University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 152: Revitalizing A Region Through Real Estate with Jonathan Navallo

December 08, 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Jonathan Navallo, Walton College alumnus and head of real estate at Ocean State Job Lot. Jonathan’s work in real estate for Walmart and Runway Group helped build the Northwest Arkansas we know today.

Listen as Jonathan Navallo shares how his experiences at Walmart and the University of Arkansas accelerated his career, his passion for mentoring fellow Filipino-Americans, and how he turned a decade of layoffs into opportunities.

Episode Transcript

0:00:05.5 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today, Jonathan Navallo, who has extensive experience in finance and real estate. He is currently head of real estate at Ocean State Job Lot. So Jonathan, thank you for joining me today and let's start there. What is Ocean State Job Lot?

0:00:46.9 Jonathan Navallo: Definitely. First off, I'd like to say thank you Dean Waller for having me, and I'm extremely excited and humbled to be on here. So to start with, Ocean State Job Lot is really the premier discount retailer in the Northeast, and unlike other discount retailers, I think what sets it apart is that our main value proposition is giving value. When you look at companies like Walmart, Big Lots, Five Below, they're looking to give you discounts, they're looking to give you lower prices, what we're looking to do is transfer value. And so we have about 150 stores in the Northeast, and we're continuing to expand and right now we're doing about a $850 million in sales, and our goal is to get to $1 billion in the next few years, and that's the biggest reason they brought me in. Especially when it comes to retail, even in today's e-commerce age, the way that you continue to do so is to grow, and we're choosing to grow not only on the e-commerce side, but also through real estate. So as head of real estate, my job is to continue growing our real estate portfolio as we expand to the rest of the country.

0:01:52.2 Matt Waller: I know that you received your MBA from the Walton College a few years ago, but early on in your experience, you were clearly involved in finance before you got involved in real estate.

0:02:08.1 Jonathan Navallo: Definitely. I graduated with my undergrad in 2002, and one of my first jobs out of college was at a small boutique investment bank. It's interesting, and almost foretelling that I was on the sell side advisory, so we were continuously advising companies how to sell their own, basically based on their internal evaluations. And then once a buyer came and we would work through... We work with the buyer, and literally, every time a company was acquired, one of the first things you do is you lay off individuals, you lay off departments that are redundant, and I did that for about two years. And then sure enough, the investment bank got bought out and I was in one of the last groups so that became redundant, but after that, my career was filled with a lot of companies that ended up having redundancies and I was part of that. I think the biggest thing that I've learned really is there's this belief, and it's internal to most of us, is that the job we have is who we are, it's part of our identity. I vehemently believe that's true, because it is something that we do for a majority of our life, but at the same time, you have to understand that sometimes companies make decisions and it's not personal. And I think when you're young and you get laid off, there's a feeling of obviously, there's a feeling of failure, but there's also a feeling like they didn't like you.

0:03:29.3 Jonathan Navallo: And one of the biggest things I learned is to not take these things personal, again, businesses is business, it's Xs and Os, it's dollars and cents, and understanding that sometimes good people get laid off is something you have to keep in mind because those layoffs turn into opportunities. I've been laid off about five times in my career, but every single time I've been able to, for the most part, leverage that role into something better. And as an example, I got laid off in 2007, working for Equity Office Properties, I was a finance manager. They got bought out by Blackstone. I was able to transition that role to be head of acquisition for a private equity firm and not only was it a great company, but it enabled me to move to Seattle, and so I got to live in another location, another state, something really brand new. And then when the financial crisis continued to worsen, the global financial crisis and around 2009, the company went insolvent. Then I had the opportunity to come back to Southern California, and I joined a company called Dexus Property Group, which is a real estate investment trust, and I was head of all financial reporting, and I got to fly to Australia essentially every six months.

0:04:39.1 Jonathan Navallo: And so there was another great opportunity that was born out of this turmoil and disruption in my career, and long story short, through all these layoffs, the biggest things I learned is one, don't take it personal, but the other two is you've gotta cultivate relationships, and you have to build a brand. And this brand actually starts even when you're in college. And so I know we'd mentioned earlier, some of the listeners here in college today, what I would say is, Well, it's very difficult to know definitively what you're gonna do when you graduate. One thing you do know is who you are as a person and what you're good at. And what you wanna do is if you are happy with what that is, you wanna lean into it and take it with you in every single thing you do, every class. And I'll give you an example, I'm really good at analyzing things, some of the other students looked at me as one of the gurus when it came to analysis, especially Excel presentations, things like that, and so I've leaned into that, and that's really been how I've been able to continue my career, even though I've gotten laid off.

0:05:41.4 Jonathan Navallo: Because as an example from the company in Seattle, I got laid off on a Wednesday, or I got laid off on a Monday, Tuesday, I sent out my emails to everyone saying I got laid off, I'm in the market for a job, Wednesday, I flew to Newport Beach for an interview, Friday I had a job. And the reason I had that, it was because of the brand I built, which was an analytical thinker, hard worker, gets the job done and can build things from scratch, and also because of the relationships I had. Things I would say... The three biggest things that I've taken from well over a decade of layoffs, is one to not take it personally, two build a brand, so that that brand, no matter what company you're with, can stay. And then three is to really build relationships with those around you so that you could call upon them when you need them.

0:06:31.3 Matt Waller: Well, those are great lessons and what a great attitude to have through that. Do you feel like your difficult experiences... They were difficult, every time you get laid off, it's gotta be difficult, but you made the best of it for sure. I would imagine the first layoff was probably the hardest, was it?

0:06:50.8 Jonathan Navallo: I think the hardest one was the one when I... The one after that, because I had gone to a company called Equity Office properties, they were one of the largest Southern California real estate investment trust on the West Coast. I was a finance manager, I had a really great job, I had an office, I had a team. And when I took that job, my boss had said, "Look, I wouldn't hire you if I couldn't guarantee a job for a year, so again, I felt that at minimum I had a year. After three months, my manager walked into my office and said, "Jonathan, I'm sorry, we're all getting laid off." And I think that was really the biggest thing, because when I was at the investment bank, I knew it was a likelihood, 'cause that's what we were telling the sellers. 'Cause a lot of times they said, "If I sell this company, what happens to my employee?" And obviously, we said, "Well, for the key employees, they're gonna be here," but those middle managers, a lot of times those are the ones who get removed because they're redundant in this company structure.

0:07:49.7 Jonathan Navallo: So when it came from left field, and I had only been there three months that was really the biggest one, and I took that one extremely hard 'cause I really felt like I didn't know what I was gonna do. I would say that was the first time that it was my second layoff that I really felt "lost", but that's when I started building that thick skin and also more importantly, learning how to take my emotions out of it and figure out what do I need to do to succeed, and then I've taken those learnings to every single role, even to the one I'm at today.

0:08:21.5 Matt Waller: Do you think that your experience... Do you think it's made you more or I should say less fearful in the future positions you took?

0:08:31.0 Jonathan Navallo: I definitely do. I think fear generally comes from the unknown and really not knowing what's next. And so in my role, it's real estate and finance, but really those two things are about one thing, it's management and it's mitigation of risk. And so the active mitigating risk means trying to figure out what's a known and putting together plans in the event that happens. And so when it comes... Now, when I go into a new role, I'm doing many things. I'm looking at the company and I'm trying to figure out where this company get its money, what's its business plan, how is it gonna continue to remain relevant, especially in retail, and is it gonna be able to grow? And then I'm also looking at my own industry, I'm in real estate, well, I can work at... I can work at a Walmart, I can work at an industrial company, I can work for any other corporation, 'cause almost everything has real estate to some extent, so in my mind, I'm very transferable to a lot of different places, but is real estate something that's gonna continue to grow in that particular company? And so really what it's done is it's made me look and really analyze every aspect of the companies I'm going to to make sure that I've got a plan three, four, five years ahead.

0:09:56.8 Jonathan Navallo: That's really how I look at things now, is I'm not looking to, Where am I gonna be in a year? I'm really looking what is the highest likelihood of my position in the next five years?

0:10:08.3 Matt Waller: That's a wise approach. Tell us about some of your experience. I know you went to work for Walmart, and for Runway... Why don't you talk a little bit about those positions?

0:10:22.5 Jonathan Navallo: So Walmart really was an opportunity that came to me back in 2015, and at that time I was working for an apartment developer in Southern California called the Irvine Company, and I had worked in essentially every real estate type with the exception of retail. And so there is a saying that I firmly believe in, and I mentioned this earlier, I think when you and I were just talking back and forth, is that I've been very lucky, and luck again is the intersection of opportunity and preparation. And so when Walmart came, I had no retail background. Especially no big box. And they said, "We want someone who knows real estate, but we also want someone who hasn't done retail real estate, 'cause we want thinkers who think outside... Literally, the big box." And any other time in Walmart's history, I probably would not have been able to get an interview. But it was just the perfect timing, they had a new leader who wanted to have people who didn't come from the big box background, but knew real estate, and so that brought me to Walmart and that's where I really... My career accelerated, if you will. There was a lot of amazing things that happened once my wife and my son at that time I only had one we moved to Arkansas.

0:11:33.9 Jonathan Navallo: And that was one, I got to have a territory in the Northeast, and obviously working for a Fortune One and essentially leading a real estate strategy. But the other thing is, I have the opportunity to get my MBA from the University of Arkansas. And I think those two things, me choosing to do those simultaneously right when I got to Arkansas, unquestionably led to the acceleration of my career to where I am today. And when you look at it in six years, I went from a manager... It's a head of a department essentially, but needs only the C-level executive in six years, and that's because of Walmart and the University of Arkansas. But those really taught me a lot of things, one, obviously taught me retail, but I got to learn under the tutelage of a lot of great mentors, individuals who have been in real estate for 20 years, and I got to learn from them, but more importantly, they got to learn from me. So It was really a symbiotic relationship and I think that was... That'd be the biggest takeaway that I would say for anyone, if they think of Walmart corporate, is that they have some of the best leaders around, but they're leaders who are open to learning new things, 'cause you can go to a company and have someone who's been in their 20 years, but they feel they can't learn anything from any one junior.

0:12:46.8 Jonathan Navallo: It wasn't that way at Walmart. And honestly, in my opinion, that's why they're still Fortune One today, because they're continuously learning, and it doesn't matter where it comes from. And the reason I also mentioned the MBA is because that's actually where the opportunity to work for the Runway Group came. I get through the program, we graduate, one of my good friends, and again, talking about relationships and building those are key. One of the people who I met, she actually ended up working for the Waltons for Runway, and Runway is owned by the Walton family, and her and I were really good friends and the only reason we were good friends is 'cause both our names start with N. It just happenstance that we were sitting at the same table, put in the same group because of our last name, but we ended up becoming good friends, and I helped her. I'm a little bit older than her, and then I told her if they ever need real estate help let me know. And sure enough, they were starting to grow Runway, they wanted to take the real estate to another level, strategically acquire real estate and developed in Northwest Arkansas.

0:13:44.8 Jonathan Navallo: And they approached me, and after a few interviews, they hired me. And so I think that's really, really important because you always hear that you need to be open and you can't plan your career 100%. That's exactly what happened to me, I'm from Southern California, I'm a Filipino descent. I moved essentially to the middle of the country, I join a university, and now all of a sudden, because of those steps and because of the relationships I've built, I've got an opportunity to essentially work for the Walton family as their head of acquisitions, and that's being the Runway Group. There was an amazing time, what we were looking to do was really revitalize Northwest Arkansas, and the way we were gonna do that was through a variety of different programs, but they were all led by real estate. 'Cause when you think of Northwest Arkansas, the way to revitalize that is they believe that it's through the downtowns, those are the heart and blood of every town. And if you can make that a place that has gravity, that pulls people in and where people wanna be, it's gonna grow from there, and so we had strategies for every major city in Northwest Arkansas. And again, it was led by real estate, where could I acquire the right real estate to have the right type of offering that's going to create the gravity that we want and energy to make that city come alive.

0:15:04.8 Jonathan Navallo: And again, if you look in Northwest Arkansas today, it is obviously on multiple top lists in terms of places to live, whether it's to retire, whether it's to mountain bike, whether it's for leisure. Northwest Arkansas is one of the best places to live. And that's probably one of the biggest accomplishments that I have in my career, is to take a lot of pride in the fact that I got to be a part of that. With Walmart it was a great opportunity, I learned a lot from my mentors that also taught me how to be a mentor myself and then with Runway Group, really get an opportunity to be part of what they're now called as the preeminent think and-do tank, and be able to enact these actions that were just thought of and then we were able to execute on them. And it's really been an amazing opportunity to be part of and for me, one of the highlights of my career.

0:15:53.6 Matt Waller: And then after Runway, you went to work back to Walmart and you were director of international real estate investment. That sounds very challenging.

0:16:06.3 Jonathan Navallo: It definitely is. Walmart is a worldwide brand. We've got multiple flags in 22 different countries, and so the reason I left the Runway Group was we got to essentially this critical point where we had enough real estate to begin all of the initiatives that were planned. As I mentioned earlier, I'm always looking five years ahead, and I'm sitting here saying, "Okay, where do I go? I'm doing all the acquisitions, but if we've stopped as it relates to acquisitions, I'd have to transition to something else, but I still... But this is what my career path is done, and more importantly, this is what I enjoy," so I had some conversations with the leadership there. And then one of my good friends who was actually the head of real estate in China reached out to me and said, "Hey, there's an opening, we'd love for you to interview for it." And so the role obviously was a director of international real estate investment. And there what I was doing is I was in charge of all real estate investment for six of our 10 markets, and those six markets being China, Japan, South Africa, India, UK and Canada. So any type of real estate investment, whether it was a new store, a lease, office or even industrial, I was the first level of approvals before it would get to the CEO. And again, it's a lot of management, it's working with each of these markets, the time difference is tremendous when we're thinking...

0:17:32.2 Jonathan Navallo: We're thinking China and South Africa, that time difference is all over the place. But the opportunities to connect with people around the world, I think was the best thing. I got to spend a lot of time in China, I spent time in Mexico, worked a lot with the Canada team, unfortunately, COVID happened right in the middle and so I never got the opportunity to physically go to Japan or South Africa or India or the UK, but had that not happened, I would have.

0:18:02.0 Jonathan Navallo: But I still work with those teams and I'm still friends with a lot of the people there, and so it was a tremendous experience. But moreso really understanding what Walmart means around the world. As a quick aside, I think the interesting thing is when most people here in America think Walmart, it has a very clear customer value proposition, it is a discount retailer. But when you go around the world, with all our different... Or all of Walmart's different flags, it's not that same type of customer. And so what's truly amazing, is that Walmart has a brand in China that is one of the top aspirational brands where we sell diamond or they sell diamonds and they sell high-end cars. And same you go to Chile, there's certain areas where the Walmart brand and it's not the Walmart name, but it is one of Walmart flags, it has a much different customer value proposition. When we think of the world, Walmart really caters to every single customer that's on that spectrum, from your very, very discount driven family, to your aspirational customer, and I think that's what makes Walmart so amazing.

0:19:02.2 Jonathan Navallo: And that's what I got to really learn, is meeting associates from around the world, but also getting a better understanding of what Walmart means in each of these different marketplaces.

0:19:12.8 Matt Waller: Jonathan, you go by the saying, "Lift as you climb." Would you mind explaining that?

0:19:20.2 Jonathan Navallo: Yeah, definitely, as I touched upon when I was with Walmart, I had the opportunity to have all these great mentors and they all achieved a specific level of success. But what I've learned is that they really are invested in me continuing to grow. The way I try to move in my career, and I've been doing so ever since, is as you continue to climb up into whether it's success or your family, or even just your personal life as you continue to climb, lift. Meaning lift those around you. And one thing I love is that when I look back at my original analyst class at my investment bank who I still keep in touch with, all of us have been able to grow and achieve success, but we've all helped each other along the way. And so relationships are extremely important, that first job you have, the people you work with, maybe some of your closest friends, but also they may be some of your greatest assets. Because you could learn from them and they can learn from you, and they can help you. And so I'm actually a board member on something called the SIPA, which stands for the Search to Involve Filipino-Americans, and what we do there is, again, we're just trying to enrich and empower generations of Filipino-Americans. But we're doing so through experiences, through mentorship, and we're really trying to grow individuals, same with Walmart and I am...

0:20:36.5 Jonathan Navallo: The other thing is, I have mentees in every single university I've been at, also the companies I'm at I have two University of Arkansas mentees, and I really pride myself on preparing them not only for success in education, but success when they get into the workplace. And what I've asked all my mentees is that as they continue to grow and become successful, make sure they're helping other individuals. Those people who they have the drive, and sometimes they just need someone to help guide them, and I'm hoping as I'm guiding this current generation of mentees that they pay it forward. And I've seen it. One of my mentees who actually reached out to me, it wasn't through job reached out to me, through LinkedIn, we built a relationship. He now has more... He's been so successful, he has a lot of mentees that has really taken it in a step that I never could have, and it's helped them in a way is even greater than I could. And that's the things that I wanna see. As you continue to climb and be successful, and like I said, right now, I'm the head of this entire department, all of real estate in a million-dollar company.

0:21:44.0 Jonathan Navallo: I wanna take everything I've learned and make sure that all my mentees can see what I'm doing, see how I got there, and the plan would be for them to well exceed me and make sure they're doing that for the next group beneath them.

0:21:57.3 Matt Waller: Well Jonathan, your career path has been very impressive, and congratulations on your career path and also just on the tremendous attitude you've had through some of the early challenges you faced and the lessons you've learned.

0:22:13.5 Jonathan Navallo: Thank you Dean Waller. It has been quite a journey, but one that has been extremely, extremely rewarding, but I have a deep, deep tremendous amount of gratitude for the University of Arkansas 'cause I truly believe I would not be where I am today had I not undergone that MBA program. I'm proud to say I'm an alumni.

0:22:34.6 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, Be EPIC.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair, and professor of supply chain management. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.

Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow, and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain” published by Pearson Education.

He received a B.S.B.A. summa cum laude from the University of Missouri, and a M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics.



Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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