Glimcher Realty Trust's gross leased assets recently topped 25 million sq. ft., its properties now number 120 and its stock has climbed all the way back from a 1995 downturn.

But one thing about the Columbus, Ohio-based REIT has not changed: The true force behind Glimcher's continued growth continues to be a real-life Horatio Alger personality.

"I drove out here from Boston to visit a relative," recalls Herbert Glimcher, who founded The Glimcher Co., the REIT's predecessor, in 1959. "I had $50 in my pocket."

Glimcher was raised in Duluth, Minn., where lumbermen always seemed the most successful business people. So in Columbus, he decided to get into the lumber and building supply business. Pretty soon, he was using those supplies to build large discount stores, including Kmarts.

"He was the construction foreman. He was the agent. He was the CFO. He did it all," says Michael Glimcher, Herb Glimcher's youngest son and GRT's senior vice president of leasing.

The company's reputation for experimentation reflects the way Glimcher learned the development industry - bit by bit. By the mid-1960s, Glimcher had moved from building Kmarts to building strip shopping centers. When malls got hot around 1970, many other real estate companies shifted away from strip centers.

Glimcher got into the mall business, too, but not to the exclusion of strip centers. The company continued to build strip centers, continued to hold them and continued to manage them.

A report from one industry analyst, BT Alex.Brown Research, recently called the company's strategy of holding onto a wide variety of properties and tinkering with the retail mix inside them "innovative." To Herb Glimcher, those are simply sensible business practices, which spread the REIT's risk across a broad portfolio.

"The community centers are like a blue chip stock that's always going to be there and will continue to produce," he says.

The Glimcher Co. and later GRT won a strong reputation among creditors by never defaulting on a loan in nearly 40 years of business and consistently increasing revenues. That record served the company well in 1995 when an economic downturn hit major chain stores. Kmart, which at the time was Glimcher's largest tenant, was among the nation's most ailing retailers.

The Glimcher Co. had converted to a REIT a year earlier. Its initial public stock offering quickly hit above its $21 target, but the share price dropped to $16 in 1995 amid worries about Glimcher's heavy Kmart exposure.

"The market's always nervous," the elder Glimcher explains. But the company's properties actually fared well enough to avoid operating losses. Only one of its 29 Kmarts closed. And, overall, both revenues and net incomes continued to rise. Most significantly, innovative equity and debt financing deals have allowed the company to capitalize major expansions over the past two years even though GRT's stock remained depressed when measured as a multiple of earnings.

The company was able to plow ahead with substantial growth in both the community center and regional mall markets. Among the biggest purchases was the $197 million acquisition in 1996 of 22 Wal-Mart-anchored shopping centers previously owned by a private REIT called Retail Property Investors. That deal made Wal-Mart, rather than Kmart, the company's largest source of revenue, and helped to dissolve concerns about GRT's revenue base.

The company's most unusual finance deal was struck with Nomura Asset Capital Corp. in 1996. Nomura agreed to buy up to $135 million in convertible preferred stock to fund the development of three new malls: the 1 million sq. ft. Great Mall of the Great Plains, which opened last August in Kansas City; the 1.8 million sq. ft. New Jersey Metro Mall, scheduled to open this year in Elizabeth, N.J.; and the 1.8 million sq. ft. Los Angeles Metro Mall, scheduled to open in 1999 in Culver City, Calif.

Normura also agreed to provide permanent, separate long-term financing of up to $1 billion. According to Glimcher officials, it was the first such deal in the country.

Financing wasn't the only innovative aspect of Glimcher's plans for the three malls. Michael Glimcher explains that the malls represent the company's first foray into the value-priced market, but as is typical for GRT, the company is developing value-priced malls with a twist. Unlike many value-priced centers, the three GRT properties will be two-story superregional malls in the midst of large markets.

"Hybrid is the perfect word to use," Michael Glimcher says. "We're mixing big boxes and [outlets stores] with entertainment attractions and theaters and heavily themed restaurants."

The resulting value-entertainment megamalls have become a centerpiece of GRT's current expansion strategy. In January, the company purchased the SuperMall of the Great Northwest, where GRT already had been molding its value-entertainment concept. The purchase of the Auburn, Wash., mall was financed by $103 million from Nomura's line of credit.

The new properties pleased Wall Street because they increased GRT's potential revenues. With gross leasable assets climbing by 37 percent in 1997, Glimcher's rent rose by 23 percent over the same period. Stock analysts began to take note last fall of GRT's low price-to-earnings ratio, and its share price recovered, topping $22.

"As retail trends have evolved and as the shopping center industry has evolved, I think we've evolved with them," Michael Glimcher says, adding that credit for such evolution goes to his father.

Herb Glimcher's leadership was underscored on March 10. In December, another son, David, decided to ease out of his office as GRT's president in order to pursue entrepreneurial interests. On March 10, the company announced that Herbert Glimcher, already GRT's chairman, would resume the role of president. The company's chief financial officer, William G. Cornely, will take on the title of chief operating officer.

"He's truly an American success story," Michael Glimcher says of his father. "What's most interesting about my dad is that he's always changing with the times. Whether it's a finance deal or a new kind of retail project, he keeps on evolving."