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Commercial Ecosystems: A New Investment Approach To The Ever-Evolving Retail World

4min read
Business

Throughout my career, I've learned that the most fruitful business decisions start with an optimistic vision for the future. Whether that's seeing the potential to build new communities through real estate development or how investing in the right innovations can move entire industries forward.


Bold visions must be supported by comprehensive research, confident and capable teams, meticulous planning and, of course, good timing. But, it all starts with a vision.

Having served as a Commissioner on the New York City Planning Commission under Mayor Bloomberg during a period when the Commission approved several major influential rezonings, I gained a new appreciation for how development can transform or reinvent a neighborhood.

As a real estate executive, I have always aspired to work on projects that champion communities, empower businesses and enrich neighborhoods through thoughtful design and planning. Community—a group of people and businesses in a physical space—is my primary focus. If the streetscapes are inviting, if people are encouraged to walk through an area, if the layout is thoughtful, then the developments can become truly community-oriented spaces. After decades building community through real estate, I began to explore what other investments could enrich the lives of residents and businesses in neighborhoods.

Retail has always been a big part of my life. After college, I started my career in real estate by launching clothing stores in SoHo and the Village. These experiences in New York City retail were all-encompassing. For each store, I had to build my understanding of the market, the customer base, sales, inventory and communication without the help of the magical research tool that is the Internet. It was an exciting time to be in retail in those burgeoning neighborhoods, but the work of coordinating a business was often complex and labor intensive.

As my career progressed, I continued to work with retail tenants across many of my developments with Continental Ventures. I noticed in my conversations with them that not much had changed in the past 30 years in terms of logistics. Order fulfillment, inventory management and retail logistics are still elaborate processes that require mountains of back-end paperwork. I envisioned a simpler way of running a business: there must be a technology-enabled, full circle solution to make order fulfillment more seamless and less burdensome on brands and retailers.

Consumer expectations have also been evolving. Today's consumers want to buy from brands that speak to who they are and will often use online marketplaces to discover these brands. People want to know more about what they buy. The question is no longer just "What is a brand selling?" Consumers ask: "Where the materials are sourced?" "What is the environmental impact?" "What is the brand's mission?" Today, the role of a retail brand is not simply to get quality product into the hands of their customers. Consumers expect far more; they want to understand the story and message of the brand.

From what I have seen, retail evolves so rapidly that for a brand to be truly prepared for its future means it must have the flexibility to adapt. The interplay between online shopping and brick-and-mortar stores is exciting, and their relationship will continue to change as consumer preferences and expectations shift. The premise of omnichannel retail is that consumers need a mix of e-commerce and physical shopping experiences to meet their desires.

As a real estate developer, I recognize that physical presence matters in retail, and retail space remains an important element of any successful development. Research shows that more Americans are interested in urban living. For real estate developers, this means investing in walkable areas that meld together live, work and play—communities that include housing, employment opportunities, cultural experiences and shopping.

Shopping, of course, looks different today and my vision as an investor is to support technology that helps brands adapt to these shifts and engage their customers. If e-commerce continues to account for more realized sales, brick-and-mortar stores become an experiential complement to online retail. They are tactile showrooms, places for consumers to immerse themselves in the brand's mission, aesthetics and ethos. E-commerce and physical retail are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they enrich one another.

This dynamic is at play for one of my current SoHo tenants, ARJÉ. The brand positions each ARJÉ store location as a "home" and launches new clothing collections as "chapters." They express their philosophy through store design, which adapts to each new chapter but retains a cozy atmosphere with live plants, seating areas and a beverage bar. The online store reflects this friendliness and warmth, driving purchases around the world.

I believe in two models of investment: invest in what you know and invest in something related to what you know that has the support of a strong and knowledgeable team that executes the vision. My partner and I structured Continental Ventures as a multifaceted company that invests in integrated solutions for real estate-related businesses. We have had the opportunity and continue to invest in building communities, one building at a time; we are partners in a private equity lending business that supports this growth and most recently invested in an e-commerce marketplace and fulfillment business, Project Verte; all of these platforms are part of a larger ecosystem.

By investing in these types of companies, I have the opportunity to partner with forward-thinking leaders in e-commerce technology. With this investment, we work together to support a retail landscape that encourages brand-consumer relationships and nurtures valuable physical and digital experiences. I sincerely believe that innovation in e-commerce extends far beyond online shopping. It is all part of my vision for how people communicate and build community.

Culture

Why Whiskey Should No Longer Be Categorized As “A Man’s Drink”

I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"


I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.

In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.

Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.

For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.

Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.

The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.

It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.

While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.

What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.

While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.