If you paraphrase Kenneth Wong's philosophies of architecture, shopping centers and the Internet, they all seem to boil down to this: Content creates destinations — magnets for people and their dollars.
That's a grand vision, but it makes perfect sense to Wong, 47, who became Joint Chief Operating Officer at Westfield America in March. The son of two architects at I.M. Pei & Partners, Wong has a graduate degree in planning and economics, and another in architecture, earned in programs run jointly by MIT and Harvard. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tina Petra, an art curator, and two teenage children in a home where they collect the work of young artists, Wong says.
Wong was most recently a partner in the Related Cos., and earlier, President of the Disney Development Co. and President of Walt Disney Imagineering, which builds attractions for the theme parks. As far as he's concerned, all those companies had the same mission: “giving people a reason to leave home.”
As for shopping centers, says Wong: “They're entirely dedicated to trying to create places people want to visit. To me, that's what real estate is about. That's what Westfield is about. They're about content.”
Wong's former boss, Steve Ross, Related chairman and CEO, sees things pretty much the same way. Ross talks with regret about Wong's departure and still waxes enthusiastic about Wong's vision. “We were working on these large-scale mixed-use projects, like town center projects that would attract people and become a real destination.”
So what is it about the 60 Westfield Shoppingtowns in 14 states that will make them the top destination when consumers in those markets head out the door? Wong talks about integrating “a diversity of uses — movie theaters in the center of malls, putting food courts that face in and outside to create a lifestyle precinct.”
He points to an Italian carousel at Westfield's Oakridge center in San Jose, Calif., which he sees as a link between retail and entertainment experiences. “Walt Disney himself would be proud of this one.”
But dig a little deeper and you find the practical retail real estate exec. Among the content magnets Wong likes to see are big-box retailers.
“We absolutely embrace them,” declares Wong. “We are not snobs about who belongs and what works.” He says that Westfield has been “in conversations” with COSTCO, Target and Wal-Mart.
“The very upscale shopper is also a discount shopper,” he says, recalling the image of a woman pumping self-serve gas into her Mercedes outside a COSTCO. “People are very open to new concepts.”