In an industry dominated by the old guard, a new generation of executives — under 40 — is making its mark.

Whatever else might be said, one thing's for certain: The retail industry is never static. Now, more than ever, the retail industry is seeing an influx of fresh young faces who, drawn to the industry early on, are wasting precious little time in launching their rapid-fire ascent to the top.

An early start

John Crossman, CCIM, is one of a number of rising stars who is making a name for himself at an early age. By the time he was 14, Crossman, now 30 and a senior vice president/director retail services, North Florida, with Trammell Crow Co. in Orlando, Fla., already had cemented in his mind a remarkably concrete idea of what he wanted to do when he grew up. “My brother Scott (now president of Crossman and Co., also in Orlando), who's nine years older, went into commercial real estate straight out of college, and he would send postcards from all the ICSC conventions he attended. I can remember being intrigued even then,” Crossman says.

Upon receiving a track scholarship, Crossman attended Florida State University, where he majored in real estate. “One of my professors used to tell me, ‘Not only are you going to make more money (in the retail industry) than the finance majors, but you're going to have more fun doing it,’” he says.

Fun aside, Crossman, who was hired fresh out of school as a retail specialist by The Landmarks Group, found himself coming into the business only a short while before what ultimately would evolve into a veritable firestorm. “Three months after I was hired, along with losing the portfolio they hired me to work on, they underwent an acquisition (and were bought by Faison). At age 22, to lose my portfolio and at the same time be part of an acquisition, was a pretty challenging situation,” Crossman recalls.

Nonetheless, he managed to weather the storm, and nicely. With 300 retail transactions totaling more than 800,000 sq. ft. to his credit, Crossman last year served as president of the Central Florida Real Estate Society. On the basis of his outstanding work during his tenure, in February Crossman was awarded the Orlando Regional Realtor Association's 2000 President's Award.

His current focus is on retail development and investment sales. “Retail demand is directly related to population growth — so this industry, unlike other, more speculative forms of real estate, is very scientific. You can look at a location and run the demographics. Not only is it very trackable, but it makes a lot of sense, and I like that,” he says.

In 1997, he was included in the Orlando Business Journal's recognition of 40 Under 40 Rising Stars. “That was the same year as Tiger Woods and Penny Hardaway. So to be mentioned in the same breath with those two felt pretty good,” says Crossman, whose goal is to become one of the top retail sales execs in Florida.

What has been his biggest professional challenge, so far? “One of the hardest things I've had to overcome has been my youthful appearance. When I was 22, I looked about 12 — and when I was 29, I looked about 17. So, overcoming that has been a challenge, in and of itself.”

Woman's work

Catherine “Caye” Watts faced a challenge of a different sort. During the nine years she worked in the industry, Watts, 33, vice president, director of specialty leasing for Jones Lang LaSalle in Atlanta, had the opportunity to witness first-hand the evolution of specialty leasing from makeshift, mom-and-pop pushcarts, to the sophisticated, cutting-edge RMUs and kiosks of today. That's a radical departure from when she was first getting started. When specialty leasing, then still in its infancy, was considered by many insiders to be the “redheaded stepchild” of the industry.

In an industry that continues to be heavily male dominated, specialty leasing is unique in that the field is populated mainly by females. “The specialty leasing side is probably 75% to 80% female. In fact, my entire department now is female dominated,” says Watts, whose experience includes leasing both common area kiosks and carts as well as temporary in-line stores.

Go west, young man

In his native Great Britain, Richard Myall Davies, 30, who works for the Shopping Centre Group, Jones Lang LaSalle, London, is known as a chartered surveyor. In the United States, where he will spend the next year working for the company's Atlanta office as part of its international staff exchange program, Davies is known as a real estate advisor.

Says Davies, who prior to coming to Atlanta was involved in the asset management of West One Centre, Oxford Street and Gyle Shopping Centre, Edinburgh, “My long-term ambition is to play a leading role in strengthening the European retail business; to improve our service to clients across international borders; increase our share of quality instructions; and gain a greater competitive edge.”

According to Davies, Europe is a growing industry for retail real estate. “The United Kingdom, in particular, is quite advanced,” he says, adding, due to the country's frequent inclement weather, most of Great Britain's shopping centers are covered. The most significant cultural gap he's noticed is unlike the United States with its heavy orientation toward customer service. England has had to focus the brunt of its concerns on other issues. Issues including dealing with the physical constraints resulting from its many national landmarks. “That is one of the things I want to take back with me,” he says.

He recently completed a report on specialty leasing during his time in the States. “At home, unlike here in the United States, despite the fact that it has been around for a good 10 to 12 years, specialty leasing has always been somewhat amateurish,” says Davies, who hopes to “transport” some of that expertise.

A commissioned officer with the Royal Navy Reserve, every year Davies serves for two weeks on a Naval Reserve warship. How has that impacted his career in the retail industry? “In my job as sub-lieutenant I lead a team of men and women through their training. As a result, when faced with a new challenge or environment, I have developed the unique ability to hit the ground running,” says Davies.

Climbing the ladder

When he talks about starting out on the ground and working his way up, Chris Strom means that quite literally. Now director of business development — national accounts for R.A.S. Builders, Inc., in Inglewood, Calif., Strom, 33, started as a laborer for the company while still in college. Years later, after having moved to Colorado and pursued a separate career in marketing, he returned to R.A.S. “I especially liked its diversity and the fact that it had nine geographic offices,” he says. While he faces a number of challenges on a day-to-day basis, his biggest, Strom says, has been coordinating local and national sales leads and turning those leads into satisfied client relations. “My main objective for the future,” he says, “is to maintain sales volume and bring on manageable growth through sales as we go forward, at the same time developing even deeper relationships with our clients.”

A family affair

Like Strom, Lance Gopffarth also became interested in the business at an early age. “My stepdad was in the residential construction business and even as young as 11 or 12, I used to help him out. I discovered early on I had a knack for construction,” says Gopffarth, a 1986 graduate of Texas A&M who now works as vice president of construction operations for Chattanooga, Tenn.-based EMJ Corp.

In addition to working for Venture Construction out of Atlanta for about two years, Gopffarth was employed by Westward, for whom he did “a lot of finish and ground-up work,” he says. It was during the time Westward's work was drying up that he found out about EMJ. “That was in Dallas during the late 1980s and early 1990s, so the work was pretty slow. But EMJ had a pretty aggressive program going with Food Lion — so as far as I was concerned, it was a shoo-in,” he says.

Though only 37, “In construction years,” says Gopffarth, “I'm about 67. The experience comes fast.” As far as advice he would pass along to young people interested in going into the same or a similar field, he emphasizes the importance of choosing a school with a good construction program. “Although there are all different levels, depending on what your goals are,” he says, “it's very important to get that degree. Beyond that, research all you can about the company you're going to work for. Then, choose your path as best you can.”

Patti Connor is a Jacksonville, Fla.-based writer.