Georges Kamal is the CEO of Acres Development, a subsidiary of the retail company Azadea. Earlier this year, Acres launched its first property — Le Mall Sin el Fil — and they currently have plans to launch two more: Le Mall Saida (at the end of the year), and Le Mall Dbayeh (at the end of 2010). Executive sat down with Mr. Kamal recently to talk about the branding of Le Mall, and why, despite the economic crisis, he believes this is a good time to launch shopping malls in Lebanon.
E Tell me about the new Le Mall at Habtoor City.
Don’t say Habtoor, please.
E Ah, I see. So Le Mall is in the location of the old Habtoor Le Boulevard Mall, at the Habtoor Grand Hotel, in Sin el Fil, but it’s an entirely new mall?
Right. The idea was to re-launch this mall. The original building was achieved in 2005, by Habtoor. It’s part of their hotel. But they didn’t succeed.
E Why not?
You can attribute it to the circumstances in Lebanon, the political uncertainty which Lebanon was suffering for a couple of years, because of the [former Prime Minister Rafiq] Hariri assassination.
E And your company, Acres Development, took over this failed mall and re-launched it as Le Mall. Why?
The commercial deal was fantastic. Because when there is a failure somewhere, the owner tells you, “Please take it and make something successful out of it,” and the conditions were extremely pleasant and profitable for us. We leased it from Habtoor for 20 years.
Also we believed a lot in the area, Sin el Fil.
E That’s pretty brave, launching three malls in the middle of an economic crisis. You must be pretty confident.
This is important, because it’s directly related to our strategy. What we are testing today, are seeing today, is that Lebanon is crossing the crisis without any loss, any harm. Why? We think that in the previous three to four years Lebanon didn’t pick up as much as the other countries abroad picked up, it didn’t profit from the growth in the region because of the political situation here. That’s why today, you don’t feel like you’re going down, because you didn’t go up. The moral of this is that Lebanon is still attractive to the Arabs in the region and to Lebanese living abroad. We’re always trying to monitor, month by month, what’s happening in Lebanon, and we are always surprised in a positive way. So we are extremely confident in this country.
We’re seeing right now an increase in our sales by 20 percent.
E Why do you think that is, other than the relative stability of Lebanon lately?
What we’ve done to Le Mall is a series of actions. First, the architecture and the design of the old building was extremely heavily, a lot of concrete, not a lot of light, not a lot of style. What we’ve done is to make it lighter, a modern style, catchy. We changed 50-60% of the structure.
Our second action was to build a very strong mix of brands inside. Because what brings people to Le Mall, or any mall, is really the brands there. Azadaya, the mother company of Acres, has in its portfolio a lot of big brands: Zara, Massimo Dutti, Paul and Bear, a lot of these brands. And we completed the Azadaya brands with some from the other big groups, like Retail Group [La Senza, La Cenza Girl, Aldo, Nine West] and Bestseller [Vero Moda, Jace & Jones.]
And in order to complement the shopping area with some food and beverage, we brought with us the leaders in the Lebanese market — Roadster, Lina’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Columbus Café, Julia’s.
E Finally, there is the communication, the campaign.
The famous IAmMyself.Me campaign. You could hardly leave your house without seeing that.
That was the idea — it was a crazy idea to promote something very solid in Gemmayze, but today it is the talk of the town. What you try to do is build Le Mall as a brand. We went in a very aggressive campaign, very catchy one, and very young very trendy.
E What about the other branches — the future branches in Saida and Dbayeh?
We’re full in Saida, all the shops, and in Dbayeh I can’t even open the leasing right now, because I have 100 shops, and the waiting list is 500 long!
E Is there one that you like the best?
Dbayeh. It’s a more interesting one because it will be bigger, it will be on the highway, it’s very well located, and you have cinemas, entertainment, and we have many more anchor tenants than Sin el Fil or Saida, because they are smaller malls. In Sin el Fil and Saida, you have about 12,000 square meters of gross leasable area. In Dbayeh you have double this.
E Plus, you get to build the Dbayeh and Saida malls from scratch, unlike Sin el Fil. What’s there in those cities now?
In Dbayeh there is nothing. In Saida there will be another mall facing us that they are building now. We will finish at the same time, and both of us will create synergy for the whole area. From there, you have Saida, Tyre, Jezzine, the mountains around there — now there is nothing. We are going there and taking the risk, we’ll be the first, and that’s what you’re doing, trying to be a leader in all markets.
E How did you get into this business?
I’m a civil engineer, and I worked a lot in France in real estate development. Then I came back to Lebanon… and then I moved to this company.
E I assume you are a big fan of malls.
No! It’s by accident. I used to build offices, I used to build apartments, it’s all real estate development. Malls are not hard if you have a structured mind and you have the logic for the whole process. Selling malls is like selling glasses, or popcorn. It’s just a product.
E I noticed that in one of your sketches for the future malls there seems to be a giant Aquarium, which reminds me of a mall in Dubai. Is that what you’re going for? Do you have ‘Gulfie’ aspirations?
The final product — a virtual aquarium, not a real one — won’t be like that. It’s smaller. At the beginning it was like this but it was extremely costly, so we decreased the cost of it. Dubai is Dubai. When you start to do a project in Dubai, it doesn’t matter if it is profitable, it just has to make an impact.
E So no plans for an indoor ski slope?
In Saida mall? Ha. No. How we will succeed is with the mixed brand in the mall.
Our vision is to be a leader in Lebanon in commercial development, and try to compete on the regional level. So for now, let’s be humble. But in 10 to 15 years? What you want to do is make Acres into something big, a Lebanese company, with a well known trademark in the region.
Right now we’re moving in the right direction.