When Liz Holland ’93, CEO of the Chicago-based Abbell Credit Corporation and Abbell Associates, and the chairman of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), was a student at Brooklyn Law School, she never expected to lead her grandfather’s company one day.
“I think it’s important to recognize an opportunity when it arises,” Holland said. “Even if it’s unexpected.”
It’s a lesson she took from her time at the Law School. “What you learn as you go through school is that you don’t take the class, you take the professor,” she said. “What really matters is who teaches it to you and how fascinating they can make it. For me, Professor Michael Gerber, who taught my contracts class, inspired me so much that I ended up taking all of his bankruptcy classes and focusing on that area of the law.”
I have gone toe-to-toe with the best attorneys and
my law school experience has always served me
wonderfully well in every way, shape, and form.”
Holland grew up in Chicago and came to New York to attend Hamilton College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature (Latin and Homeric Greek). After graduating in the late 1980s, she worked in the bond department at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. on Wall Street for three years before enrolling at the Law School. Her first post-law school job was in the bankruptcy department at Skadden, Arps, Slade, Meagher & Flom, where she spent three years before becoming a senior staff attorney at the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, a congressional commission created to recommend changes to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. After the commission submitted its 1,800-page report, she was ready to move back to New York and continue working as an attorney.
But careers don’t always go according to plan.
In 1997, when her then 87-year-old grandfather asked her to step into his shoes at Abbell Associates—a 75-year-old private real estate acquisition, development, and management company with more than 3.5 million square feet of shopping center and office space in its portfolio—she agreed hesitantly to return to Chicago, but soon grew to love the work. She had the opportunity to learn the business from her grandfather for two years before he passed away, and then she took over.
“My grandfather was an attorney and a CPA, and he was a pioneer in the shopping center industry,” Holland said. “His first shopping center was built in 1952, so it was incredible to learn the business from him. He had seen it all.”
Today, in addition to actively managing, leasing, and redeveloping the projects in its portfolio, Abbell Associates pursues real estate assets with financial partners—largely buying shopping centers, and then redeveloping and selling them. “Brick and mortar stores account for over 90 percent of all retail sales,” Holland said. “Our strategy is to acquire assets where we add value by repositioning the asset; that means we lease, densify, and reconstruct. Real estate is still all about location, location, location.”
In addition to running Abbell, Holland now serves as the chair of ICSC, the global retail real estate industry trade association. She was a trustee between 2004 and 2010, the first person to serve as vice chair, and now the fourth woman to lead the 60-year-old association. She also sits on the boards of several organizations, including 1,000 Friends of Iowa, a farmland preservation and sensible growth organization, and Lighthouse Academies, the largest nonprofit charter school operator in the country.
“I only move in one direction,” she said, laughing. “I have one forward gear and no reverse.”
Holland lives in her native Chicago with her three daughters—
a 9-year-old and 7-year-old twins. “They are my greatest joy, every day,” she said. And while she sometimes finds it challenging to balance career, public service, and family life, she ultimately attributes her success to hard work, humor, and her law degree from Brooklyn Law School.
“I’m so grateful for the education I received at Brooklyn. I have gone toe-to-toe with the best attorneys,” she said, “and my law school experience has always served me wonderfully well in every way, shape, and form.”