When Charles Aug founded Garrick-Aug Associates Store Leasing Inc. in 1975, it was, as far as he knew, the only real estate brokerage in the United States devoted exclusively to retail. Today, he says, it is the largest such brokerage, with some 70 brokers covering New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The Manhattan-based firm offers retail leasing, investment sales and consulting services, with leasing accounting for the most activity. Predictably, the lion's share of transactions takes place in New York City proper, with Manhattan the lion king.
Which is only fitting, since it was the needs of Manhattan landlords that spawned the business to begin with, according to Aug, who is chairman of the company.
The business was born, he relates, out of the city's highly publicized financial troubles of the mid 1970s. He had a firm called Aug Associates that, like most New York real estate brokerages at the time, focused on office leasing.
Many companies were moving to the suburbs or other states, and others, swayed by rampant predictions of the city's ultimate demise, were not moving in to replace them.
"There was over 40 million sq. ft. of office space available and very few takers. It was obvious we had to find some other way to survive," Aug recounts.
What he found was retail, which despite New York's pressing financial problems was thriving, thanks to the city's huge residential, employee and visitor populations.
At the time, says Aug, most retail leasing was handled by office brokers, who gave it minimal attention. "The attitude was that retail pretty much took care of itself," he says.
Aug quickly recognized the opportunity to capitalize on the general inefficiency of such an off-handed approach by bringing to the retail market the kind of organization, focus and drive found in office leasing. In particular, he recognized a way to use retailers to the benefit of office building landlords, many of which needed all the help they could get in that dismal period.
Joining forces with another firm, Garrick & Co., Aug began a kind of retail matchmaking service designed to improve revenues for both retailers and office building landlords.
Most ground-floor retail space in Manhattan office buildings, he notes, was taken either by food businesses to serve the thousands of office workers who filled the city's high-rises, or by bank branches, stock brokers and various other service businesses. Hard-goods retail was confined largely to stationers, tie shops and women's hosiery stores.
Believing the space underutilized, Aug approached office building landlords with proposals to put higher-profile retailers into the ground-floor spaces, arguing they would bring at least two major benefits: They would pay higher rent and increase a building's income stream; they would create a classier identity and help attract office tenants.
"Landlords realized what we said was true," he recalls. "If we could bring them a fashion tenant like Ann Taylor, they'd much rather have that than a pizza parlor."
'Psycho-demographics' From that small beginning with five brokers, Garrick-Aug grew into today's powerhouse business of 125 employees, including 70 brokers. The Garrick half of the original team left early on, but the name remained.
The scope of activity is much broader today, with the firm handling retail in all of its forms -- from shops in Herald Square and tony storefronts in residential high-rises on Manhattan's Upper East Side, to stand-alone big boxes in suburban New Jersey and anchor and inline positions in regional malls in Westchester County.
The firm is divided into leasing, investment sales and consulting divisions, as well as Garrick-Aug Worldwide, which places U.S. retailers in foreign markets and foreign retailers in U.S. markets.
Leasing forms the backbone of the business. About 75% of the firm's leasing activity involves tenant representation and the remaining 25% landlord representation.
The leasing division is further divided into territories, each led by one of the firm's top executives. The territories are: Manhattan, the outer boroughs, Long Island, the five New York counties immediately north of New York City, upstate New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
What distinguishes Garrick-Aug's leasing practice from its competitors, says company president Peter Botsaris, is its thorough knowledge of the markets it covers. The company has compiled highly detailed geographic, demographic, sales and real estate data on 330 individual markets in the tri-state area. The size of each market can range from an entire town in the outlying suburbs to a few square blocks in parts of Manhattan.
The company began collecting the data more than 20 years ago, updating and adding to it on a continuing basis. Although it utilizes all the standard sources, the core data comes from its own information gathering and field research efforts.
According to Aug, the firm attempts to get as thorough a picture of the market as possible, including both objective and subjective information. Data-gathering methods range from sending people to do turnstile counts at subway stations and studying local bus routes, to comparing shopping patterns of different markets and figuring out which of the people who pass through a particular shopping district actually shop there.
"I call it psycho-demographics," says Aug. "It's fabulous. Garrick-Aug knows everything."
The company has transacted leases for companies as divergent as Fava Shoes and Cartier. A brief list of clients includes Yves St. Laurent, Fortuna Valentino, La Maritime, Just for Feet, Rochester Big & Tall, Casual Corner, Sam Goody, Tower Records, PathMark, Kinko's and LensCrafters. But Botsaris says there is hardly a significant national or East Coast regional retailer the firm has not dealt with.
Among the firm's prouder accomplishments, Aug boasts that it brought the first Gap stores to New York and has since done more than 60 deals for the San Francisco-based clothier.
"I met (Gap Inc. chairman) Donald Fisher at a shopping center convention," he says. "At that time he had 80 stores in California. I recommended four locations, not particular stores, in Manhattan. He ended up opening in all four and did spectacular business."
Retail dynamism of NYC The value of the database becomes particularly apparent in deals like the firm executed for RadioShack in New York City.
"They already had stores here, but they were trying to figure out how to get more," Aug says. "We helped them identify a number of locations that other firms would either have overlooked or considered too close to existing stores. We were able to show from our data how these stores could work."
The firm uses the same data in its sales division, according to Guy Morris, managing director of investment and sales. However, the division does not confine its activities to the tri-state area, so it requires additional sources of information.
Morris reports the company has sold approximately three dozen community and power shopping centers and 50 net-lease properties in 19 different states. Few of them were in Manhattan. "We sell here, but it's predominantly retail condominiums and master leases," he says.
Garrick-Aug Worldwide also makes use of the database, says Faith Hope Consolo, a managing director who heads the division.
According to Consolo, many international retailers, and European retailers in particular, are eager to break into the New York market, sometimes just to be in New York, other times for gaining name recognition to put them in position to launch additional U.S. stores.
Consolo's division has brought Via Spiga, Face Stockholm, Cesare Paciotti, Alain Manoukian and Fil a Fil to Manhattan.
The firm is equally active placing American retailers overseas, Consolo adds. She says by this point a large number of U.S. companies have become well established in the European market. The spread into Asia was just beginning when the economic crisis turned what might have been a flood into a trickle.
Consolo also heads the consulting division, which worked on the redevelopment of Penn Station at 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, a site one block west of the Macy's flagship store that had never been a significant retail destination.
The company was also part of the team behind the revitalization of Times Square. Consolo says she was the exclusive retail consultant for the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corp. and claims credit for directing developers away from upscale stores like Gucci and Armani and toward impulse stores like those operated by Sony and Warner Bros.
Without question, Manhattan is the focus of Garrick-Aug's business. And with good reason. As Consolo comments, "One retail location in Manhattan outpaces five suburban malls, even the best malls."
Aug says the differential is even greater. "In regional malls, they talk of gross sales of $300 per sq. ft. In Manhattan, you can do thousands of dollars per sq. ft.," he says.
Rents, of course, are also significantly higher, and if a retailer picks the wrong spot or the wrong size or configuration for the right spot, losses can be substantial.
"That's why it's so important to have all the information you can get," Aug emphasizes. "It's not enough to be in the right area in Manhattan, you have to be in exactly the right spot for your business. And to pick that spot you have to know everything there is to know about what happens there."
What makes New York so exciting, he says, is its dynamism. "Whenever the city runs out of space in established shopping districts, retailers pioneer new territory. We're finding that every year or two there's a couple of new pockets of exciting retail," he remarks.
Hi-tech reconnaissance Last month, Garrick-Aug took its information capabilities to another level. The launch of a computer-based system puts the data, maps, photos and other material from the firm's research files in a multimedia format that brings everything together at the touch of a finger.
"A broker in the field will be able to tie in with a laptop computer and get immediate information on any of the 330 markets," Aug says, adding that the company commissioned aerial photos of each of the markets in preparation for the system.
In addition, the system will make it possible to give clients a virtual experience of individual markets, complete with sound and video if appropriate, without having to leave the office.
"In just a couple hours he will be able to do the kind of reconnaissance it would take four days to do if he actually had to visit the sites," Aug says. "This is a tremendous savings of time and money."
An invaluable tool for brokers and retailers, the system will make it possible to refine market knowledge to a degree never before possible, says James Aug, company CEO and Charles Aug's son.
"We will be able to show how a market actually draws," says the younger Aug, who heads the New Jersey division. "The standard approach is to take a site and draw rings around it to show influence, but the world doesn't operate that perfectly. Sometimes you might draw from five miles from the north but 10 miles from the south. It's not regular, and this will make it possible for retailers to actually see that."
The cost of setting up the system was in the millions, reports Charles Aug. The company was willing to make the investment, he says, because of the promise of substantial improvements in service to clients.
"This system is going to be the backbone of the company for the next 10 years," says Consolo, who predicts it will revolutionize the retail leasing industry.
That obviously remains to be seen, but whether it revolutionizes the industry or not, it will likely help the firm during what Botsaris sees as a coming downturn.
"We're starting to see changes in the economy," he warns. "And with everything happening around the world and the instability of the stock market, retailers must be a lot more careful if they want to continue to grow. They must put a lot more thought into deciding where to locate stores. We're going to be able to provide them with the kind of information they need to do that."