Shaun Smith didn’t so much face a learning curve as much as he faced a line of people out the door looking for solutions in his first year at Phillips Edison & Company (PECO).
“Everybody wanted everything. The company was tech-starved, and there was just too much demand,” the chief information officer recalls.
Smith wasn’t just facing a tech problem, though. To begin with, he needed to carve out a position that was previously nonexistent, which required not only a new way of looking at IT, but it also meant establishing himself as more than a leader. He needed to be known as someone who was willing to listen and as someone who his team would entrust to answer the call.
But having arrived at the Cincinnati-based company—which specializes in the acquisition, redevelopment, leasing, and management of grocery-anchored shopping retail centers—in a brand new position also provided its own unique set of challenges. “When I first got here, I was forcing myself into the meetings,” Smith says. “The executive team didn’t know how to leverage me. It was really just getting out in front of them and having regular contact and regular meetings to build those relationships.”
Smith focused his attention on working with department heads in helping them take on their own challenges, asking what problems they would most like to focus on, and what issues they face on a daily basis. Eventually, Smith’s relationship-based approach began to take hold. “Now they’re requesting that I go [to meetings] because they want input from someone who understands their systems and data architecture,” he says.
His quest to retool IT’s role was about more than interdepartmental synergy; it also meant giving his own team a new direction. “Right away, setting the tone was changing the mindset of what the IT department does internally,” he says. “We’re not here just to do care and feeding of the network and minor application maintenance. The team needed to listen to the business, see what they needed, and start providing assistance with business processes and changes.”
One of Smith’s first key initiatives was (and continues to be) steering more data into the company’s MRI platform. It also meant convincing department heads that data-driven decisions were essential for smarter operations from the top to the bottom line. Over the past two years, they’ve worked to move critical data into the MRI and earned the support of the rest of the company along the way. “The department heads now understand that once we have the MRI, we can push the button and get a report out. We’ve really gotten their support on that,” he says.
The IT team has also spent a great deal of time focusing on cybersecurity. Even in the span of a few short years, Smith says the need for specialized and educated expertise has grown exponentially. “We believe that cybersecurity is our number one initiative,” he says. “Everyone wants to pay the one-time project capital price, but what we’ve had to do is take a step back and realize that cybersecurity isn’t a capital expenditure issue, it’s more of an operating item.”
Smith is proud to point out that PECO may be one of the few companies in its industry with a dedicated cybersecurity team tasked not only with maintaining company-wide electronic security, but also seeking out and assessing new and evolving threats. “Cybersecurity is a journey, it’s not a destination. It’s ongoing all the time,” he says. That framing helps push Smith and his team to continue evolving their approach as the threats continue to do so as well.
While cybersecurity keeps Smith and his team busy, it’s hardly the only challenge on his plate. When asked about how many ongoing projects the IT team is juggling, Smith responds decisively, as though each individual project occupies a special place in his mind. “Twenty-six. We’re sitting in a much better place this year,” he says. Those twenty-six projects are, in fact, down from the forty Smith noted the last time he spoke with Sync, an undoubtedly positive sign.
In the short-term, Smith is focusing on finding ways to interact with PECO’s tenants more fluidly. The creation and maintenance of online tenant portals, he hopes, will enhance communication and help to minimize common real estate-based challenges. He sees data as the driving factor for the rest of what he hopes his team can accomplish: more analytical research and better interpretations of said data.
While he describes his managerial style as “hands off,” Smith seems acutely aware of what makes his team operate efficiently. He credits the layout of his team’s workspaces at PECO as a significant contributor to his team’s success. “Our work environment is open and we’re trying to promote more of a collaborative workspace, where developers and the infrastructure people can work together as a team and be able to quickly work on and resolve issues,” he says. That’s not just a motivational poster hanging in the hallway. “There are no offices in our floorplan,” Smith adds. “Everyone feels like they’re part of the team, and I think that’s brought us closer together.”
Smith’s commitment to making an impact and patience in doing so may have something to do with his lifelong devotion to his favorite baseball team: the Boston Red Sox. “My entire life until 2004 was just disappointment,” he laughs, recalling the Red Sox’s first World Series victory in eighty-six years. The lesson he took from a lifetime of sports heartbreak? “Keep trying,” Smith says. He cites MLB wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein when emphasizing the importance of long-term planning and team-building. “My inspiration is those years of [Red Sox] disappointment. You just have to keep trying,” he says.