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Meet The Disruptors: Ward Kampf Of Northwood Retail On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

Authority Magazine

July 1, 2021

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ward A. Kampf.

Ward A. Kampf serves as President of Northwood Retail. Since joining the organization in 2014, he has been responsible for developing and implementing the company’s strategic vision, building trusted relationships with regional and national retailers, and managing Northwood Retail’s long-term leasing ventures. Always seeking to be on the vanguard, Ward has an envelope-pushing intuition and forward-thinking mindset that has propelled Northwood Retail’s portfolio to contain 71 first-to-market tenants and 28 digitally native brands throughout its properties, which span from California to Texas and the Carolinas. Ward has been instrumental in creating dynamic assets such as Domain NORTHSIDE in Austin, Texas and Freshfields Village in Kiawah, South Carolina.

With over 30 years of industry experience, Kampf previously served at a senior level within Glimcher Realty Trust, holding the positions of Senior Vice President of Strategic Investments and Senior Vice President of Retail Strategies. During his tenure, he was responsible for leading the retail leasing strategy for Scottsdale Quarter in Scottsdale, Arizona. From 2005 to 2009, he served as President of Retail for Thomas Enterprises, Inc., where he directed the leasing and management of several esteemed retail developments such as The RIM in San Antonio, Texas and The Forum in Carlsbad, California. In addition to these past achievements, he also held senior leadership roles at General Growth Properties and Gap Inc. Kampf received a BBA in Business from Southern Methodist University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

When I was in the 8th grade, my mom bought me my first Polo shirt along with a sweater from Europe, and I absolutely loved them. From then on, I trained my eye to look for the latest trends in retail. My mom and my sister had such a formative influence on my appreciation of fashion. I had the benefit of being exposed to design not only through their style choices, but through our travel together as a family. On trips, I would search for inspiration and pay attention to what the newest trends were across the country. My passion grew during my time studying at Southern Methodist University, where I encountered another level of fashion. Students from all over the country converged wearing the latest looks from California, Chicago, St. Louis, New York and beyond. The use of style as a form of expression and a reflection of different places fascinated me. At the time, many of my friends at SMU were getting into commercial real estate. There was a fraternity of sorts of young guys breaking into the industry, and I just knew my place was in the retail real estate space, pursuing my interest in fashion.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Northwood Retail seeks out first-to-market brands, and we focus on being first movers — finding up-and-coming brands and seeing what is around the corner. We continually strive to get the top five stores into our portfolio, but where I truly think we are innovative is in taking the risk to try new concepts. We identify the latest trends — a brand that has something exciting that no one else has — and we can see beyond the uncertainty to what is possible. When we first encountered retail disruption back in 2009 and 2010, industry peers thought we were crazy for pursuing digitally native and new concepts because those brands didn’t have the credit, had weak financials, and had no track record. Some investors did not possess the same vision. But, our company constantly questions, “what is the future of retail”? By asking this question, embracing change, and making decisions based on instinct and research, we have been able to stay ahead of the creation curve. Portfolio-wide, we have introduced close to 30 brick-and-mortar locations for direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker, Mejuri, Blue Nile, The RealReal, Tecovas, Herman Miller, Brilliant Earth, Yeti, and Faherty. As part of the process, we work to educate partners and investors on the innovative, digitally native concepts at our centers, which we see as the future of retail, but are not necessarily known to all. We want our centers to stay on the forefront of what is next with new technology and groundbreaking retailers, and we are leading the industry in terms of delivering direct-to-consumer brands and award-winning dining.

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 was first starting out in my career, I was making cold calls and doing anything I could to get face time with contacts. I was young and hungry but ultimately unprepared. One of the first meetings I secured was with the real estate department of Service Merchandise in Nashville, Tennessee. I flew in — thinking it would be positive — and when I arrived, they homed in on the fact that I had not done my research. I was caught off guard and was completely belittled — to the point where I started sweating profusely through my blue shirt. The group knew I was not ready for the meeting and enjoyed making me feel uncomfortable.

That meeting taught me two things: one, to be prepared and do your research. The other thing I learned was that I never wanted to be the type of person to make someone feel disparaged. That is not the type of leader I am or ever want to become, and instead, I strive to be constructive.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Over the course of my years in the industry, I’ve had a few mentors. Don Fitch and Stan Thomas showed me how to be a risk taker at the highest level and taught me how to win. Knowing how to take those leaps and not be scared (even when you really are terrified) has been a key lesson. I also learned to know where the boundary is and how to walk that fine line, while being able to manage large volumes of work. I believe people who are successful, high achievers can process what is coming in, synthesize what is important, and leave the rest. If you never see volume, you can never scale your business. Most importantly, though, they instilled in me the number one thing in business — show up on time.
Our Northwood Investors President & CEO, John Kukral, has also made a great impact on me. He has given me a glimpse at how a top, world real estate investor thinks, and he has one of the brightest investment minds I’ve ever seen. Kukral is always challenging and asking about the thought process behind business decisions. He pushes me to see contrary points of view, has a very non-linear, analytical approach, and never asks the same question twice. He has taught me how important it is to realize that your view isn’t the only one and that you can be wrong.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Every business thinks that they are disruptive and that is not something that’s going to go away. Technology is the biggest disruption of our time and will continue to influence trends. However, effective disruption needs to go through a process. If you have an idea, you need to move quickly and beta test it. More importantly, you need to have passion, drive, and conviction. I would never kill someone’s dreams or ideas, and many of the most disruptive brands were seeded in doubt.
For example, when we were recapitalizing Domain NORTHSIDE in 2018, we were told that several of our direct-to-consumer tenants, including Peloton and Casper, were fads by some investors. Thankfully, our team believed in the brands and their thesis, and we decided to persevere internally. It took around 9 months to pick a partner who had faith in what we were doing even when many were skeptical. During the pandemic, having these strong partners set us up for success because we had the foresight to spot the source of positive disruption and to act on it.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Lou Holtz — “What’s Important Right Now?” I saw Holtz speak 20 years ago, and his whole thesis revolves around the advice of focusing on what is important right now. Our industry moves at such a quick pace, and we have saying at Northwood Retail, “now means now, right now.”

Gary Friedman — “Be able to identify lightning in a bottle.” When I first met with the CEO of RH, Gary Friedman, he didn’t even have his first store open yet. However, the genius way he visualizes and executes ideas is fascinating. His thinking helped me crystallize Northwood Retail’s business model that starts with vision, strategy and then, execution.

My Father — “You can do better, there’s more.” This phrase was ingrained in me by my father at a young age. Growing up, no matter how good I was at something, he pushed me to continually improve. This drove me to realize that there is always more to do. I learned not to compromise or accept mediocrity.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I’m constantly meeting with people, looking for new, bright ideas, and looking around the corner for what’s next. As the world reopens, my goal is to absorb as much new information as possible, so that we can bring fresh and innovative ideas to our company.

To that end, we are piloting a new Backstory Beginnings podcast program featuring tenants, where we share short, inspirational founder and business origin stories. The stories are powerful and relevant. CEOs from national, regional, and local brands touch on their start and tips for success. For us, it reflects our cutting-edge approach and represents our latest intersection of technology and real estate.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

The book, The 5 AM Club, Own Your Morning. Elevate Your Life by Robin Sharma has had a deep impact on me. It’s all about the importance of how you start your day. There is a lot of research available about legendary leaders who start their morning early and are extremely intentional about their a.m. routines. The book is about reaching elite performance based on having a revolutionary morning. By the time 8:30 a.m. rolls around, I have been able to get a workout in, process information from six or seven papers, and glance at emails, which has allowed me to get a jump start on what’s going on in the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote from the movie American Hustle is one of my favorites — “Everyone Hustles to Survive.” The poster from the movie with this quote on it hangs in my office as a reminder I need to show up every day and outwork the competition.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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 feel there is power in people exercising, and we need to attack the obesity problem in our society. Health can have a radical impact on people’s lives — from increasing life expectancy to finances and beyond.

How can our readers follow you online?