As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ward Kampf, president of Northwood Retail.
Ward A. Kampf serves as President of Northwood Retail. Since joining the organization in 2014, he has been responsible for developing and implementing the company’s strategic vision, building trusted relationships with regional and national retailers, and managing Northwood Retail’s long-term leasing ventures. With over 30 years of industry experience, Kampf previously served at a senior level within Glimcher Realty Trust, holding the positions of Senior Vice President of Strategic Investments and Senior Vice President of Retail Strategies. During his tenure, he was responsible for leading the retail leasing strategy for Scottsdale Quarter in Scottsdale, Arizona. From 2005 to 2009, he served as President of Retail for Thomas Enterprises, Inc., where he directed the leasing and management of several esteemed retail developments such as The RIM in San Antonio, Texas and The Forum in Carlsbad, California. In addition to these past achievements, he also held senior leadership roles at General Growth Properties and Gap Inc. Kampf received a BBA in Business from Southern Methodist University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up in Oklahoma City, as kids, we would drive the three hours to Dallas for back-to-school shopping, and I was awed by the “wow” of Nieman Marcus and other stores at NorthPark. My father was from New York City, and we would also go back to the city for Christmas shopping, which was always a big experience. My love of retail started young. I also felt a calling for fashion early on and knew it was a passion. My mom always had an eye and she initially sparked my interest when she gave me a sweater from Harrods as boy. I could just tell the difference in quality and cut. From there, I was hooked. In fifth or sixth grade, I was the first at my school to wear adidas Gazelles, and I set trends in seventh and eighth grade with my white PONY high tops. In high school, I was early to wear bucket hats. Even as a kid, I just had a knack for quickly spotting retail brands and upcoming designer trends. I didn’t know it then, but I recently read the book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell, and I realized, at the time, I was starting to “thin slice” for fashion and retail. Meaning, I was making decisions in an instant based on my intuition. As I’ve grown in the retail industry, I’ve always relied on my instincts and passion for fashion to propel me forward.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My introduction to working with Vuori was pretty interesting. I knew the story behind Vuori starting in North County San Diego, and I’ve been a fan of the brand for years, but I didn’t know the personal background of the founder Joe Kudla. We were set to meet to do our deal for their new store at Domain NORTHSIDE in Austin. Pre-meeting, someone mentioned Joe’s backstory as a former model and CPA. Then, exactly as advertised, in walks this handsome, tall, and thoughtful guy — he was smart and just incredibly impressive. He asked great questions, and I could tell instantly that we wanted to do business with him. The meeting reinforced two things I standby — one, always do you research (in this case, I didn’t follow my own advice) and two, trust your gut.
On the topic of trusting your intuition and seeing results, another interesting story was a follow-up meeting with Gary Friedman while doing the deal for his second RH mansion at Scottsdale Quarter. Gary was in the process of reinventing RH with the mansion concept, and there wasn’t one open yet. All week, as we prepped for the meeting, my boss Michael Glimcher kept asking me what he should wear. He asked about three to four times daily — he wanted to give a good first impression. Should he wear slacks or a sport coat, dress up or down? My conviction was to just wear my everyday jeans and tennis shoes. I told Michael that I thought that all Gary might notice would be his watch and his shoes. Halfway through the meeting, Gary stopped and commented on Michael’s shoes and watch. As we were leaving the meeting, Michael told me that we were going to do the deal and that I was so right sometimes it was scary.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
It’s not necessarily a mistake — although I do make a lot; sometimes, a few a day — but rather a fashion choice that was seen by some as funny. I was working on the Apple deal at The Forum Carlsbad, and when I was young in my career, I never wore socks. The Apple team made some jokes about me being sockless, and I became known as the “guy with no socks.” That stuck and helped them remember who I was, and ultimately, we inked a deal. It reminds me to stay true to who I am.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
I’ve always had this theory — follow great real estate, follow great centers. I catalogue the properties in my mind, and I track them over time. From 2009 to 2020, I watched the dynamics in North County San Diego and kept my eye on The Forum Carlsbad. I was originally involved in the center’s ground up development in 2004 while I was with Thomas Enterprises, and I knew then how special the area and center were. North County is one of the most dynamic submarkets in the US, and yet it is underserved. Over the years, The Forum Carlsbad remained a great asset, but I could see how redeveloping and remerchandising it with better food and fashion tenants would take the center to the next level. The community is calling for it. The project wasn’t easy to get a hold of, and the recapitalization process took 18 months. We closed in August, and I’m excited to be partnering with Nuveen Real Estate to reimagine the asset.
In addition, we are working on season two of our “Backstory Beginnings” podcast program featuring tenants, where we share short, inspirational founder and business origin stories. The stories are powerful and relevant. Founders and CEOs from national, regional, and local brands touch on their start and share tips for success. For us, it underscores our innovative approach and represents our latest intersection of technology and real estate. Beyond that, “Backstory Beginnings” also promotes connection and builds brand loyalty for our tenants, while offering advice and inspiration for budding entrepreneurs and shoppers. Brands want to have more direct conversations with their customers, and “Backstory Beginnings” helps in that effort. I’m looking forward to seeing how the podcast continues to evolve and grow.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The people around you truly make a company what it is and working with people you connect with and enjoy being around is important. Having the mentorship and collaboration is key. Teams help you find balance in the highs and the lows by sharing successes and overcoming challenges together. You can get caught in a rut, and a good group can pull you out. Don Fitch, my first boss, told me that it’s never as great as you think it is, and it’s never as bad. Being around great people offers balance for the wins and losses.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
John Kennedy with Irish Realty in Oklahoma City helped me get my start in retail with a summer job when I was 19 years old. I was a superintendent on a job site, and he took me under his wing. John has five sons and is next-level smart. He always gives me a different view or perspective on life and business. Over the years, he has been a mentor and a friend, and its reciprocal — he values my opinion and asks for advice. He never discounted my input because I was younger; he saw it as a benefit. I operate the same way with my team. That summer, I had the choice of working for John or trading commodities in Chicago. As a young guy who liked to have a good time, my parents were worried about what trouble I might get into in Chicago and pushed me to work for John. Turned out to be the right move.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We live in a world where talking is a lost art, and I believe that coming together and talking through challenges and new ideas is critical. A lot of good can come out of people having a face-to-face conversation. I’m big on that with my team, and it’s a value for Northwood Investors, too. I was taught that if there’s a problem, hop on plane or get in car, sit down in person, and talk it out. Relationships are so important, and friendships can become surface-level if you aren’t having conversations and sharing differences of opinions. It may sound trivial, but I emphasize meeting in person and talking with my team, rather than strictly emailing or texting. I value my relationships more than anything, and I believe my commitment to face-to-face connection has made me successful in my career and life.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
The fog is lifting from Omicron — people are tired of being worried and staying at home and are ready to be out traveling, shopping, and eating. If people aren’t travelling or leaving their home, they may not see the mood shift or have the larger perspective. I travel weekly, and I was just in San Diego and LA, and the sentiment was optimistic. People are ready to carry on with their lives. Mid-to-late December, it felt as though we were flipping back to 2020, and that dampened the holidays. We saw traffic and sales peaks at our Austin and Dallas centers on December 4 and December 11, but it’s returning. There have definitely been consumer behavior shifts as a result of COVID, but human connection and in-person retail experiences are needed. Retailers are adapting with streamlined curbside operations, app adoption, and a focus on service. One thing to come out of the pandemic — no matter how or where people work — is that people socialize around retail and restaurant experiences. It’s an important part of how people reconnect.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
Retail stores will definitely still exist, but the landscape is changing. Concepts want to control their distribution and have more brand oversight. Brands are moving away from department stores, which is causing some friction, and instead are opening standalone stores. Nike is a prime example. This allows more control over margins and over the entire sale process from start to finish, from original sale to reuse and resale. Brands are increasingly concerned about access.
There is also an astronomical cost for shipping and returns, and brick-and-mortar fulfillment is more profitable. Brands born online realize the need for physical real estate, for both connection and cost savings. If anything, in our portfolio, we’re seeing Amazon getting into more physical retail with book, grocery, and clothing stores.
And for consumers, it’s all about convenience. Being located close to the consumer is key. We’re seeing large upticks in suburban areas, especially as hybrid work models continue. Central business district locations and indoor malls have challenges, but this past year was the first where e-commerce sales were nearly flat compared to physical retail sales — both saw increases of 11% and 8% respectively for the holidays. Even Cyber Monday’s online sales dropped for the first time ever.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Adapting is critical. The best of the best evolves. It’s not talked about enough, but the typical shelf-life for brands now is much shorter. There’s the potential to get hot and grow swiftly on a run. With direct-to-consumer models, brands can reach beyond the US and touch customers worldwide, which allows brands to get to scale quickly. Social media also allows these brands to speak directly to its consumers, garnering more brand loyalty and longer customer relationships. The flipside is that people see the success and try to replicate your secret sauce. Continuing to innovate is crucial, and it’s critical to recruit and retain top talent as you’re riding the creation curve.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
In America, we are over-stored with marginal retail. It’s not necessarily about Amazon — many brands are going to direct-to-consumer. Walmart is doing a great job in physical and online retail. And the same goes for Target. Ultimately, quality wins out, and it’s better to the play the long game rather than focusing on how to make a product cheaper and faster. It’s easy to feel pressure during the growth period, but cutting corners won’t keep you in business for long. Great talent, strong core values, and innovative offerings beats the competition. And there will always be competition in retail — you know it’s coming. You just have to adapt and stay true to your brand.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Placemaking — creating a unique sense of place is key. Shopping is secondary to the place. It’s special. You know you are there when you’re there.
- Content and Context — making sure your center is the right size, has the right merchandise mix, and meets the needs of the surrounding demographics.
- Keeping it Fresh — seeking relevant retail brands, focusing on first-to-market tenants, and opening new concepts.
- Great locals — balancing unique local concepts in your tenant lineup. Our formula is that locals should make up 10%-15% of your merchandise mix, but account for 80% of the character.
- Daily Drivers — activating a vibrant day-to-night atmosphere and layering the day, from morning spin and grabbing coffee, to lunch for the professional, to dinner, drinks and entertainment at night.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Bringing health to the forefront, and having our country focus more on physical wellness. COVID has amplified the importance of taking care of ourselves. The more we focus on our overall wellness, the stronger our immune system is and our ability to fight sickness becomes. Exercise can have a powerful effect, and generally being healthy correlates to being happier. Moderation is important.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on Linkedin.
You can check out Northwood Retail’s portfolio of shopping centers at northwoodretail.com or follow our Instagram, @northwoodretail.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!