You could call Matthew Whitman Lazenby a member of retail royalty. His late grandfather Stanley Whitman was a pioneer in South Florida real estate, buying swaths of land along Collins Avenue in Miami Beach and other coastal areas. Fifty-four years ago, Whitman opened Bal Harbour Shops, which Lazenby now oversees as owner and manager general of Whitman Family Development.
The high-end shopping center is in the midst of a hard-won $500 million expansion and renovation, which was approved by the village following years of community opposition and contentious lawsuits. The 340,000-square-foot expansion — due for completion in 2023 — will include the first Barneys New York flagship store in the Southeastern U.S. as well as new luxury boutiques and restaurants. The company is also a minority owner in the retail component of Brickell City Centre.
TRD sat down with Lazenby at the offices of Whitman Family Development in Bal Harbour, across the street from Bal Harbour Shops.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Birth date: September 3, 1977
Lives in: Miami Beach
Family: Wife: Kristin Arbuckle Lazenby; three sons: Will, 7; Clayton, 5; Stephen, 3; three boxers: Satchmo, Ella, Aretha
How did your grandfather open Bal Harbour Shops? Bal Harbour Shops came about because after World War II he came back — he was an officer in the Navy — and his father had died, and his mother, who was a very astute businesswoman, was running the family’s finances and was actively investing in the stock market and also locally in real estate in a way that outpaced even what her husband had been doing before he died. So that intrigues young Stanley, and he started helping her manage some buildings that the family had acquired, predominantly on Lincoln Road. That’s where he first figured out how owning retail buildings could be improved. He always intended Bal Harbour Shops to be an improved version of Lincoln Road, because the vision for it wasn’t fragmented between 100 different property owners, but consolidated with one property owner who recognized that in order for everything to be successful you had to have a curated mix of tenants, some of whom were going to pay more rent than others.
Did you always know you would be working for your family’s company? No, I really didn’t. I think my mother of all people was probably the one who had some designs that that would happen eventually. My grandfather probably wished that the family would have produced someone that could have succeeded his son, but it was never “Matthew, you will do this.” I came to that decision by myself on my own time.
How did you climb the ranks there? The company that I joined in 2003 was still very much run by the man. Stanley didn’t literally die at this desk [at age 98, two years ago], but he essentially did. He worked his entire life; it meant everything to him. This was his baby. I joined as a sort of junior associate leasing guy. By the time my grandfather was really willing to relinquish control of the organization in terms of the big picture, my uncle was already in his late 60s. There was literally a moment where Stanley turned to Randy and said, “All right, you’re up,” and Randy said, “Pfff, I’m retired.” At that point, everybody looked at me and said, “Well, you’re up.” But as long as Stanley Whitman was alive, Stanley Whitman was in control, let that be clear.
Tell us about the thinking behind the expansion at Bal Harbour Shops. It used to be most of our stores were 2,000 or 3,000 square feet and they’d say, “Matthew, we’d like to go a bit bigger,” so they’d go to 4,000 square feet. Now these stores are 3,000, 4,000 square feet, they say, “Matthew, we’d like to go a bit bigger.” So 6,000? No, 16,000, 20,000. These stores are getting huge because they see not only is the store generating business from the premises but it is hugely influencing these quality eyeballs. And frankly, whether people buy it in the store or in their hotel or fly back to whatever country they came from, the stores don’t care. The stores now have ways of better understanding how that experience they are curating in their own stores is translating to sales that may not be in the store.
Where do you like to shop? My whole family, for three generations, we’re business guys. A lot of folks just assume you are in the world of Chanel, Prada and Gucci, you probably know what the hottest trend is. I don’t know what the hottest trend is. Whenever a store opens here, I try to be a patron, so I have shopped at every single store. I don’t have a favorite.
What restaurants do you go to other than at your properties? We like both of the restaurants at the Surf Club — the Thomas Keller restaurant and Le Sirenuse — that bar there. They did that so well.
What is the most extravagant thing you have ever bought? That would be a helicopter. I’m also a pilot.
Where did you meet your wife? Kristin’s family is also an old Miami family, from Coral Gables. Her mom is a Colson, and there is a [law] firm Colson Hicks, so Bill Colson was my wife’s grandfather and Dean Colson, who is the current managing partner, is her uncle. Our parents knew each other when we were very young. We actually went to high school together but we were in different grades, so our paths didn’t really cross much then. After college we both overlapped in New York for a little bit, in 2001, and that would have been where the seed was planted.
What is the secret to a happy marriage? Obedience [laughing]. Obedience, love and understanding, probably in that order.
What is the best advice you have ever received? Both my father and my grandfather have been so full of sage advice: To understand what you are and what you’re good at, you’ve got to understand what you aren’t, and what you aren’t good at. And you’ve got to be willing to abandon it, so you can focus on what you are.