School for Retail Real Estate Professionals) is offered in the U.S. and abroad. Attendees master core concepts, share ideas and identify successful strategies. The ICSC Foundation awards a number of scholarships to the school in Riordan’s honor.

Riordan was also a proponent of ICSC’s early efforts to expand its international reach. Under his leadership ICSC created regional meetings in Latin America and Asia and in 1990 held its first World Congress of Shopping Centers (predecessor to the Retail Real Estate World Summit), in Hong Kong. In 1993 ICSC opened an office in Asia (in Singapore), and the following year it hired a full-time director of international programs.

In the ’90s Riordan also brokered a merger between ICSC and its independent European affiliate, subsequently overseeing the integration of the two organizations. This deal and ICSC’s other international initiatives were helped in no small way by his ability to speak multiple languages and to bridge cultural differences. “John always tried to be understood by people for whom English is not their mother tongue,” said Courtois-Suffit. “He always made you feel comfortable and gave you the sense, very quickly, that he considered you somebody close to him.”

Indeed, Riordan related well to individuals at all levels of organizations and counted many industry executives among his closest friends. Several visited his home at Cape Cod over the years. “John was good at talking to the president of the largest developer in the country and at dealing with rank-and-file workers,” said F. Kemper Freeman Jr., who traveled the world with Riordan while serving as chairman of ICSC from 1994 to 1995. Freeman is chairman and CEO of Bellevue Square Managers, Bellevue, Wash.

According to people who knew him well, Riordan had a good sense of humor, one that he could turn on himself. When he retired from his position as ICSC vice chairman, the association’s senior staff teased him by showing up to a meeting in New York City wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Teacher Gone Wrong” across the front. Riordan was delighted. “John had incredible integrity in every sense of the word and an ability to laugh at himself and take some kidding,” said Alexander. “He also recognized that he was there to serve the industry and the ICSC membership.”

Outside ICSC Riordan was active in several organizations. He was the Thomas G. Eastman chairman of the MIT Center for Real Estate from 2001 to 2003. He also served on the advisory boards of the MIT Center for Real Estate; the Samuel Zell & Robert Lurie Real Estate Center at the Wharton School; and the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College (City University of New York). He served on the Ivanhoé Cambridge board for slightly more than a decade and was also a director at GGP (then called General Growth Properties).

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Mary; six children: Sheila, Patrick, Aidan, Meghan, Brendan and Caitlin; and 13 grandchildren. — Anna Robaton

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