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BOOK REVIEW: A Pioneer's Tale

Despite having no lack of colorful characters, the retail real estate industry has been shorted when it comes to business publishing. While you can find biographies of past banking tycoons, steel giants and research histories of numerous industries, the real estate section of any bookstore is typically dominated by “how to” books aimed at homebuyers.

This makes A. Alfred Taubman's memoir, Threshold Resistance, all the more refreshing. The concept of retail real estate — as Taubman points out — is traced back to ancient societies. And the last 50 years has seen retail real estate blossom into the massive industry that it is today with trillions of square feet around the world.

Until now, no one has taken the time to sit back and reflect on how we got to where we are. Threshold Resistance provides glimpses of many of the founding fathers of the modern mall industry, talking of how a group of key figures — most based in the Midwest — started pushing retail real estate about the same time. He cites industry giants James Rouse, Melvin and Herb Simon, Martin and Matthew Bucksbaum and Edward J. Debartolo among others. He describes as well the immense power department stores wielded in that era. (Taubman writes how for years he couldn't get Dayton's to work with him because the firm was busy developing its own shopping centers.) But despite the troubles in that sector, Taubman comes across as a huge believer in that retailing concept — especially the fashion-oriented department stores that often anchor Taubman centers.

A new side of the story

Threshold Resistance also gives readers Taubman's side of the story. And that's interesting to read on a number of subjects ranging from the formation of the Taubman Co. and the reasons behind his acquisition of Sotheby's, to what he thinks about his conviction and jail time and his scathing indictment of Simon Property Group's hostile takeover attempt of Taubman Co. while he was behind bars.

“In the business world, it used to be true that family businesses didn't attack other family businesses,” Taubman writes. “So much for history. Simon had locked itself into an acquire-or-die strategy and saw us as easy prey.”

Even with Taubman behind bars, his sons eventually succeeded in fighting off the takeover attempt, with Simon ultimately withdrawing its offer, though not before both companies had to pay huge lawyer fees and a lot of feelings were hurt in the process.

Powerful philosophy

While the book covers decades of Taubman's business and personal life, it is a brisk read. It's not a how-to tome. It's not aimed at teaching readers how to be like Taubman. Instead, it lays out in broad strokes his philosophy of “threshold resistance” and how the principle was applied to every acquisition opportunity Taubman pursued.

In short, threshold resistance is the barrier (physical, psychological or both) that keeps a customer who is standing outside a store from walking through the door or, once they're inside, from completing a purchase. Taubman's goal was to take the centers he built or the companies he bought and reconfigure them to break down any threshold resistance. Judging by his track record in retail real estate and other industries, he didn't do a shabby job.

Also, to Taubman's credit, unlike many memoirs, Threshold Resistance doesn't portray him as larger than life or embellish his record. He is just as frank about decisions that didn't work as those that did.

In all, Threshold Resistance is a valuable record, not just of one man's path to success but of the evolution of retail real estate. It is a must-read for all that care about the industry and want to know why it looks the way it does today.

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