Gopal Rajegowda of Related Southeast: “The key for me has been curiosity and being courageous”

I absolutely think retail stores and shopping areas will continue to exist. Smart brands are always going to want to physically connect with consumers and you cannot do that strictly through the internet. Also, consumers are always going to want to have experiences outside of their home. Because of these two ideas, it’s going to […]

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I absolutely think retail stores and shopping areas will continue to exist. Smart brands are always going to want to physically connect with consumers and you cannot do that strictly through the internet. Also, consumers are always going to want to have experiences outside of their home. Because of these two ideas, it’s going to be up to the retailers to create very exciting in-store retail experiences and even out-of-store activations through pop-ups and events. It’s up to the brands to invest in these experiences, which will ultimately allow them to continue to grow and attract loyal customers.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gopal Rajegowda who is a Partner at Related Southeast. Throughout his career, Mr. Gopal Rajegowda has been passionate about developing successful destinations that combine world-class design, urban planning, hospitality, arts & culture, experiential retail, food and beverage and community.

With more than 16 years of experience managing all aspects of mixed-use real estate acquisition and development, Mr. Rajegowda has been directly responsible for leading the development of multiple mixed-use destination resort projects, including the W South Beach in Miami Beach, the Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and the Hilton West Palm Beach.

Currently, he heads the re-imagination of the Rosemary Square neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida. This experiential destination features shopping, dining, entertainment, and a live-work-play community with programmable green spaces and thought-provoking public art. He is also leading the development of 360 Rosemary, a Class-A office building, 575 Rosemary, a mixed-use tower that includes luxury residences and retail space, and One Flagler, a Class-A world-class office building located along the Downtown West Palm Beach waterfront.

Mr. Rajegowda serves as a board member of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Chamber of Commerce of The Palm Beaches and Cultural Council of Palm Beach County. The Mayor of West Palm Beach recently appointed him as a member of the West Palm Beach Mayor’s Taskforce for Racial and Ethnic Equality. He holds an M.A. in Real Estate Development from Columbia University and a B.A. in Mathematics from Cornell University, and currently resides in West Palm Beach.

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?

Funny enough, I didn’t originally intend to be in mixed-use development. I graduated from Cornell in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and minor in Asian ethics. Given my technical background in mathematics, I was recruited by banks and started my career in Wall Street. After two years as an analyst, I was itching to do something more hands-on and creative, so I did some soul-searching. I thought about my math teacher growing up who was big on architecture and took us to see great buildings around New York by world-renowned architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. From a young age, I was fascinated by the notion of how creativity and design could lead to the creation of impactful buildings in our society. I then started to consider real estate as a career and met with people from all different areas within the industry. I applied and was accepted to a master’s program in Columbia in real estate and in 2004 joined Related Companies. I was convinced to get engaged in real estate development because it’s very hands-on and you get to be involved in all different aspects and ultimately get to see from start to finish how a building comes up and tangibly be developed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One story that I especially think is interesting is that when I started with Related in 2004, the partner who hired me had just started the Related Las Vegas division. The first day, he said to me ‘Hey, we’re getting on a plane to Las Vegas.’ So, we got to Las Vegas and I was responsible for supporting this gentleman in building the business at the time. Our first deal was looking at the acquisition of a 25-acre project that at the time was a multi-family housing adjacent to the Hard Rock. Then we went on to come up with the business plan to do a hospitality mixed-use development on the site called Las Ramblas, which was a project partnered with Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Randy Gerber. I worked on the acquisition and got to meet them all in the process. It was such a surreal thing to start my real estate career in a New York company, end up in Vegas, and work on my first acquisition ever on an incredible site and in partnership with these celebrities to build out a hotel/resort/casino project. The project never ended up happening, as we sold the site by the end of 2006 for significant land profit ahead of the recession.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Currently, I amworking on the reimagination ofRosemary Square in Downtown West Palm Beach, pivoting the 72-acre district from a retail-only center formerly known as CityPlace into a live, work, play destination due to a five-year, 700 million dollars investment. Twenty years ago, when my partners created CityPlace, it was a lifestyle center — one of the first lifestyle centers in the country. It just happened to be smack dab in the middle of a small but growing city. Now, with the experiential retail and food and beverage and the public park-like square, it’s pivoting from a lifestyle center mall to an exciting urban neighborhood. We are proud to be attracting a dynamic lineup of national brands such as YETI, lululemon, Lucid Motors, Urban Outfitters and UNTUCKit along with top-notch dining, world-class art, Class-A office buildings, luxury residencies and more. When we set out to imagine Rosemary Square, we felt strongly that free, inclusive public art experiences have the power to transform cities. Our team has continued to help shape Downtown West Palm Beach into a cultural corridor of South Florida with Rosemary Square being home to the largest concentration of public art installed by a private company in Palm Beach County. This past year, we welcomed a curated collection of artists including the 32-foot-tall LED The Wishing Tree by Symmetry Labs, the lyrical Water Pavilion West Palm by Jeppe Hein, the thought-provoking My East Is Your West light installation by Shilpa Gupta and the United Migrant Familia of America mural by Renzo Ortega. Most recently, we announced the upcoming commission by British Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, CBE to be unveiled in front of the 360 Rosemary office building in Q2 2021. These additions at Rosemary Square enrich the community along with existing collections at Hilton West Palm Beach, RH West Palm and 2,000+ feet of large-scale murals created by world-renowned and local artists including RETNA, Chalk & Brush, Frankie Cihi, Rico Gatson, Michael Craig-Martin and Greg Astro. Our plan is to continue to bring global influences into the community, elevating the discourse around public art in West Palm Beach and affirming Related’s commitment to bringing world-class art experiences to the public.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The key for me has been curiosity and being courageous. I don’t think any innovation comes out of not being curious, and all innovation requires courage. I think about this a lot in my career. My curiosity of urban planning, architects, restaurants, hospitality and flow of space at work and in my personal life helped lead me to where I am in my career; I continue to enjoy learning and experimenting on drawing communities together and using arts & culture to inspire a neighborhood. Out of curiosity comes innovative ideas that can be very successful. That being said, it’s crucial to know how to detach outside of work and focus on your health and wellness, whether that be mental or physical, doing whatever works for you. I especially like reading about categories I know nothing about as these topics inspire me both in my work and in life.

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?

Along the way, I have been very lucky to have multiple mentors specialized in different areas who have helped me to build a diverse skillset, which is required to be a great real estate developer since it is a multifaceted profession. One of my mentors is a professional who built hundreds of hotels all over the world. He practically taught me the ins and outs of the hospitality business. While we were buying out a hotel in Miami, I will never forget a dinner we had overlooking the bay where he said ‘if you really want to be in this business, you have to feel proud and passionate about bringing your projects to fruition; if not, you shouldn’t be in this business.’ His words have stuck with me ever since and taught me to never forget about the journey and the path as is that’s what it’s all about.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

What excites me about what we do, aside from developing individual buildings, we actually get to build communities. A lot of what we do, like with Rosemary Square for example, is that we get to think about how to craft public spaces that provide environments for communities to thrive and that impact people’s lives. Outside of development process, I enjoy my involvement with local organizations and institutions. Most recently, the mayor of West Palm Beach appointed me on the Mayor’s Task Force of Racial Equality, which I am extremely passionate about given today’s social unrest amongst COVID and everything else. Being able to contribute to the task force and also thinking about how to develop inclusive urban downtown environments is the way of the future. As developers, we have a shared responsibility to work with governments to produce spaces that promote inclusivity and diversity.

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 examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

The online shopping trend was actually very prevalent pre-pandemic as we were all getting used to, from a convenient standpoint, shopping online. Whether that is through InstaCart app for groceries or purchasing whatever item needed on Amazon, these options have newly facilitated our day-to-day. That trend certainly accelerated during the pandemic because we couldn’t physically go out to places to shop. It’s no doubt that technology is getting more sophisticated and easier to use, which is why online sales have escalated. And while online sales are growing, smart retailers know that in order to really get customers to be loyal to their brands, there needs to be a physical experience. Even digitally-native brands need to have physical spaces to grow faster and create loyalty to establish a deeper connection with the consumer so they can ultimately better understand the brand. The smartest brands are the ones seen doubling down on physical experiences to generate an omnichannel strategy. For example, Restoration Hardware is a brand that took their furniture concept and turned it into a lifestyle brand. Their location in Rosemary Square has a beautiful rooftop restaurant component, which draws traffic into the store other than with those doing furniture shopping. The customer by default starts connecting with brand and ultimately becomes loyal to them and down the road when they need a couch, they’ll think of them first since they eat there all the time. Similarly, at Sur La Table you can buy kitchenware but also participate in a cooking class in their school. These in-store experiences tied to the brand ethos will continue to win in the future as they grow the brand’s presence both online and offline, and that is successful brand model.

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?

I absolutely think retail stores and shopping areas will continue to exist. Smart brands are always going to want to physically connect with consumers and you cannot do that strictly through the internet. Also, consumers are always going to want to have experiences outside of their home. Because of these two ideas, it’s going to be up to the retailers to create very exciting in-store retail experiences and even out-of-store activations through pop-ups and events. It’s up to the brands to invest in these experiences, which will ultimately allow them to continue to grow and attract loyal customers.

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?

Successful retailers are investing in their stores, their people, the hospitality experience, and product, and these investments are paying off as their loyal consumer base grows. We see it with brands like Apple that have Genius Bars and different learning sessions with people on their products, as well as Restoration Hardware where you can be in a fantastic space, feel great, meet with friends and have coffee. Lessons to be learned are that in today’s world where commodities can be bought online, the retailers are going to have to get creative and invest more in in-store and out-of-store experiences to draw brand loyalty. As an example, lululemon is opening a store in Rosemary Square this week and their ambassadors are hosting fitness classes on the lawn right in front of the store; this allows them to truly integrate and connect with the community and have them associate fitness and wellness with their brand.

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?

There are certain products in the world of retail, such as commodities, where consumers might not be so connected to them. On the other hand, high-level products will always be in demand and consumers will pay the price as long as there is a value proposition. Commodities and less expensive products aren’t going to break into the market share of these companies. We see it with Apple, where they keep increasing the price of the iPhone and more people are buying these phones. Lululemon’s clothing isn’t affordable, but because they have such a strong loyal following, people know they are getting a high-quality product for what they are paying for. Companies that generate a great brand ethos and provide a value proposition for their product will most likely succeed amongst the competition.

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. 🙂

I feel most passionate about bringing people together while taking into consideration inclusivity and diversity when creating environments as equals and learning from each other. Environments that are divisive are not environments of the future. We need to live in a world where everyone can listen to different perspectives and be open to helping each other out. For me, building a neighborhood is exciting because I get to be responsible for creating spaces where retail brands, restaurants, artists, designers and urban planners can come together in a forum with their community to talk about the challenges of our time and come up with solutions together to make us stronger and create more livable communities for the future. Social consciousness and responsibility are being seen to emanate from brands more than ever. It started with charitable components through the ‘buy a pair, donate a pair’ model created by brands like Tom’s and Warby Parker. Nowadays, with sustainability being a huge priority, brands like Levi’s are building stores made up of fully recycled product. There is definitely still a lot we need to cover, and if we all come together, we can all do our part to make this world a more collaborative and inclusive place. This is the kind of corporate responsibility I would like for all developers to instill in their neighborhoods: to generate a positive brand ethos across the board that positively impacts communities, rather than each store having an individual mentality that is not cohesive with each other.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Follow my LinkedIn profile as well as Rosemary Square’s website:

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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