Dawn Becker Prepares the Next Generation of Leaders

At Federal Realty Investment Trust, Dawn Becker has put out many fires and made money during a great recession. Now, she’s ready to hand off the reins.

Dawn Becker, EVP, General Counsel, and Secretary, Federal Realty Investment Trust Courtesy of Federal Realty Investment Trust

The fire burned. And Dawn Becker was told that she, as the newly appointed general counsel at retail-based REIT Federal Realty Investment Trust, would have to handle it.

“I had started getting more involved in more of the business side of things,” says Becker, who became general counsel at Federal Realty in 2002. She had joined the company five years prior. “Our current CEO was taking over and asked me to take on the general counsel role, and I knew it was a great opportunity to learn much more about things I hadn’t learned before.”

She continues, “Four months into the job, a project on which we had spent the equivalent value of a quarter of our company caught fire. We were a month from opening.”

The project still managed to set a record, though. “It still holds the record as the largest fire in the history of the city of San Jose,” Becker says, able to laugh a little nearly two decades removed from the incident. “That’s not quite the claim to fame you want.”

Meaning Business 

Becker was faced with a former CEO who had stepped down after twenty years of service, a new incoming leader, a new job, and the company’s largest project literally up in flames. The new GC didn’t back down. “That entire ordeal flipped a lot of switches in me,” Becker remembers. The GC was responsible for dealing with the insurance claim, which would recoup $129 million.

“It was no longer just a legal exercise of reviewing insurance contracts,” Becker explains. “It was the business. How does this relate to our financing documents? How does this work from an accounting standpoint? How do we make sure we have the capital to run our business? How do we address this with the board? It just brought everything together, and I think our CEO would tell you that I handled it pretty well.”

The experience only further whetted Becker’s appetite to align more with the business of the company. “At the end of it all, we were very happy with the result,” Becker says. “I really had the business juices flowing.” So much so that Becker was tasked with helping Federal Realty become a bicoastal company. She was heavily involved with setting up and running the West Coast office.

“We had a full-service office we were trying to run from the East Coast,” Becker says. “But it wasn’t just running the office. It was making sure our West Coast business was successful and contributing to the company.” While she never had to ditch the legal aspects of her job, the GC was now in charge of a business that was generating between 15 and 20 percent of Federal Realty’s entire income at the time.

The problem with continuing to rack up victories is that the challenges only seem to increase. “Then came 2008,” Becker says with a long exhale. “While the market at the moment [Becker spoke with Modern Counsel in April 2020] may be shaping up to compare, no one had seen anything like 2008 for decades.”

Federal Realty CEO Don Wood was looking for someone who could operate the company’s portfolio during this time, and again, he turned to his trusted general counsel. “I was given the opportunity to run the entire portfolio,” Becker says.

It went so well that Becker ultimately took on the chief operating officer role and stayed in that position until 2015. “That was just way too much in addition to the GC role,” Becker confesses. “And, frankly, I think we needed to change how we were doing things.”

Passing the Torch

Becker is admittedly closer to the end of her career than the beginning. But she still seems uniquely candid about the need to help prepare for those who will take over when she’s gone. Becker has made an obvious investment in the company where she’s spent nearly a quarter century, and that has bred a strong loyalty. She wants Federal Realty to be just as successful when she leaves as when she was there.

Her legacy is clearly felt both at Federal Realty and among the external partners who have worked with her over the years. “Dawn is a consummate professional who never ceases to impress me,” says Debbie Horwitz, a director at Goulston & Storrs. “She is a strategic and creative problem-solver with a knack for finding practical solutions and getting things done. It is my true privilege to work with Dawn.”

“Our EVP team has an average of sixteen years at the company, and that’s including one member who’s only been here four years,” Becker says, laughing. “Things have progressed well with us at the helm, but it’s time to start thinking about turning it over.”

That’s why Becker has taken a hands-on approach to succession planning at Federal Realty. “Having gone from a legal advisor to a businessperson with a real expertise in legal matters has put me in a unique position to be able to make sure that we are getting the company set up for that next generation,” Becker says.

“We’re a company that was formed in 1962 and has only had three CEOs in its entire history. There’s a lot of history here,” Becker notes, “not to mention our shareholders, who have enjoyed increases in their dividends every year for fifty-two straight years. No other real estate company can say that, but that does create a lot of pressure to make sure you’re turning it over in a way that ensures that the success will continue.”

It’s forced the admitted “control freak” to lay off the micromanaging and, instead, help shepherd others along. “I’ve learned how to give guidance but let the team solve problems using their own expertise,” Becker says of her team. “My job now is to understand who the people are, what the needs are, and how those needs will evolve going forward.” She adds, “I want to make sure we’ve got the right skills, the right people, and that we’re training them in the right way.”

Becker’s nearly twenty-five-year reign at Federal Realty may be slowing down, but there’s no way she is. She came to the general counsel role with a burning building, and no one has been able to throw cold water on her since.

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Expertise Spotlight

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