By Holly Dutton
Forest City Ratner’s (FCR) Kathryn Welch found her passion in real estate after a fortuitous meeting with FCR chairman Bruce Ratner in the company’s fledgling early years.
“I met Bruce through a mutual friend when he was at the beginning of forming the business,” Welch told Real Estate Weekly. “It was serendipitous to me; it was the right place at the right time, and I grew into the business with him, and he really mentored me.”
Twenty-six years later, Welch is at the top of her game as executive vice president and director of retail at FCR, after building a stellar career from the ground up.
The New Jersey native earned a degree in psychology from Connecticut College and began working in a psychiatric research hospital in Princeton. Lured by the excitement of the big city, she moved here to with friends and “the rest is history.”
“Real estate probably wasn’t on my radar growing up,” she admitted. But after making the move to the Big Apple and going through the pains of finding an apartment, she became interested in the industry.
She began working a temporary job as an office manager with a small real estate brokerage firm, a position that eventually became permanent. “I got an understanding of the business and realized how dynamic it is,” she said.
After meeting Ratner and joining FCR, which at the time had a staff of just eight, Welch and the company began a foray into Brooklyn with office buildings One Pierrepont Plaza and the MetroTech Center.
In a career spanning more than two decades, Welch served in a variety of different roles with FCR. While in the NYC office, she worked in the commercial sector, and after getting married and moving to D.C. she worked on Metrotech projects, flying back and forth during the week from D.C. to New York.
“When I was eight months pregnant, I told Bruce I couldn’t do it any more,” she said. “But he asked me not to leave the business.”
Ratner convinced her to stay on and work on retail projects from D.C. While raising her children, she worked part-time leasing retail projects, which grew into several more development projects, include developments in Chicago and Florida.
“It was great, I worked out of my house at a time when very few people did,” she said. With all of her children in college, Welch had the opportunity to move back to New York two years ago and head up development for FCR.
She now heads up all retail now for FCR — a portfolio of 19 properties totaling more than five million square feet in all five NYC boroughs.
One of the most successful retail projects she worked on was the Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, VA, a two-story open air retail center, which she worked on from pre-development until the opening over a 10-year timeline.
“It was really satisfying, I was able to curate a mix for that project over time,” she said. She worked on similar projects in Florida and in Westchester with Ridge Hill.
Two projects in the pipeline are the retail that will come online with the Atlantic Yards residential development, and retail centers surrounding the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
“I love meeting the people; it’s a very people-oriented business,” she said of her job. “I love being on the cutting edge of retail concepts coming out.”
A retail trends Welch has seen recently is what she calls “experiential” retail.
“Retailers are finally understanding that, in order to compete in a multi-platform retail world where e-commerce plays a larger and larger role, they have to do something different to lure customers out of their comfy chair and computer and into a store,” she said.
“We have to provide a high level of service, a beautiful environment, the right mix of stores, a clean safe environment, events, etc.” She gave nods to Nordstrom, the Gap and Macy’s for doing this successfully.
Welch will be attending the annual ICSC RECon conference next week, where along with her team, she will be taking appointments and making pitches, as well as participating as a panelist on a discussion about how developers re-energized projects that stalled during the recession.
“We’re always on a quest to find tenants,” she said. “We’re always looking for the newest and best out there to intertwine into our retail projects. There’s always a certain amount of turnover in projects and you have to be educated about what’s out there and bring the best into a project when there’s a vacancy.”
Welch enjoys spending time with her children, playing tennis and reading in her spare time. She and her husband recently finished rebuilding their home on the Jersey Shore after it was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, a process that took about a year.
“I love the work I do, I want to continue doing it until I can’t do it anymore,” she said. “I feel like I have a lot of years left. There’s still a lot to learn about retail and it’s always changing and that’s makes it exciting. It never gets stale.”