Member Spotlight: Matt Bronfman, Principal and CEO of Jamestown
We spoke with Bronfman about his Midwestern roots, how community development must stay creative amid the pandemic and how Jamestown embraces the unexpected.
By Colleen McNally, The Wilbert Group
“People are usually surprised when I say I’m from Kansas City,” says Matt Bronfman, principal and CEO of Jamestown, a real estate investment and management company with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia and Cologne, Germany.
Then again, unless they’ve visited, most people probably don’t associate Kansas City with awe-inspiring Spanish architecture and one of the country’s first walkable, mixed-use districts. Built ahead of its time in the 1920s, The Plaza has since served as a retail model for other cities’ all over the country.
Perhaps the subtle influence of his early surroundings, combined with his father — who also worked in real estate and who Bronfman very much looks up to — laid the groundwork for his career. Decorated with accolades, Bronfman is known today for leading the acquisition, redevelopment and oversight for now-iconic destinations like Chelsea Market in New York City (which Jamestown sold to Google in 2018), Ponce City Market in Atlanta, Industry City in Brooklyn, the Innovation and Design Building in Boston and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.
Still, it wasn’t until later in his life while studying to become a lawyer that he started to realize he may be destined to pursue community development.
“Thinking more about architecture, its impact on people and how you create community comes out of my three years in Chicago at Northwestern Law School,” said Bronfman. “I think Chicago architecturally is one of the best cities in America. Going to law school there and living downtown really introduced me to thinking about public spaces and parks in a way I had never really experienced before.”
He can still recall the vibrancy of walking along the Chicago River or Wacker Drive — not any one address in particular, but rather the whole experience of seeing the parks, buildings and people. It’s a feeling that has stuck with him despite passing years, moving cities and changing jobs — and an experience he worked relentlessly to bring to Atlanta’s urban core.
The Law of Attraction
After graduating law school in 1991, Bronfman accepted a clerkship out West but thought there was a good chance he would still end up back in Chicago or his hometown of Overland Park, Kansas.
“I met my now-wife during my clerkship, and she had grown up in Atlanta,” he said. “It’s kind of a funny story. I interviewed her to be my co-clerk. That’s how we met, and now here we are 30 years later very happily married.”
Another funny story: Bronfman went from practicing lawyer for his client Jamestown to managing the real estate company’s global operations and overseeing corporate strategy and execution.
He likes to joke he wasn’t someone running from the law. “I enjoyed practicing,” he said. “I worked on a few of Jamestown’s deals, got to know the then-head of U.S. business and he asked me to join him at the beginning of 1998.”
Atlanta looked a little different back then. The city had recently hosted the 1996 Olympics Games, the Falcons were bound for Super Bowl XXXIII and it would still be another year before a Georgia Tech graduate student named Ryan Gravel would conceive the idea that would eventually become the Atlanta BeltLine.
“Atlanta, by and large, had been a commodity-built environment,” said Bronfman. “It’s a lot of glass towers on or near Peachtree Street. For many years, it wasn’t nearly as engaging as a lot of other cities where I’ve worked on interesting mixed-use projects, from Chelsea Market in New York or Newbury Street in Boston. Atlanta didn’t really have anything like that.”
So, by the time Jamestown bought the historic Sears, Roebuck and Co. building turned former City Hall East complex from the City of Atlanta in 2011, Bronfman knew he wanted to introduce something different to the market.
“Ponce City Market was an opportunity to offer a new type of experience ,” he said. “It also helped the City of Atlanta become a tech and innovation hub, a place where companies would want to be.”
Expecting the Unexpected
Today, Bronfman calls Ponce City Market one his greatest success. “I’m very proud of it because it’s in our own backyard,” he said. “This project is more personal because we have our US headquarters here, and it’s created something very prideful for the entire organization regardless of what you do at the company.”
In addition to Jamestown, Ponce City Market’s 550,000 square feet of Class A office space have served as a workplace for Athenahealth, Cox Enterprises, HowStuffWorks and MailChimp — to name just a few — while more than 250 residents call the building home. Still, these spaces are out of sight, out of mind to the thousands of visitors who come for the shopping, dining and rooftop playground. In 2014, the same year the adaptive reuse development began reopening to the public, Travel + Leisure ranked it as one of the 25 in its list of “The World’s Coolest New Tourist Attractions.”
“So much of real estate is: ‘Build it, and you have to be cheaper than the next guy’,” Bronfman said. “Our whole take on creating Ponce City Market was to do something that was more compelling than a cheaper-cost alternative.”
“We’ve always tried to think outside the box,” he added. “We’ve found the best results happen when you work on interesting real estate — you get more pleasant surprises. ”
That maverick philosophy extends to Jamestown’s curated tenant mix as well. Take Posman Books, the independent bookseller with locations at both Ponce City Market and Chelsea Market, for example.
“In 2020, we know most people do their book buying on Amazon and still, having a bookstore is really important to us if we are committed to being a community hub where people are encouraged to hang out and linger,” Bronfman said. “I have no doubt we could have found other tenants to pay a higher base rent, but we felt having a bookstore on a prime corner space really said a lot about what the culture of Ponce City Market was intentionally going to be.”
Weathering the Times
Jamestown’s established approach to embracing the unexpected has helped the company remain resilient, patient and optimistic as challenges surrounding coronavirus evolve.
“We’ve made our reputation doing projects that make people want to linger longer,” Bronfman said. “Of course, that’s the opposite of the world right now. To the extent that people leave their home, they come to a specific store or restaurant then they sanitize and leave as soon as possible. In some ways, the COVID pandemic is antithetical to our business strategy of creating community, but I do believe we’ve done some great things to help our tenants survive.”
These include an online tenant portal where Jamestown shares the latest best practices around how to do carry-out, how to reposition space and how to apply for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, among others. Jamestown also created a $50-million restart effort to offer additional support.
“It’s a cliché, but we just felt like we’re all in this together,” he said. “Some of the things I’m most proud of at Jamestown are not individual deals, but our ability to weather the times. Real estate is a cyclical business. Jamestown has been doing this for over 35 years and I’ve been doing it at Jamestown for almost 23. Whether it was the dot-com bubble when nobody really wanted to invest in real estate or the Great Recession or the challenges surrounding this current pandemic, I’m very proud of our ability to be a thriving organization for the long term.”
Throughout the highs and lows, Bronfman has also seen firsthand how the role of a landlord has been fundamentally changing.
“In the old days, you bought or developed a property then sort of sat back for 7 to 10 years and collected your rent,” he said. “Now — especially during the pandemic — you constantly have to be reinventing and curating.”
Those changes may look differently from property to property, market to market.
“Whether it’s Buckhead Village where we want to do things post-pandemic to create more community, or Ponce City Market where you’re going to see some great expansion of the food hall or Southern Dairies where we’ve got some great repositioning plans or the Hammond Exchange shopping center in Sandy Springs where you’ll see new restaurants, the key to Jamestown is we’re constantly looking to see where we can make things better,” Bronfman said. “We don’t rest on our success.”
Last but far from least, Bronfman also continues to pour into the community he has created across Jamestown’s 400-plus employees. In fact, his unique leadership style has been recognized as Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Most Admired CEO in 2017, Atlanta Magazine’s Top 500 Most Powerful Leaders of 2019; and Georgia Trend’s 100 Most Influential Georgians of 2019.
And while he sent weekly emails every Friday to the entire company while offices were closed, he decided earlier this year to do more. He spearheaded an effort called “Jamestown Together” designed to keep employees all united while physically separated. The ongoing programs wide variety of virtual activities ranged from a parents’ support group and kid-centric events for employees with children, to mediation and yoga sessions, to a book club and movie nights.
“I know some people feel really isolated in this recession and it’s really important to me to have us stay connected,” he said.
Global Reach, Local Roots
Another one of Jamestown’s enduring advantages despite challenges is the power of its international perspective paired with its local presence.
“Our involvement in markets around the world allows us to learn from different cities and apply it in new ways,” Bronfman said. “For example, if we hadn’t been successful with partnering with the High Line at Chelsea Market, I don’t think we would have been able to support the BeltLine in such a big way.”
Bronfman also credits Urban Land Institute (ULI) as a pivotal resource for the industry.
“Jamestown has really availed itself of everything ULI has to offer, from the Young Leaders Groups to various councils,” he said. “The organization has been very important to a lot of our people who are very involved, including my partner, Jamestown Principal and the President Michael Phillips, and our Co-Chief Investment Officer Josh Wechter.”
In 2016, Ponce City Market won the prestigious ULI Global Awards for Excellence, recognizing the project as a leader on a global stage for the ways it redefined living, dining, shopping, learning, working and commuting for intown Atlanta.
In addition to ULI, Bronfman volunteers his time on board for the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership and serves as Vice Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, a group he has been involved with for many years.
“Through these organizations, I’m able to marry my personal passion around greenspace and public spaces with our real estate business focused in Midtown and the Old Fourth Ward,” he said. “It’s not surprising we have a real estate company that focuses on community, and I am committed to being involved in the community personally as well.”
When he’s not working, Bronfman enjoys spending time with his family, jogging or paging through a new nonfiction title he may have picked up from Posman Books. A loyal Atlanta transplant, his latest read was “Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN and the Birth of 24-Hour News.”
And despite his prominent role in bring Ponce City Market to life, Bronfman says he can still walk to and from his office, browse the bookstore or pick up a to-go order in the Food Hall relatively anonymously, and he enjoys it that way. There is a familiar feeling of vibrancy and stimulation, reminiscent of his city walks in Chicago.
“It’s a little bit of a different experience today than before the pandemic, but at some point, we will return,” he said. “I look forward to that day.”
A New Business for Jamestown
At the end of last year, Jamestown launched Jamestown Invest, a new online real estate investment platform where individual American investors are able to purchase shares in a real estate investment trust (REIT) sponsored by Jamestown. “We launched Jamestown Invest for people here in Atlanta, and throughout the U.S.”
In less than a year, Jamestown Invest has raised more than $8 million and Bronfman and his team have already put that money to good use right here in Atlanta. In March, Jamestown Invest acquired a majority stake in Southern Dairies, a historic five-building, 79,000+ square foot creative office campus in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Located just steps away from Ponce City Market and the BeltLine Eastside Trail, the former dairy distribution plant has already benefitted from a number of major improvement projects, including new signage, a parking program, wayfinding, a courtyard refresh, and the addition of campus-wide public WiFi.
As Jamestown Invest continues to raise funds, Bronfman said Jamestown will continue to focus on local communities and said Jamestown has already identified the Upper Westside Portfolio in Atlanta as a target asset for future acquisition.
“We decided to target this four-building industrial and showroom campus after we conducted a rigorous assessment of the property, leading us to believe it exemplifies the Fund’s value-add strategy. Investors today want to know that the money they are investing will have a multidimensional return and an impact in their neighborhoods and communities.”
Disclaimer: Investing in Jamestown Invest 1, LLC’s common shares is speculative and involves substantial risks. The “Risk Factors” section of the offering circular contains a detailed discussion of risks that should be considered before you invest. These risks include, but are not limited to, illiquidity, complete loss of invested capital, limited operating history, conflicts of interest, blind pool risk, and any public health emergency, including the current COVID-19 crisis. Further, there is no assurance that Jamestown Invest 1, LLC will be able to achieve its investment objectives or to access targeted investments like those identified. Securities are offered through North Capital Private Securities, member FINRA/SIPC. Access the Jamestown Invest Offering Circular here.
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