Jeffrey Berkowitz Leading Aurora Realty Consultants into New Age of Commercial Real Estate Brokering [Feature Interview]

His work within the Canadian commercial real estate market spans the better part of 35 years. Recognized as an expert in all regions throughout North America and beyond, his acumen as real estate consultant, retail broker and tenant representative are unsurpassed within the industry. Through the years, he’s built relationships with and executed deals on behalf of some of the most exciting and successful brands and shopping centres in the country, developing a reputation as a force on the commercial real estate scene. So, more than three decades into his career, following a host of successes and recognitions, what continues to drive Founder of Aurora Realty Consultants, Jeffrey Berkowitz, supporting his philosophies toward leadership?

“Having gone through what we’ve all collectively experienced over the course of the past year-and-a-half, I’d have to say that compassion is one of the most important qualities that a leader can and should possess,” he says. “It includes a holistic understanding of the position and role of each member of the team, a genuine concern about the needs and requirements of everyone involved, and the ability to listen, enabling them to recognize and discern situations and equipping their teams for success. And, a great leader must also possess a certain level of passion for what they do. If someone is singly focused on making money, for instance, they’re never going to be on top of their game. What drives them has to be about more than money. It’s got to be about the people behind the deal, the brands and individuals involved and creating success for all parties.”

Going beyond the transaction

Berkowitz founded Aurora Realty Consultants in 1989 shortly after finishing school where he studied accounting, and after a short stint working for a landlord and developer in Montreal handling retail leasing. What he noticed, working from a landlord’s perspective trying to fill space, was the fact that there were lots of brands looking to grow and scores of retailers actively seeking new commercial spaces throughout the city. As a result of the sheer volume of merchants seeking space, he recognized an opportunity to act on their behalf as consultant and broker, working with them to find the spaces that would best suit their operation and brand. Since then, he’s grown Aurora Realty Consultants into one of the most trusted and successful firms in the country, working regularly with shopping malls, strip centres, ‘big box’ developments, lifestyle centres and street sites, as well as undertaking office, retail and entertainment projects. Aurora continues to grow today, reaping the benefits of experience, client dedication and expertise – qualities of his team that Berkowitz credits much of the firm’s achievements to.

“We have an amazing team at Aurora who are committed to working with clients for the best possible outcomes for their brand and development as a retailer,” he says with pride. “We’re all very passionate about what we do. And, we have the opportunity every day to work with a lot of great people within the industry, including retailers, landlords and other brokers. We focus on going beyond the simple transaction of the deal to develop a relationship with our clients to discover exactly what their needs and requirements are and to understand from a brand strategy and positioning perspective which commercial real estate opportunities might best benefit and support their growth.”

Innovation and opportunity

It’s a genuine and involved approach that the firm takes to its work – one that has been appreciated and is evident in the list of brands that it represents, which includes Birks, Roots, Frank & Oak, Yves Rocher, Swarovski, Hallmark, Mackage, Sephora, Nature’s Emporium, Uniqlo, and many more. This collection of clients is testament not only to the influence and prominence of the firm within the markets it operates, but to its ongoing commitment to helping advance its clients and the retail industry as a whole toward greater success and growth. And, although Berkowitz recognizes the devastation that impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic have had on the industry in Canada, he sees opportunity for innovation and creativity going forward.

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“Through the past 18 months, the pandemic has been responsible for the demise of many businesses, big and small,” he says. “However, as unfortunate as it has been for some, their departure also opens up room and space for newer, more relevant and exciting retailers and brands to move in. Overall, there remains a lot of uncertainty about the future, how long the pandemic will last and whether or not something like this will need to be faced again, leaving many feeling a bit fragile. And there are generally going to be two ways that retailers and other businesses will approach the next 6 to 18 months. It is being seen by some as a calamity which they’re simply trying to deal with in order to see their way through. And there are others that have identified an opportunity to rebuild, refresh and renew what retail is, both from a tenant and landlord perspective.”

Thirst for growth

With respect to current trends impacting the industry, Berkowitz points to the accentuated shift in consumer behaviour away from brick-and-mortar locations in favour of online channels to make purchases. He recognizes that it’s a trend and movement toward digital that predates the pandemic, and one that’s been accelerated by its impacts. However, as our approach continues in the direction of a post-pandemic environment and complete reopening of communities and economies across the country, he believes that there are many retailers who have been operating in something of a holding pattern over the course of the past year-and-a-half or so, and that industry growth may be just around the corner.

“Everybody’s been a little bit cautious over the last long while, and most within the industry continue to be cautious,” he says. “But what we’re going to see over the short-term is the results of a pent-up thirst and interest in growth from many brands. A lot of companies are feeling as though they’ve been held back and in stasis for the last year-and-a-half, and they want to start making up for that now. There will be a return to growth which I believe has already started. And, for brands that can build a strong interdependence of their physical and online environments, they’re not only blurring the lines between channels for the customer, but they’re also opening up geographical boundaries that may have once existed.  It allows retailers and brands to be present in and appeal to whole new markets. And that means that the strongest and most successful retailers will want to increase their physical brick-and-mortar presence within some of those new markets.”

A return of brick-and-mortar traffic?

Looking ahead further, Berkowitz admits that there’s a lot of murk when attempting to determine what the market and landscape might look like even a few months out. Forcing functions such as ever-evolving consumer behaviour and preferences, the instability and unreliability of the current global supply chain, a potential increase in the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the return of associated lockdowns and social restrictions, as well as economic factors, are all lending to a less than clear future for retailers. Despite this, however, Berkowitz is confident that there will be a return to something close to normal, which includes a return of consumer footfall to physical retail locations.

“It’s hard to say at the moment what’s in store for retailers in Canada,” he says. “Each market’s recovery is going to be different simply because they are all unique unto themselves. Vancouver for instance, and to a certain extent Toronto, have a high dependency on tourism with respect to retail sales, and they’re going to need to wait it out until that part of the market returns. Other cities like Montreal, which has been more dependent on their local population, should have a slightly easier task ahead. But people in most of these places are trying to figure out where the density is going to occur. Should the focus be on urban, or should it be, as it has been for the last year, focused on suburban? People are really trying to understand the dynamic right now of different markets, submarkets, cities and countries to get a finger on the pulse of how each is working. However, I firmly believe that people will return to those activities, events and lifestyles that they enjoyed previously, visiting and shopping with their favourite retailers and brands in person.”

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Continued growth and creativity

In addition to work it does in brokering some of the biggest deals for retailers and brands, Berkowitz’s firm also partners with WR-C Aurora – a London-based property consultancy, providing clients in the UK and Europe with expert independent advice and integrated property solutions. And, it’s developed the Aurora Evolve team – an extension of the firm’s work, which specializes in leveraging fresh and innovative opportunities, negotiating short-term leases, pop-ups and activations in incubator spaces, headed by VP Suzanne Cayley. It’s all part of the expertise that the firm provides and is representative of Aurora’s continued evolution, remaining one step ahead of the industry and its trends. And, according to Berkowitz, it’s an evolution and growth that’s fueled by consistency and concentration.

“We started with a single office in Montreal, grew to Canada-wide status before developing a presence across North America, and now have international offices and consultancy presence abroad,” he says. “And we’ve managed to grow our company to this point by applying the same methods, standards, intelligence and discipline to everything that we’ve done and continue to do. We’ve been forthright and thoughtful and concentrated on achieving the best results for our clients. And because we’re able to establish relationships them, connecting with them, no matter where they are, we’ve created synergies in the markets that they operate in.”

Exciting months ahead

Combining such a deep knowledge and understanding of the Canadian and international markets with the number of prestigious retailers and brands that Aurora works with, it goes without saying that Berkowitz and his team are often privy to the biggest deals taking place and most exciting brands entering the country. And, although he’s unable to share details concerning any exciting news, he says that there are a lot of things happening behind the scenes that Canadian consumers from coast to coast will be intrigued by over the coming months. And, he adds, he and his team are looking forward to being a part of the growth that’s anticipated over the course of the next couple of years.

“When we look ahead to the next 6 to 12 months, it’s going to be a time when quite a number of new brands will be entering Canada. We’ve already concluded some deals for a number of international brands that will be opening next year. And, this is true, generally speaking, across the industry. There will be a wave of new brands coming in by 2023. And we’re excited to continue achieving further growth and playing an important role in the retail brokerage industry in Canada and beyond. We love exploring new markets and working in tandem with retailers to help bring them to places that they haven’t yet been. And we’ve got a lot of exciting projects in the works with landlords and developers in order to enhance the presence of the great brands that we work with.”

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