John Schroder just avoided the maths classroom, writes Carolyn Cummins.
If it wasn't for a childhood friend's gentle but firm shove, John Schroder, Stockland's chief executive of commercial property, might be teaching logarithms.
After a stint as a barman and general kitchen hand at the Black Stump restaurant chain and toying with the idea of a four-year hotel and catering course, Schroder opted to enrol in actuarial studies and mathematics at Macquarie University with an attached teaching diploma.
"I tried it but it just wasn't for me," he says. "I went back to the restaurant world until a friend, Joe Carrozzi, from PwC and Ernst & Young, said to try again at university. That time I enrolled at University of NSW to do commerce and marketing ... I am forever grateful for that advice."
During that time - in which he also met his wife, Stephanie, whom he says the "Pope should canonise" - the young Schroder caught the attention of a professor, George Holmes, who said at the end of a lecture: "Come and see me."
"He told me that a company, Lend Lease, was looking for graduate trainees," he says.
"I had an interview with Michael Lloyd - now the publisher of well-respected Shopping Centre News - and I started shortly after at Top Ryde shopping centre as the assistant to the manager and who became my mentor, Nil McHugh.
"She was brilliant and gave me a lot of rope. Nil was one of the first female shopping centre managers in the country and taught me all about looking after tenants and the nuances of retail."
And listen he did, as he is now seen as a mentor to many others in the retail world.
Helen Bakewell, the founder of Directional Insights, a retail consultancy and research group, says Schroder was her first boss at Lend Lease and was a "wonderful force of energy with a can-do mentality".
Talk to people in the retail world and they say the same thing - that Schroder knows his shops and cares for his staff. Many of the successful people in retail, including the general manager of retail for Mirvac Property Trust and Mirvac Investment, Susan MacDonald, have worked with Schroder over the years.
His peers describe him as passionate, enthusiastic and having a "whirlwind" of ideas.
Perhaps it was the grounding he received firstly at Patrician Brothers at Liverpool and then Patrician Brothers' College, Fairfield, the latter where he graduated from high school.
Through his passion for opera, Stockland Group is also now a sponsor of the Australian Youth Orchestra.
According to his peers, Schroder is skilled at the piano but, these days, his indulgences are a couple of glasses of good red and looking after his large family.
And he still uses his maths. But more along the lines of the returns that can be attained from investing in a $100 million-plus shopping centre, which, after more than 27 years, remains a passion.
Over that time, he spent eight years with Lend Lease, 13 with Westfield, mostly in North America, and in 2006 accepted the job at Stockland.
He says working overseas was a great grounding in retail as it provided a manager with a large array of issues, including dealing with very different demographics, lifestyles, attitudes and demand.
In the US, shopping centres are anchored by large retailers, all of which have their own entrances, surrounded by acres of car spaces.
The internal centres that are unique to Australia were unheard of elsewhere in the world.
Together with Victor Hoog Antink and Peter Lowy, it was Schroder's job to sell the Westfield mall model to entrenched US shoppers.
It was no mean feat and was considered by many as the school of hard knocks for a retail manager.
But the hard work paid off and now Schroder can use some of the knowledge of shopping habits in his role at Stockland.
He loves going shopping and, with five children from a toddler to a 13-year-old, he still does the weekly rounds at the supermarket to help out his wife.
"What excites me about retail is that it's a living, breathing asset class," he says.
"I still remember a plaque at the top of the reception at the Top Ryde shopping centre which summed it up: 'We are the focal point of the community in which we serve.'
"Those disciplines are still the same today, even with the internet and other headwinds facing the retail sector."
Not that Schroder is any stranger to tough times. Having worked in retail from the bottom up as the junior graduate at Lend Lease to being the chief operating officer for Westfield in the US, he has seen many booms and busts.
He reckons the US giant Nordstrom has got the right model and Australians can learn some good lessons from it.
"The model, as devised by the Swedish founder, is the best as it promotes customer services with the adage: 'We get our people to use the best judgment in all situations. There will be no other rules,"' Schroder says.
"These are not just sayings. The successful retailer must feel them and use them.
"Malls are town centres and a meeting spot for the community. In all our developments, we focus on creating that community feel."
Under his leadership, Stockland has created its well-known "three R" strategy of retail, retirement and residential. Although all three have been hit by the weaker economy in recent times, Schroder says they will all survive.
"The best way to know your shoppers is to go to the centres. With a toddler, I have to use the change rooms and by personal experience I see what is lacking. So we can bring in changes to make them parent-friendly, such as offering hand wipes and convenient nappy disposal bins," he says. "Retail is about knowing your customers."
And with about $910 million of new retail under construction, a lot is riding on Schroder and his team to keep Stockland's retail division ahead of its rivals.
Under his watch, the group is redeveloping the old sites at Shellharbour, Townsville and Merrylands, turning them into state-of-the-art centres offering everything from cinemas to free Wi-Fi.
He also embraces as much information as possible. Together with his staff, such as Stockland's general manager, leasing and marketing, Robyn Stubbs, they use data collected from the National Australia Bank and data analytics group Quantium.
Schroder says the data covers transactions from credit and debit cards, eftpos payments and Bpay and gives Stockland an insight into what people are buying and where.
The data is cross tabulated each quarter and is a valuable tool to track consumers' shopping habits.
Schroder says the internet must be embraced. But he adds that for all the reported issues, many malls are yet to face significant bankruptcies.
"I keep saying to my wonderful staff: 'Know your customers and have good marketing strategies,"' he says. "Nordstrom, which started as a shoe shop in Seattle, teaches its staff to go beyond the point of excellence.
"In Australia, we are also facing the offshore entrants and they are all likely to succeed these days as they have more knowledge about our shopping habits and demands."
He says retailers such as Pottery Barn, Abercrombie & Fitch and many others are looking at sites across the country. And as they set up shop, Schroder will be there to welcome them.