I had the pleasure of interviewing Corey Bialow. As CEO of Bialow Real Estate, Corey is a retail tenant representative and most recently his work has been focused on omnichannel retailers and emerging brands as they expand to bricks and mortar. Online retailers rely on Corey as they cross over to open showrooms throughout the country including Indochino, Untuckit and Sleep Number. And, he has worked as a consultant and broker for some of the nation’s premier retail and restaurant chains including Godiva, Select Comfort, The Vitamin Shoppe, Rockbottom, Sephora, Talbots, Johnny Was, James Perse, Alexis Bittar, Pet Supplies Plus, Pinkberry, Smashburger and Bowlmor.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up around a family that had been in the retail business for two generations. My grandfather and father had both been in the drugstore business throughout the New York metropolitan area. I spent many weekends and summers working at the stores and learning the fundamentals of retail. As the drug store industry started to change in the late 80s with all the chains taking over the independents, I felt I’d have more opportunity using my retail knowledge to help other retail chains grow. I spent several years working as a retail real estate broker learning the ropes and was then able to apply that knowledge and experience to help other retail chains expand their businesses.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Approximately 20 years ago I took a job heading up the real estate department for a company called The Vitamin Shoppe. At the time, they were a small independent chain of 19 stores based in New York City. I slowly helped them grow throughout the entire NY MSA but had yet to prove they could turn this into a national chain. At the same time there was a local chain in the Washington DC market that was identical to The Vitamin Shoppe in every way except they were owned and operated by one of the largest retail families in the country. The founder and CEO of The Vitamin Shoppe, Jeff Horowitz was a true industry leader and to this day, the best true retail merchant I’ve ever come across. He knew if this DC chain got any more traction and started growing nationally — it would be impossible to compete as they had much deeper pockets. He instructed me to go to the Washington DC market and do whatever I needed to do to produce better real estate locations than every one of the competitor’s stores. This was a near impossible task being that we were still an unknown, small company coming into someone else’s backyard. I spent countless days and nights on the road, meeting with landlords, brokers and developers as well as buying out other tenants who had good locations to produce a superior site in every market we needed to be. Eighteen months later the local chain decided to fold up shop and not expand any further. We actually ended up taking over a handful of their stores when they closed. The result was that The Vitamin Shoppe became the leader in the space and I went on to open 830 stores across the country after that experience. That was definitely the pivotal point in the company’s existence because had I failed to produce the quality real estate locations in that specific market, The Vitamin Shoppe would likely have never been more than just a local NYC chain if they survived at all.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started as a retail broker for Ripco Real Estate in New York I was helping one of the senior partners on the Starbucks account. The VP of real estate for Starbucks was in town and the partner had a conflict so he asked me to drive the VP around Westchester County to look at a few new locations. I thought I knew my way around well enough to not write out directions and of course I got us very lost. Keep in mind, this was before Google Maps or any navigation at all so I’m driving with one hand and trying to read a large map with the other. The Starbucks VP saw that I was starting to sweat so he asked me to pull over. I’m thinking I’m about to get fired from this account and instead — he took pity on me and said, “I’ll drive, I know the way”. Fortunately, he was a great guy and we developed a good relationship from that experience, but it taught me early on to never take a client to a site or a market that I haven’t already been to first.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are very unique in that we’re probably the only true national tenant rep firm that doesn’t represent landlords as well. We made a conscious decision early on to only focus on representing retailers as I find it’s an inherent conflict to one day be negotiating against a landlord and a day later you’re representing that same landlord. We’re also not just a real estate brokerage company as for most of our clients we effectively act as their real estate department on an outsourced basis.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t try and be a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Find an area of the real estate business that you like and be the best at it. For example, we have a broker with us who has a restaurant background and he decided to only focus on restaurant brokerage. In a short period of time, he’s now established himself as one of the premier restaurant brokers in the Northeast. You will achieve more success in the long run if you establish a niche for yourself and work on becoming an expert in that particular area rather than trying to take everything that comes your way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many people in my life that I owe for my success and I’ve made an effort to show appreciation and personally thank them along the way but without question, my father is who I am most grateful to for my business acumen. At a very young age, he taught me the importance of relationships and remaining true to your word. He told me often that in business there are always going to people out there who don’t do things the “right way” because money is their only motivation. He stressed that a person’s name and reputation should be the most important thing in life — as he always told me “all you have in life is your name”. Whenever I asked him what he attributes most to his success in business he said — remember who you work for — meaning the client, or in his case, his customers.
I recall a story as a child when I was working with my dad on a Saturday and one of his customers came in and was holding a bottle of shampoo that was almost empty. They complained to my father that the product was no good even though it appeared they had used most of it. There was no hesitation, my father took back the bottle, issued a full refund and apologized saying “pick any new shampoo you want free of charge”. I pulled my dad aside afterwards and said, “they used most of that bottle — why did you take it back”. He said, “I know there are going to be some crooked people out there who may beat me for a free shampoo every once in a while, but I feel good knowing that — nobody can ever walk out of my store saying I didn’t do the right thing”. I’ve taken that lesson with me in the way I treat my clients and I intentionally put my last name on my company, so I never forget that “all you have in life is your name”.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We’re constantly taking on new exciting tenant rep assignments, but I enjoy most when an existing retail client finds a way to re-invent themselves and stay relevant in today’s competitive retail environment. We’re in the process of helping the leading premium chocolate company in the US, Godiva, launch a new café’ concept that will help to elevate the brand and introduce a new product line to the American marketplace. Our first café’ will be opening this fall in New York City and we see the potential for a national roll-out over the next few years.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Philanthropy is very important to me and I pride myself on making sure that all of my employees do their part to give back to the community. Personally, I spend a great deal of time supporting several local charitable organizations, hosting events, mentoring young adults in need of direction and most important is leading by example. I realize that some of my employees are not at the point in their lives where they are able to make significant charitable contributions, so I have found creative ways to show them the importance of giving their time instead — which often goes a lot further than a check. An example of that is a program I started many years ago that we do every Christmas with some of the inner-city elementary schools. My company purchases toys and clothing for the youngest children in a selected grade and rather than simply drop them off, I have my own children and all of my employee’s children personally hand the toys out and engage with them, so they can see firsthand how good it feels to give to people in need. Each year, our group of families that participate continues to grow and this upcoming holiday season we are looking to provide enough toys for an entire school. I find that when you personalize a charitable gift into an experience, it is so much more impactful than simply making a donation. The hundreds of thank you cards I get from the children still sit in my office as a reminder that little things can make a big difference.
Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?
1) The traditional big-box retailers and category killers have already begun to downsize their physical footprints. They are all working towards reducing inventory levels within the store as it becomes more cost effective to ship to consumers directly from their warehouses.
2) “Experiential” is the buzzword every national retailer has been using of late. Retailers are finding more creative ways to engage with the customer and keep them interested in coming to the stores.
3) “Showrooming” is another new concept that many omnichannel retailers are introducing. These are brick and mortar locations that don’t actually sell any product in the store. They simply show their product line, take orders and have the product shipped directly to the consumer.
4) There is a dramatic shift going on nationally towards mixed-use developments where people can live, work and shop within the same project. The traditional open-air strip center is no longer in favor as we’re seeing walkability becoming an important criteria with the younger consumers who want the feel of an urban, streetscape environment. This has forced retailers to adapt their footprints and develop new prototypes that are more conducive to an urban setting.
5) “Service” is more important than ever. We live in a world where the consumer can price check an item in any store with the touch of a button so one of the key ways that the top retailers are differentiating themselves is by training their salespeople to make them more knowledgeable which inevitably translates to better overall customer service. Retailers are getting away from just advertising the cheapest price — instead they are promoting in store seminars and workshops in an effort to get back to the days of old where you knew your customers by name. It’s all about forming a connection with the customer and giving them a reason to come back to the store.
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 was very fortunate growing up to have been surrounded by a family that was very supportive of me and helped me become the person I am today. Unfortunately, there are so many children growing up without the necessary emotional and financial support to help them make the right decisions that will prepare them to be productive adults in today’s society. I would love to see a charity formed that would consist of business leaders from every sector donating their time for at least one day a year to meet with under-privileged children and help guide them on how to become a success in whatever field they want to pursue. The advice can be simple things like how to prepare a resume, how to act on an interview, how to obtain your first job — — or it can be more personalized stories about how they achieved their own success. Children today need more positive role models and this type of program could help provide the impetus and motivation many kids need to believe in themselves.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn is probably the best — our profile can be found under “Bialow Real Estate”
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com