Born in Istanbul and educated as a civil engineer in France, Yaromir Steiner brought a fresh outlook to the American retail real estate industry he joined with the inception of Steiner + Associates 25 years ago. His notion of building an outdoor center with streets and plazas and metered parking in front of store entrances was a radical departure when Easton Town Center opened in Columbus, Ohio, in 1999. Now his privately held company serves as a model for an industry in flux. We recently asked Steiner about his personal highlights of the past quarter century.
What’s the biggest lesson you've learned in 25 years as a mixed-use developer? The main lesson I learned is that, when you design a mixed-use development, you can’t use a cookie-cutter approach like you would with a mall or power center. There are some basic principles to follow, but no two projects look alike. Where you are located plays a big part in what goes into the project. Retail and leisure-time components are very significant to success and they depend on local preferences.
Was there one shining moment in the first 25 years of your company? When the first phase of Easton opened in the summer of ’99. Its reception by the public was a big eye-opener for us about what the future could hold. At that time, it was a daring project. It was in a city that gets 14 inches of snow in the winter and it was open-air. We opened in the summer and, by Christmas, we knew we had a winner.
What has been your biggest challenge in this fast-changing industry? Data management, recasting the role of brick-and-mortar in a click environment. How do they complete each other? This is a gut-wrenching transformation. I’m a Baby Boomer and I try very hard to understand the retail preferences of Millennials and also their take on things, and it’s difficult. We see how online retailing is affecting our retailers, and we as retail developers had to figure out what the consequences were. Do we deal with [physical and online retailers] individually or integrate them?
How has Steiner + Associates made its mark on the retail real estate industry? We have seen some trends sooner than anyone else—the importance of sense of place, mixed-use, entertainment. The increasing popularity of open-air centers, even in difficult environments like Milwaukee. But it’s not like we caused this all to happen. When you have no shareholders, you can be more agile. We were able to make an advance and we inspired others.
Where do you see the company heading in the next 25 years? [Laughs] I will be 91 years old, so I don’t know if I’ll care. I think residential will play a much bigger role in our business. On the retail side, we’re going to become retail infrastructure providers. Before, we just provided the box. Now we’ll provide the POS system, the inventory management system, retail analytics. Retailers will refine the product, and anything related to brick and mortar product, we will provide.