The Kid Becomes a Closer: Robert K. Futterman Star on Selling Vertical Retail
When retail broker Ariel Schuster began courting PetSmart five years ago, he couldn’t have imagined that in the very near future, he’d be guiding an exuberant posse of pooch-loving executives on a tour of Manhattan’s dog, cat, fish and reptile emporiums.
But there he was, on a bus with a bevy of canine connoisseurs, showcasing the city’s pet stores, dog runs, critter groomers, loading docks and big-box retailers. From the Upper East and West sides to bustling Union Square and beyond, Mr. Schuster provided sales volumes, and illustrated how Best Buy and Forever 21 adapted to the big city life by thinking vertically.
“Their real estate people were giving me a really hard time,” recalled Mr. Schuster, a 32-year-old executive vice president at Robert K. Futterman & Associates. “We’d get into these 50-person buses and we’re there all day, and they’d be asking when I’m going to get a dog.”
The mutt, it never happened. But as a small consolation prize, perhaps, Mr. Schuster inked a 30,000-square-foot deal near Greenwich Village late last year for the Arizona-based pet store chain’s first Manhattan location. Unlike the sprawl it has showered across the United States, PetSmart opted, this time, for a multilevel storefront at 632 Broadway.
“We took them to all the Best Buys because they’re used to seeing the Best Buys being one-level everywhere else,” Mr. Schuster said. “We showed them how they operate; and we had the sales volumes, and they compared the sales volumes to the volumes across the country; and they extrapolated the data that they were next to-or at least it helped them.”
Mr. Schuster has earned accolades from some of the largest retailers in the country in part because of his ability to rethink and meet his clients’ needs. From GameStop and Whole Foods to the Children’s Place and Old Navy, Mr. Schuster has repeatedly pushed the boundaries on what a national retailer can achieve in Gotham’s glassy canyons and brick valleys. Since 2001, Mr. Schuster has sealed more than 3.75 million square feet in transactions, including seven lease renewals for the Gap alone.
Mr. Schuster inked two deals over the course of six years that involved the Whole Foods Market, although he served as its broker for only one of the transactions. The most recent transaction, on behalf of the Texas-based grocer, was sealed four months ago for a 47,000-square-foot lease at 250 East 57th Street. When the project is completed, Whole Foods will be the anchor tenant in a public-private development that will also include two new schools and other retailers.
As an added bonus for Mr. Schuster, the Upper East Side development will stand a block from his childhood home, where his mother still resides.
“It’s going to be a block from my mom, and she’s going to get to shop there,” he said. “It’s really great.”
To hear Mr. Schuster describe it, the deal with Whole Foods came as a result of his earlier success on behalf of developer Edward J. Minskoff Equities, which in 2004 began leasing ground-floor retail space to the likes of Bed Bath & Beyond, Barnes & Noble and, yes, Whole Foods. Unlike most broker-client relationships, Mr. Schuster became actively involved in designing retail features at the 101 Warren Street building-including the loading docks and the turn radius of truck paths-in a bid to accommodate new tenants, many of which were more at ease in the large, forgiving strip malls and big-box spaces of suburbia and exurbia.
“A lot of the things we learned there we were able to eventually utilize at the 57th Street project,” recalled Mr. Schuster of the 180,000-square-foot Tribeca job. “Part of the reason we were initially hired is because we had the experience and we knew how to get through all these hurdles and how to accommodate these retailers who had all these special requirements.”
MR. SCHUSTER WAS born in Israel, but moved to New York when he was 10. At a young age, he said, he was already a precocious businessman-in-training.
“When I was a 5-year-old, I used to go to the banks and fill out the bank deposit slips,” he said. “Math was always my favorite subject. I always wanted to be a businessman.”
His first foray into real estate came, surprisingly enough, after a family friend bestowed upon him a bizarre college graduation present in the form of an invitation to an International Council of Shopping Centers convention in 1999. It was the rapid dealmaking, cocktail galas and sharp-dressed professionals that initially grabbed his attention, but Mr. Schuster’s interest soon expanded to the finer points of the real estate profession.
“I saw that real estate was clearly business. It’s obviously math and finance and understanding those things,” said Mr. Schuster, who graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University and received a master’s in real estate finance from New York University. “But it also had a lot to do with psychology and marketing and understanding how people operate and reading people.”
In short time, Mr. Schuster stepped back from a career path he had already begun with Credit Suisse and, with the help of a family friend, reestablished himself as an associate at Robert K. Futterman & Associates.
Last month, he tied the knot with his longtime girlfriend, Nichole, a Fed employee he met while she was a project manager at RKF. It was a small wedding in Florida that included sandy beaches, 80 guests and 350 pounds of crawfish. But don’t think the newlywed has gone soft. In fact, many of his clients and colleagues attended the wedding as guests.
“The thing is, you’re creating a life in which the personal and professional mesh together,” said Mr. Schuster, who said clients also showed up to his bachelor party in Costa Rica. “You spend so much time in real estate and it’s like the BlackBerry’s on until midnight. They become your friends.
“It’s really impossible for that not to happen,” he added. “You can’t be good at this job if you leave it at the office.”