The ChainLinks name has been familiar for two decades in the shopping center industry. But last year, significant changes took place behind-the-scenes at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. The nonprofit referral network transformed itself into a corporation, with the member companies as stockholders.

The concept of the newly reorganized ChainLinks Retail Advisors is to offer a single point of contact for chains at the national level as well as local experts in the country's top 100 markets. There is only one ChainLinks member per market and that company is chosen for its expertise in retail real estate, according to Troy Peple, the corporation's first president.

Knowledge of the local market is even more crucial in retail real estate than in office or industrial, Peple says. "You put your office in the wrong place, it's a nuisance. But if you put a retailer in the wrong place, you're out of business."

A Growing Chain of Links With the addition in May of member companies in New Orleans, St. Louis and Cincinnati, ChainLinks' 35 member companies have 350 brokers in 50 offices, providing coverage virtually across the country and into parts of Canada.

Individually and collectively, they work with the biggest names in the retail business: Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Lowe's, AMC Theatres, Crate & Barrel, Toys 'R' Us, Walgreens and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Since 1998, ChainLinks has handled more than 9,000 transactions totaling 70 million sq. ft. and valued at $10 billion, making it North America's largest retail-only real estate provider, according to Peple. The corporation is now averaging more than 400 transactions encompassing 3.5 millionsq. ft. per month.

ChainLinks originally was organized in 1978 by independent real estate companies that combined their expertise to provide local retail knowledge in multiple markets. The change in status to a corporation has added professionals on the national level in addition to the local offices.

The strategic planning process began four or five years ago when ChainLinks members began looking at how to better serve national clients in local markets, says Jeff Kuchman, principal and director of tenant brokerage for Chicago-based Mid-America Real Estate Corp., one of ChainLinks' earliest members.

"We realized ChainLinks could provide that level of service with a single point of contact, but we couldn't empower ChainLinks as a corporation unless it was a company with shareholders responsible for success of that company," says Kuchman, who took over as chairman of ChainLinks' seven-member board in May. "They now have a vested interest in the national enterprise, and the corporate structure allows those groups to benefit from what happens. This gives them a dual motivation to succeed."

Peple, a CPA whose career has included working in real estate syndication and partnership taxation with Arthur Andersen and Coopers & Lybrand, oversaw the transition from a membership referral organization to a national retail real estate services company.

"We now actively market and obtain new clients and manage their real estate needs by outsourcing the local service delivery to a variety of companies," Peple says.

Marsha Getto-Aikens came on board six months ago in the newly created position of director of national accounts. The former director of real estate with Eddie Bauer/Spiegel and real estate consultant for California Pizza Kitchen, Getto-Aikens most recently was senior real estate manager with Sears Roebuck and Co.

The retail veteran brings expertise and perspective from the corporate real estate side of the business. "In our economic times it's important for the viable retailers to be able to move quickly," she says. "We have legs on the ground and local market knowledge to execute their deals. The beauty of ChainLinks is that it has amazing organization on the ground where execution can be accomplished, which makes a real estate director look like a hero to his or her board."

Services offered by ChainLinks include tenant representation, excess property disposition, project leasing, property management, investments, development, construction management, acquisitions and sale/leaseback services.

ChainLinks' disposition services will be further expanded due to a joint venture with Melville, N.Y.-based DMJ Realty announced in late July. In the past four years, DMJ Realty has evaluated 6,000 properties for 50 retailers - including Laura Ashley, London Fog and Jumbo Sports - and disposed of $2 billion in leasehold obligations.

DMJ Realty works with under-performing stores in negotiating with landlords and liquidating inventory. "Historically, they had to find local brokers in each market on a project-by-project basis; now they'll be working with ChainLinks exclusively," Peple says.

"They bring huge expertise and financial strength (to the joint venture); we bring physical strength," he says. "We bring complementary things to the table without overlap."

Corporate downsizing in recent years has made the need for an organization such as ChainLinks even greater, according to Kuchman.

"With downsizing, real estate representatives are wearing so many different hats, it's difficult for them to establish a dozen different contacts," Kuchman says. "They're overwhelmed not only with real estate responsibilities but also must be a de facto attorney, architect, construction expert."

Corporate real estate representatives are also handling much larger territories, and outsourcing allows companies to decrease the size of their internal real estate departments, according to Kuchman.

"Before, one person would handle a few states, and now a vice president is in charge of all 50 states," he says. "They don't have time anymore to spend with different people scattered around the country."

By necessity they began hiring national service providers. "It gives the client the ability get in front of the right people, those who will actually execute their plan," Kuchman says. But if for some reason the clients' needs don't mesh with that of the local ChainLinks company, they're free to use any provider.

"ChainLinks is not necessarily beholden to the local company," Kuchman says. "We can hire anyone. We can go outside that group of companies to get the best possible solution to real estate problems. That's unique."

That flexibility is important, Peple says. "We had to be free to deliver the best service to the client."

In determining member companies, ChainLinks looks for the best retail provider in every market, according to Peple. "We wanted the strongest player in each market and only one in a market. So there was some shakeout when the transition was made to a corporate structure."

The approval and renewal process for membership was intensified fairly significantly when ChainLinks became a corporation, according to Kuchman. "First and foremost we look at local market dominance. Unless it's a very small market, our members are retail specialists. Period."

Quality and integrity also are vital, Peple says. Because member companies must go through a rigorous approval process every two years, they do not legally change their names to include ChainLinks, he adds.

ChainLinks fills another void in the market, according to Peple. "The national firms tend not to specialize in retail, and retail national chains need local expertise. The single point of contact keeps the company from having to tell its story 50 different times. This way the information arrives ahead of the client."

Retail is a very different business than office and industrial, he stresses. "You might have 20 significant variables for an office project while you'll have 100 for retail - that's a lot to manage from a national office."

Retail also has more need for multiple locations. "You might need five office locations, but a retailer might need 500," Peple says. "And they're spread all over. It's a very different business. You're managing hundreds of small transactions. We felt there was a tremendous need for a corporate services division."

ChainLinks' activity year-to-date is more than triple what it was last year for the same period, Peple says. "Next year there will be more than eight times the volume, based on clients now in the pipeline."

One major project in the pipeline is the national expansion of Aveda's spa concept. After an Aveda representative contacted the local ChainLinks office in Portland, Ore., Getto-Aikens met with them about accomplishing their goals of opening hundreds of new locations across the country.

"It's a very ambitious program," she says. Locations are being driven by the operators who will be identified to take over the spa concept. Expansion will begin with urban markets in the East and move across the country.

Getto-Aikens also helps retailers analyze the competition in specific markets and map out demographic and marketing strategies. As for identifying the best location, "you have to understand where the energy is in that market," she says.

Getto-Aikens sees additional future growth for ChainLinks coming from abroad; the one-point contact will be especially beneficial for those unfamiliar with markets in this country, she says.

"There's an amazing amount of interest coming from retailers in other countries looking at our economy and wanting a piece of the action," says Getto-Aikens, whose role is to find new business and feed it into the system.

She notes there are few real estate networks specializing solely in retail. So when all the ChainLinks members get together for meetings, "you can just feel the energy," she says. "Everyone in the room is all retail."

ChainLinks is planning a fall conference and also has referral retreats, where members in a certain part of the country meet to compare notes and share information.

"The retail business is a business of many pieces," Getto-Aikens points out. "We talk about who's expanding, shutting down. We watch how the companies are growing their business, how they express themselves. The knowledge and expertise (the member companies) possess is exciting."