Not everybody thought it was a good idea when Brian J. Gibbons decided to give up a stable, well-paying job at a law firm to join a commercial real estate development company — especially his father.
After all, Mr. Gibbons had five children under the age of 11 depending on him, and a sixth on the way. That was a lot of college tuition bills down the road.
“My father kept asking me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?‘” Mr. Gibbons said. “I believed that security is worth your own skill set and not a particular job. So I decided to try.”
Twenty-one years later, the chairman and CEO of Greenberg Gibbons has never regretted the decision. And his father came around too.
During the past two decades, Mr. Gibbons has overseen the acquisition, finance, leasing, development and management of over 10 million-square-feet of real estate, worth more than $1.5 billion. He and his team have played a large role in the way people shop in the Baltimore area, helping to popularize the open-air shopping concept that has replaced many indoor malls. The company is responsible for leading some of the area’s most significant retail projects in the last two decades.
While Greenberg Gibbons built the Village at Waugh Chapel and Waugh Chapel Towne Centre in Anne Arundel County from the ground up, the company under Mr. Gibbons’ leadership has carved a niche in reimagining struggling, staid shopping centers well past their prime. Hunt Valley Towne Centre, Foundry Row in Owings Mills, The Shops at Kenilworth in Baltimore, Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole in Annapolis and Towne Centre at Laurel were once shopping dinosaurs that locals had abandoned, but now thrive.
“You had these properties that had become essentially obsolete, but they were in great locations,” Mr. Gibbons said.
Baltimore County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski said Mr. Gibbons’ developments have been “transformative” for parts of the county. The latest is the $350 million Towson Row project that will connect downtown Towson to uptown and include a Whole Foods Market and student housing. The former National Guard armory building will be converted into Towson University’s StarTUp, a business incubator.
“It requires someone with both vision and a drive to get these kinds of projects done,” Mr. Olszewski said.
Mr. Gibbon’s vision is what helped land him the job at what was then Erwin L. Greenberg Commercial Corp. in 1999. He had already been doing legal work for the company, whose executives became impressed with how quickly he learned the business and the insight and ideas he brought to the table. He helped them broker a deal to redevelop a shopping center in Atlanta, and company executives knew they wanted to steal him away from his law firm.
“He knew how to talk to people,” said Herb Mittenthal, one of the founders of Greenberg who hired Mr. Gibbons. “He understood things right away. He understood our business … He just absorbed everything, and we felt very comfortable that he would be a great partner with us.”
The hire has paid off.
“He has taken us to new levels,” Mr. Mittenthal said.
For his part, Mr. Gibbons was intrigued by the new challenges a change in career would bring.
“I have a creative mind and I wasn’t able to unleash or take advantage of that in law other than through structuring deals,” he said. “My favorite part about what I do now is the design aspect.”
Those who know him also say Mr. Gibbons connects easily with people, a strong trait for brokering deals and getting the buy-in of everyone who would have vested interests in projects.
“He is easy to communicate with,” said Bob DiPietro, a consultant with the company. “He reaches out to the community and pays attention to the sensitivities of the community during the process. These kinds of things are important. You are really going into their neighborhood and you want to develop something that is accepted.”
Even COVID-19 and the damage it has done to retail sales hasn’t stopped Mr. Gibbons from looking toward the future. He sees the pandemic transforming retail rather than killing it. The days of the enormous shopping centers are numbered, and he believes more dense retail projects centered around experiences, such as fitness centers, theaters and other entertainment venues, will be the future.
Like many companies, Greenberg Gibbons has turned mostly virtual because of the pandemic, which means Mr. Gibbons has been working more from his home in Stevensville these days. The pandemic has also led him to rekindle a passion for tennis that running a business and raising a big family — his kids are now adults — had put on hold for decades. He has also been spending more time boating.
But he is ready for when the pandemic is over and retail makes an eventual comeback.
“When we get to the other side of this, I think you will see an explosion of openings and that is where we are going to be,” he said. “We certainly will have shopping — with experiences. People are social. They want that.”
Hometown: Charleston, West Virginia
Current residence: Stevensville
Education: University of Maryland, Bachelor of Arts in social sciences (1984, Magna Cum Laude); Juris Doctorate (1987)
Career highlights: Greenberg Gibbons, chairman and CEO; Fedder and Garten, P.A., partner and member of the management committee
Civic and charitable activities: Boards: LifeBridge Health (investment committee chair); University of Maryland, College Park Foundation Board (trustee); University of Maryland, Baltimore Foundation Board (trustee, co-chair capital campaign) and Hospice of the Chesapeake (chairman). Commissioner of The Augustine Commission on Business Climate, The Knott Commission of School Construction and the Interagency Commission on School Construction Funding. Member of the International Council of Shopping Centers