5 Minutes With Andrea George, Head of Retail Lettings, Bruntwood

Bruntwood has spearheaded some exciting retail opportunities and developments in Manchester, such as the the creation of Hatch. We caught up with the property firm's head of retail lettings, Andrea George, to find out why they're so committed to giving smaller or independent retailers a chance to thrive.

Andrea George Bruntwood

Tell me a bit about the Bruntwood story.

Bruntwood has been creating thriving cities for over 40 years. Employing over 800 people, it has over £1 billion in assets and more than 100 properties across Manchester, Cheshire, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham.

We’ve got an amazing retail portfolio alongside the workspaces we’re known for. Bruntwood owns two Manchester retail destinations – Afflecks and Hatch. Afflecks, an institution which houses over 60 independent retailers in the heart of the Northern Quarter, has been around for over 35 years and is a really important part of both Manchester and Bruntwood’s history. We opened Hatch in December 2017, an award-winning pop-up retail, food and drink destination, which has so far housed over 30 creative, independent businesses who put their heart and soul into their products.

We are currently building Circle Square – a new urban neighbourhood for Manchester which will feature work and living spaces alongside a new public park. Retail is essential to this in terms of creating an exceptional destination, and one that will foster a lasting community in Manchester’s Innovation District on Oxford Road. We’re looking for innovative retailers to collaborate with and together develop one of the country’s most exciting retail and leisure destinations within this setting.

What gap in the UK retail market does Bruntwood strive to address?

We embrace a different approach to working with retailers – a collaboration that allows us to match the right operators with the right spaces, and one that creates opportunities for smaller and independent businesses.

It’s important to us to create thriving, interesting, engaging retail experiences – it’s what sets our destinations apart from traditional high street shopping and dining. It’s what makes them successful because consumers are looking for so much more now – expectations have shifted.

Exciting, innovative, independent businesses aren’t always commercially focused but they are engaging, bring a place to life with a sense of discovery and create a special and unique place. Our approach is always the same – targeted and bespoke. Whether working with an independent or a global brand.

At Hatch, for example, the whole “neighbourhood” is created out of reclaimed shipping containers – allowing us to offer small, flexible, affordable creative spaces on weekly licences. This means we can support entrepreneurs.

Are you able to explain what “placemaking” is?

Placemaking is about creating destinations via community engagement, a curated leasing approach and quality design of public realm. Our aim is to create original, interesting and varied neighbourhoods, whilst thinking carefully about the communities who’ll use them.

We acknowledge the needs of different types of people that will be using the space: from residents, workers, students, locals and tourists, and think about how and which retail and leisure operators will complement and deliver the vision. This helps our customers hit the ground running from the word go, ensuring that consumers will come back time and time again.

This is a big part of what I do because Bruntwood strives to create thriving communities and neighbourhoods. Retail/leisure is absolutely central to this, and therefore to placemaking.

How is Bruntwood’s business model different to other retail property operators?

We curate an eclectic mix of independent, regional and national operators and act as a long-term strategic partner rather than a “landlord”. We really get to know our customers and their business goals and are always on the lookout for exciting new opportunities which are perfect for that particular operator.

We have a flexible approach and always strive to offer the best solution for our customers giving business support along the way, partnering with brands like Enterprise Nation to enhance our offering. This particular partnership gives our retail customers exclusive access to local and national experts, inspirational events and more; designed to help them grow and scale their business.

Sustainability is also a key driver for both Bruntwood and our retail and leisure customers, and this is something that we also build into our approach. We’re always looking to attract and innovate with forward thinking retailers.

What’s in store for Bruntwood for 2019?

We’ve got loads of exciting projects coming up, including the growth of Hatch in early summer which will see it treble in size and evolve into a multipurpose, creative village of retail, food, drink and entertainment, studios, roof terraces, public use and event spaces.

This year is an exciting year for our Circle Square development, which is under construction. Currently it’s all about targeting and engaging with innovative retailers to see how we can collaborate to create the most exciting, engaging and sustainable neighbourhood in the North West.

We have also commenced a number of initiatives to promote our retail/leisure customers to a wider audience. Initiatives such as the Bruntwood Dines lunchtime series, where our customers, who include some of the most talented operators in the leisure industry, tell their story to an audience of press and influencers.

How is Bruntwood addressing some of the challenges facing the retail industry?

Physical stores definitely still have a major role in the future of the high street and the value of retail spending in-store remains significant. Consumers expect more authenticity in their experiences and are more invested in where they choose to spend their money.

At Bruntwood it’s all about using the non-traditional approaches that I’ve talked about – creating experiences, putting placemaking at the heart of what we do, supporting small innovative, independent businesses and making sustainability central to our ethos. It’s really about investing in places and this is what sets us apart.

Hatch for example has allowed us to help small retailers grow – and to explore new ways of allowing customers to engage ahead of the launch of Circle Square. By creating our own destination with great flexibility, we are collaborative and experimental in our approach. All these things are required to address the current challenges of the retail industry.

What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector at the moment?

Brexit is obviously the word on everyone’s lips in all sectors as this could lead to a lack of consumer confidence and impact spending. But the biggest risk for the retail sector is to stand still and have a mediocre product offering.

There’s been strong growth in online retail but for those willing/able to adapt and offer consumers “experiences” there’s a great opportunity to reach a really engaged audience who are better connected than ever before. It’s all about finding ways that the customer can engage with a product – creating genuine, heartfelt brands that customers want to be part of ‘in the flesh’ as well as online.

Describe your role and responsibilities at Bruntwood.

I head up the retail and leisure team working across all our city regions, Manchester, Cheshire, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham. Retail and leisure is the thread that stitches all of our assets together and enables us to achieve our purpose of creating thriving cities.

My role is strategic, I lead a dynamic team of creative thinkers, curating places to help shape original and interesting communities and cultivating long-term relationships with customers.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before Bruntwood.

I was a retail and leisure agent for many years and have worked on most of the major schemes in Manchester – often in new locations which had their challenges, so I’ve gained a really good grasp of placemaking.

What got you into retail in the first place?

My first job was in a retail and leisure team in Manchester. It was a marriage made in heaven, as I love to shop, eat and drink. I’m passionate about retail and have a strong ethos and focus on sustainability.

I love that you have a direct impact on a place or city and particularly if that city is the one where you are from and live. I have an immense sense of pride when a new retailer or leisure operator, that you have brought to the market, opens.

How has your previous experience aided your current job?

I worked on a lot of placemaking schemes from inception to delivery in Manchester such as Spinningfields, One Piccadilly, Printworks and Deansgate Locks, so I understand what it means to build a destination – to create that critical mass from scratch that suddenly turns into a new, recognised, distinguishable neighbourhood.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

A big challenge is the changing nature of the market, which ultimately you don’t have control over. However, we are able to act nimbly and adapt to change.

And the most rewarding?

Being somewhere mundane like in the supermarket, the school playground, at the train station and hearing people talk about a new place or district that’s opened that I’ve had a handle on curating and delivering is amazing.

What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in retail?

Do it! You’ll never be bored in an ever changing, face paced market.

Get involved. Absorb yourself in the sector, “be” in the market, go out and experience places, new neighbourhoods and concepts.

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