By  on June 19, 2007

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. — A third-generation member of family-owned Bal Harbour Shops is proving he has the right stuff.

Since coming on board in 2003, Matthew Lazenby, the 29-year-old grandson of founder Stanley Whitman, has been groomed to take over Whitman's son Randy's position as director of leasing. A general partner as well, Lazenby has been instrumental in the center's evolution and restructuring of tenants for the next affluent generation, a demographic he understands and exemplifies. The property's long-standing success and Lazenby's strategy have other retailers and real estate developers planning to capitalize on overflow.

"It wasn't as if I joined a sinking ship. This place has been phenomenal since opening in the Sixties," said Lazenby, a Miami native who grew up shadowing the Whitmans at work. "But I knew we could do a better job reaching the children of our core, older Neiman Marcus customer, so they wouldn't shop south."

Lazenby got busy bringing in specialty store chains like Calypso and Intermix, and relocating Oxygene, a multibrand designer and contemporary boutique, upstairs to solidify direction. The first level was overhauled with new, luxury jewelry tenants like Harry Winston and Graff, and edgier European and American designer brands such as Pucci, Marc Jacobs and Chloé, which opened its third U.S. store, of 2,500 square feet, in March. Some stores were phased out as leases expired, men's wear was given greater attention with the additions of Brioni and Domenico Vacca, and long-term tenants including Brooks Brothers and Yves Saint Laurent were downsized and redesigned for more efficient layouts and sales potential.

"My grandfather likes to kid I'm the only one in our family with previous retail experience, and it really does help to have perspective on what other shopping centers are doing," he said.

Working for other real estate firms gave Lazenby insight into what tenants desire to be satisfied and profitable, and what shopping centers require to remain exciting and money-making, he said. The University of North Carolina graduate said he learned both sides of the business through representing tenants at Robert K. Futterman & Associates, the retail real estate firm in New York, followed by a leasing agent position with Taubman Centers, the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based real estate investment trust that develops and manages shopping centers throughout the U.S."But the most important lesson I came away with is nothing beats being intimate with a property. If you're on-site, the better you are at your job," he said.

Brigitte Kleine, president of Tory Burch in New York, said Lazenby just knew what the company wanted and offered the ideal space when it became available for a store opening this summer. At 2,000 square feet, its size matches the company's New York flagship and prototype. She views proximity to Saks Fifth Avenue, where the line also is carried, as a major perk. Local accounts at Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, along with healthy e-commerce sales in South Florida — 10 percent of the total, according to Kleine — were factors in opening a freestanding boutique in the region.

"We called Matthew right away when we launched in 2004 and wanted Bal Harbour to be our first Florida store," she said, comparing the center's "fantastic tenant mix and vibe" to Highland Park Village in Dallas and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., where the brand has outposts. "We predict Bal Harbour will be a top performer and are looking to open more in South Florida."

Jessica Corry, owner of Mermaids Swimwear Boutique in South Miami, said Lazenby pursued her seven-year-old concept for its hip, young clientele and fashion-forward girls' and women's swimwear from Eres, Shay Todd and Red Carter, among others. After waiting less than a year for the center's green light, she opened a second 750-square-foot location in winter 2006.

"It's exactly what I wanted because it's the first store you see when exiting the parking garage, and it's between Intermix and Vilebrequin," she said, unafraid of national competition. "I just went for it."

Geared more to tourists, the second store runs a bit differently. At the Bal Harbour unit, Corry offers tops and bottoms with fuller coverage than South Miami customers prefer, receives domestic destination shoppers from e-commerce marketing, and carries beach chic decor with glitzier accents like mirrored surfaces and mannequins, plus a shell-encrusted mirror and table. Individual sales are higher, too, averaging $500 rather than $300.

"Bal Harbour will make up 60 percent of total sales this year," she said.Lazenby reported overall sales per square foot have increased from approximately $1,150 to $1,700 during his tenure. He tweaks performance on a case-by-case basis, and convinces tenants not to fall into the mind-set that bigger is better or it's a first-floor slot or nothing. A victim of its own success, according to Lazenby, the first floor's prestige exists because a second level wasn't built until the Eighties. Another company mantra is there's nothing as great as a small store.

"We're not New York. We just don't get the traffic, so we encourage stores to open their concept in a small format," said Lazenby, who reports Brooks Brothers' sales improved when it decreased half its space to 5,000 square feet in 2006 and edited collections targeting the center. "Its sales weren't bad. It just needed energy."

Yves Saint Laurent's exclusivity was lost in its 4,000 square feet, too, according to Lazenby, who approached its parent company, Gucci Group, to divide the space and give one portion to a sister brand. In November 2006, Bottega Veneta relocated from Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables, Fla. Creative director Tomas Maier, who designed the store's floor-to-ceiling interiors with branded details such as handcrafted vitrines and leather-sheathed door handles, said the center's architectural aesthetic and international clientele piqued his interest.

"The partnership is one of obvious and mutual appreciation," he said.

Sometimes, though, more space is the solution, such as when Calypso moved from 1,000 to 5,660 square feet in March. Lazenby reported the store led the center's women's category, and he was sold after visiting its multilevel flagship with children's and home departments in New York.

"The old space was standing-room only," he said, choosing it to house Loro Piana this summer instead.

Flipping through his files, Lazenby said correspondence between Loro Piana began in 1999. With a directory of approximately 100 stores, he said it generally takes four to seven years until landlord and tenant shake hands. His waiting list of must-haves is 50 strong, according to Lazenby, with another 1,000 or more in the wings.

"The original blueprint plans for the center include expansion, but that hasn't come to fruition. We hope to provide for overflow, though a schedule hasn't been set," he said.Meanwhile, another local development company is taking the initiative. With the center as the contingent selling point, the slow but steady gentrification of Bal Harbour and neighboring Surfside and Bay Harbor Islands ranges from luxury resorts like St. Regis and Regent to a French food shop that stocks Fauchon and Petrossian delicacies.

A short drive west of the center, just beyond where a gourmet grocery store modeled after Dean & DeLuca is slated to open this year, lies two acres where Martin W. Taplin & Assoc., a Miami-based real estate banking and investment firm, plans to develop a boutique hotel and 75,000 to 100,000 square feet of retail. The project's crown jewel is a three-story, ficus-covered, keystone and stucco building from 1953 that once served as headquarters for one of the city's first broadcasting companies. Its 20,000 square feet of wood-paneled rooms is ideal for a single retailer that favors historic properties, according to president Neil Sazant.

"We see a Fred Segal, Barneys New York or Cusp going in here," he said, discussing a rendering of a tidy retreat with a cobblestone street, soon-to-open chain restaurant, sculpture garden and outdoor screen for art films. (Martin Taplin is a well-known contemporary art collector who also displays works at his Sagamore, the Art Hotel in Miami Beach.) "The goal is to transform our portion of the thoroughfare linking I-95 and Bal Harbour Shops into a Robertson Boulevard [in Los Angeles] or Bleecker Street [in New York]."

Besides Miami tourists and walk-ins from Aloft, a moderately priced offshoot of W hotels where fashion house employees visiting Bal Harbour Shops are expected to stay beginning in 2009, Sazant said prospective luxury shoppers may drive a small distance from residences like Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach. Service retailers such as a coffee chain and a gelateria round out the hoped-for tenants, which would include established, high-end local retailers and international designer stores that are on Bal Harbour Shops' waiting list as well as those that are dissatisfied with a different shopping center in Miami.

"With just the luxury condo development on this end of Miami Beach alone, I don't think brand names will be afraid to come on this street," he said.

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