Canadian Lawyer

March 2022

The most widely read magazine for Canadian lawyers

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34 FEATURE GC PROFILE STAYING AGILE IN UNCERTAIN TIMES Jennifer Suess and her team help keep occupancy rates at 98 per cent across the portfolio at RioCan REIT "We haven't had a huge number of bankruptcies, and we haven't had a lot of people leave, although I know it's been incredibly difficult for them to remain operational" WITH OVER 6,000 tenancies to manage across 200 properties, the legal team at RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust has been bustling during the pandemic. The team managed negotiations with every tenant during the first 12 months of the crisis and helped them understand what govern- ment assistance was available. RioCan also developed a form for tenants to complete to apply for government assistance, and the legal team helped guide this process, which helped keep occupancy rates at 98 per cent across the portfolio. "The key legal issue we faced was how to ensure that the vast majority of our tenants — with whom we have long-term relation- ships — can remain operational in the face of unbelievable uncertainty, cyclical closures and openings, and often an inability to meet their basic rental obligations," says Jennifer Suess, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at RioCan. The company owns, manages and develops retail-focused mixed-use proper- ties across Canada. "We haven't had a huge number of bank- ruptcies, and we haven't had a lot of people leave, although I know it's been incredibly difficult for them to remain operational, so I'm very proud of the role that RioCan has taken to ensure that Canada's retailers continue to be successful," she says. A culture of adaptation has allowed the legal team to stay on top of many challenges throughout the pandemic. Suess' team initially focused on collaborating with tenants to ensure they could remain operational and understood their obligations under various lease agreements to make rental payments. They accommodated abatements or deferrals where possible to allow tenants to stay solvent. Suess and her team also took responsibility for ensuring that essential retail tenants working on the front line could continue to open and work safely and comply with all applicable health policies and regulations. In addition to the challenges of the pandemic, RioCan went through CEO and CFO changes in 2021, so Suess was involved in ensuring this process went smoothly for the organization. The senior management transition was seamless due to collabora- tion and oversight, with input from the legal department and the board. Suess joined RioCan in 2017 and is the company's first-ever general counsel. She previously served as a corporate and securi- ties lawyer at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP and Goodmans LLP, where she focused on the healthcare sector, and later applied her skills to in-house roles at organizations such as the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson and Alcon Laboratories Inc. Despite having no prior experience in the real estate industry, Suess was quick to jump to the challenge of applying for the role of general counsel at RioCan. "For some reason, it never occurred to me that you would need real estate experience to lead one of Canada's largest real estate companies, so luckily, I think that confidence helped me to get to the place where I met the founding CEO who was making the decision at the time," she says. Clearly, the gamble paid off as Suess has won many awards since

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