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Q&A: South Coast Plaza GM reflects on creating a place where the world comes to shop

South Coast Plaza General Manager David Grant announced he will retire Dec. 31 after 44 years at the luxury shopping center.
South Coast Plaza General Manager David Grant announced last week he will retire Dec. 31 after 44 years at the luxury shopping center.
(Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

David Grant — South Coast Plaza’s general manager and longest tenured employee in the company’s history — will retire after 44 years of overseeing the day-to-day operations of the luxury shopping center he helped modernize and once helmed with father-in-law Henry Segerstrom.

Officials announced last week Grant, invited by Segerstrom to join the family business in 1977 after working for Los Angeles-based CL Peck Construction, would retire from his position Dec. 31.

Under his leadership, South Coast Plaza deftly navigated a constantly changing retail climate, integrating technology into the business’ daily operations and responding to the pandemic by developing the Pavillion, an open-air shopping experience that allowed major brands, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Cartier, to operate during the shutdown.

Recently, Grant took a few moments to reflect on his storied career and share his hopes for the future of South Coast Plaza with the Daily Pilot.

South Coast Plaza GM David Grant, right, plays a game of table tennis with Chinese Consul General in Los Angeles Zhang Ping.
South Coast Plaza General Manager David Grant, right, plays a game of table tennis with Chinese Consul General in Los Angeles Zhang Ping in October.
(Courtesy of South Coast Plaza)

What exactly is the GM of South Coast Plaza responsible for?

Being a general manager of South Coast Plaza is like running a small city as its city manager. I oversee everything from public safety, guest services, tenant relations, mechanical engineering, safety and security and more.

What was the Plaza like 44 years ago? Was it a different landscape? How would you say it has changed over the years?

The change in technology was tremendous — what we considered science fiction in the ‘60s is now in everyday business practice.

Our tenant mix has evolved from mostly small, independently owned retailers to large corporate-owned retailers. Luxury, in particular, has gone from multigenerational family ownerships to large conglomerates.

I’ve witnessed the phenomenal growth of cultural diversity in Southern California and development of international retail tourism at South Coast Plaza. We are known to attract visitors from more than 50 countries around the world.

David Grant at South Coast Plaza on Nov. 11.
David Grant at South Coast Plaza on Nov. 11.
(Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

What do you think the next 44 years might hold in store for South Coast Plaza?

I believe South Coast Plaza will continue to be a leading and vibrant international destination because it has built such a strong brand. It’s clear to us a lot of people in the U.S. and around the world will always seek and love brick-and-mortar shopping, even though online shopping is available to them.

Through the years, we’ve strategically positioned South Coast Plaza as a one-of-a-kind global shopping and dining attraction with a unique and diverse collection of boutiques and restaurants. In recent years, we’ve added two restaurants helmed by a Top Chef finalist and one of our restaurants just earned a Michelin star. We have the largest collection of luxury tenants under one roof in the U.S., especially fine jewelry and timepiece brands, and this segment will continue to grow in the years ahead.

There’s no doubt South Coast Plaza will continue to evolve, with its international luxury retail collection, guest experiences, amenities and a welcoming, pristine environment as the foundation.

Many people believe shopping centers are declining in popularity, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at South Coast Plaza. Can you say why?

South Coast Plaza is one-of-a-kind — that’s really at the core of our continuing success. We have all the elements that have enabled us to thrive through economic changes.

We were early adopters of luxury retailing. As Southern California’s population got bigger and more urbanized, and as the demand for luxury grew, we became an attraction — as a part of the Southern California lifestyle — to tourists from all over the world and locals alike. We were, and still are, at the right place at the right time with the right offering. To have that many top luxury and contemporary retailers under one roof remains unprecedented in the U.S.

Can you share maybe one or two highlights or special memories from your time in the position?

The visits from presidents Reagan and Clinton, members of royal families and diplomats from around the world, movie and music celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Sylvester Stallone are certainly memorable. One memory that stands out is when Arnold Schwarzenegger visited us at the peak of his “Terminator” movies. I welcomed him and took him on a tour of the center. Years later, Arnold returned to South Coast Plaza in a different capacity — as governor of California.

Another unforgettable experience was when we hosted a group of children who were blind through CM900, a civic organization that was part of the city’s chamber of commerce. Each of us who participated partnered with a child and we spent time with them as they dined at Piret’s, one of our restaurants at the time, and rode the horses on our carousel.

Why did now seem like a good time to retire?

My original plan was to transition from the day-to-day operations at South Coast Plaza when I turned 70. Having spent 42 years of my career and life here, I had been planning to focus on personal pursuits and interests for which I had not had enough time, such as traveling with my wife, Andrea, and our agricultural businesses in Ventura County. When the pandemic struck, I postponed my retirement to help South Coast Plaza navigate a very challenging and critical time.

Even though you will continue to remain involved, in some way, in the operations of the site, what will you miss most about leaving the day-to-day goings on?

I will miss the day-to-day contact with inspiring tenants and meeting customers from all walks of life and from all over the world. I will also miss the regular interactions with friends and partners at government and diplomatic agencies, community and civic organizations and, of course, the management teams that have helped make South Coast Plaza the success it is today.

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