Asil Attar and I were first introduced to each other only a couple of months ago, and yet our friendship and mutual respect has grown in that space of time as we have discovered that we have so many similarities – our views of the world, our diverse background and experience, leadership and growing people and teams. One thing we are both passionate about, and which I will refer to here, is Retail.
I was born and raised in Nigeria, later arriving in London. I wanted to be a Civil Engineer, and graduated from Newcastle University, before going on to gain a Master’s degree from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I was honoured to work on some of the world’s most iconic projects – Stansted Airport, the MI6 Building, as well as other well-known buildings in Frankfurt, Paris and London. I loved what I did. It was a privilege to work with many talented people in their field, including clients like British Airport Authority, or IBM, with their “no-nonsense-the-success-of-the-project-is-all-that counts”. I learnt fast. My managers gave me room to grow and make my own mistakes to claim my seat at the top table.
After 6 years in Edinburgh, my journey began by moving countries, from Scotland to England, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and back to France, but also changing industry from Civil Engineering to Retail. There was no plan on my part to go into Retail, let alone Retail Real Estate. I knew nothing about either!
It was thanks to an astute head-hunter who obviously felt that I had the skillset needed. The job they were recruiting for at Foot Locker, the global athletic footwear brand, was not the one for which I was hired. The CEO saw something else in me that the company needed at the time, and the rest is history. Eight countries, over 250 stores, now as Head of Real Estate Europe, I had a lot of ground to cover both in terms of geography, but also to acquire the knowledge I needed to successfully complete the job I was given.
What should one do in situations like that? Firstly, you seek out those who know more than you do and who are successful, at it. Secondly, you look for the resources – both in terms of reports, articles – but also in terms of attending events and conferences specific to the industry. Thirdly, join trade associations to network and grow your contact base.
After that, it is plain and simple – hard work, discipline, and commitment! I travelled non-stop for those three years, four days a week on the road. Thankfully, I have an amazing wife and four fantastic children who supported me throughout. Without that, my success today would not have been possible.
For the past 27 years I have lived and breathed retail. I have seen it in all its formats – department stores, outlets, high streets, retail parks, airports, transport hubs and of course shopping centres. I have travelled the world both professionally and while on vacation to look at all forms of retail. I have probably done over 500 single visits to centres or retail destinations. Some locations I have visited over 20 times! On our 30th wedding anniversary a few years ago, spent in Dubai, on day two of visiting yet another megamall, my wife abandoned me to return to the hotel as she had seen enough of malls! So, when I say that I am passionate about retail, it is no exaggeration!
When I speak about retail and its challenges today, deep into the COVID crisis, we should bear in mind that a lot of the issues arose before the pandemic, except that it was continually brushed under the carpet, or it was felt that the cracks could be papered over. The pandemic has simply accelerated many of the issues we face as an industry. Let me give you a couple of examples.
As Head of Real Estate for Foot Locker and later for Gap, and before advising many other global brands from Michael Kors to Esprit, or TUMI to Disney, we, the brands, contributed to the “Race for Space”. We relentlessly opened stores across Europe, and in different formats – in shopping centres, high streets, department stores, outlets. Then came E-Commerce and the consumer had all that she needed in physical as well as in an online platform. While it is a complex conversation, put simply, consumption spiked, brands lost their DNA, and then they had (and still have) too many stores, putting pressure on the cost structure and profitability of retailers and brands.
Another example would be that owners of shopping centres continued to build with a view that “if we build it, they (retailers and consumers) will come”. For a long time, this worked, until it did not. The retailers have so much choice of where to open stores, not just in one country, nor across Europe, Middle East and Africa, but globally. Asia, China in particular, became the focus for growth starting some 15 years ago for so many aspirational or premium brands, but was especially the case for the luxury brands.
The second year I was in Shanghai, the largest landlord in China told us that they were on target to open 57 malls in that year alone! Mind-boggling – nearly 5 a month! So, it is no surprise that across the globe, including the USA, the shopping centres are challenged, and many are having to close, with many “dead or dying malls” appearing. This of course provides an opportunity for certain shopping centres to be “repurposed” or transformed into other forms of real estate. They could partially or totally be transformed into residential, offices, co-working, student living, logistics and so on.
I deliberately use these two groups, Retailer and Landlord, as examples, because one thing the pandemic has done, is open up a very sore wound – which existed before. This relationship has become very adversarial and indeed acrimonious that it will take a while for progress to be made to establish healthy conversations and rebuild trust.