Retail developer loves his adopted homeland.
Yaromir Steiner may not be a native, but he's lived in central Ohio longer than anywhere else in his life, so forgive him for delighting in his adopted hometown.
The renowned creator of Easton continues to improve on his investment in the groundbreaking retail-restaurant-entertainment-residential complex and to develop similar sites elsewhere, but Columbus has won his heart.
“I'm kind of proud to have come here and moved here in '96-'97 and (to see) where Columbus is today. It's a very different city. I am proud of Columbus. I really am,” Steiner says from his second-floor corner office in the heart of Easton Town Center.
“It's a great city and finally it's receiving the accolades it needs, deserves, which goes well beyond being a retail ecosystem. It's a great place to live and raise children,” he adds.
The path from his Eurasian upbringing to Columbus routed Steiner through Texas and New York before he put down roots in New Albany. He was raised in Istanbul through high school, and then his father, a Czech diplomat, decided he should go to college in France on grounds that “the only civilized culture was the French one,” Steiner says. “So I learned French, went to college in France and then I lived in France for about 10-11 years until I came to the United States to start the American affiliate of a French company in Houston, Texas.”
In Texas, Steiner quickly made efforts to fit in, buying the requisite cowboy hat, belt, matching boots and even a Lincoln Town Car. “I thought that was the way to experience America,” he recalls. When his assignment in Houston was completed and his employer called him back to France, he opted to quit that job to stay in the United States.
“It was a tough time, changing business and trying to start (in the US),” Steiner says. “I lived in New York for two years, did some residential development work actually in the suburbs of Manhattan. Then I went to Miami and decided to develop the project which is a benchmark in the industry as well, like Easton, which then served as the inspiration for Easton.”
Gesturing out his office window, Steiner adds, “These buildings are a copy of what I did at CocoWalk, with a roof on it.”
It was that work in Coconut Grove, Fla., that put Steiner in a position to be considered for developing Easton in partnership with the Georgetown Company and with the backing of L Brands founder and CEO Les Wexner.
Steiner was working in Florida as the US was coming out of a savings and loan crisis in 1986-87. Many S&Ls and developers went bankrupt and a French financial institution owned some property in Coconut Grove in which they had invested “way too much money,” Steiner recalls.
He had been fixing up property all over the country—from Aspen, Colo., and Hollywood, Calif., to Augusta, Ga., and Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, La.—but had never done a retail project and thus had “zero prejudice about what is right or what is wrong. And we did lots of things that no one had done before, but we did not know any better,” Steiner says. Things like a large cinema on the third floor and shopping mixed with restaurants in an open-air mall set CocoWalk apart.
“We had no clue what barriers we were breaking. We were just building a building, putting tenants in it.”
One of the tenants Steiner wanted for CocoWalk was a Limited Express, and he had to make his first-ever trip to Columbus—on a dreary, zero-degree February day in the late 1980s—to persuade the reluctant retailer to put a store in the unconventional mall. They finally reached agreement on what Steiner calls “the most aggressive deal a retailer can make. ‘You pay for my store, I'll put merchandise in it. I'll give you a percentage of my sales and if after two years I don't do enough volume, I'll just go away.' We had no choice,” Steiner recalls.
But when the 10,000-square-foot store opened about 1990, it began doing business that was two or three times greater than other locations; so much that Limited Express ended up paying more rent than a conventional arrangement would have cost, Steiner says. And that experience eventually opened doors for Steiner to become Wexner and Georgetown's Easton development partner.
As Easton began to take shape, Steiner was commuting from Miami, where his company was based.
“Then one day, my wife and I were in Key West, and we were drinking margaritas or something.” They were talking about their children; his twin sons from a first marriage and their young son and daughter. The older two had just finished high school and the younger two were not yet in school.
“Pat said, ‘Yaromir, instead of you commuting to Columbus two or three days a week, why don't we move there and then you commute to Miami instead, and let's raise these two children in Ohio rather than Miami.' ... So after a few years we moved the accountants here, and then one day we shut the business there, we moved everybody here and then it became my headquarters. I've lived here the longest now, 20 years basically, of any place,” he says.
He's been in Columbus long enough to be aware of its longstanding Midwestern humility but also to recognize a peppier new step about town. “There was a kind of a twist, something happened and we went over a tipping point, and for the first time we became aware of what we had,” Steiner says.
“I think because of the efforts of many, Columbus 2020 maybe, but even the (Columbus) Foundation's Spirit of Columbus awards, and things like that, slowly we start realizing” what Columbus has to offer, he says.
He is proud that an organization whose board he chairs, Urban Land Institute Columbus, contributed to the growing appreciation of Columbus's potential with its report, Columbus 2050, which plans for the Columbus metro area to add a million new residents during a period in which the state as a whole may gain just 100,000.
“We are the powerhouse of the state. People started realizing suddenly we have the same potential as Austin, Texas, and that we're growing,” he says.
ULI followed its work on Columbus 2050 by working with Columbus 2020 and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission to develop insight2050, a tool to help business, community and government leaders make land use decisions to maximize the area's population growth and avoid problems that increased density can bring. The challenge now, Steiner says, is to protect the Columbus area from what “Austin became 30 years later, a traffic-jammed, unaffordable-housing place.”
William Murdock met Steiner when he became MORPC executive director in 2013 and was seeking input for his new role. He recalls Steiner telling him bluntly, “If you really want to make an impact and you really want to get this region thinking about its future, I will do everything I can to help you. And if you don't and you're not interested in thinking big, I'm done. I don't have any more time for you.”
Murdock adds, “I hope he doesn't regret saying that because you bet I took him up on it ... He's got a big heart and a really sharp mind when it comes to development.”
With ULI, Steiner says, “our laser focus is what are the steps we need to take so we preserve the greatness of Columbus, the assets of Columbus, so as we grow into the future we remain desirable. And sometimes you have to do things that are painful and in those early stages don't seem necessary, but you want to do them so later they don't become pains.”
Transportation is one of the challenges that must be addressed, he believes.
“When you can go anywhere in Columbus in 20 minutes, why would you install transit? Doesn't make sense, right? It's going to cost billions of dollars, and then you have to subsidize operations; makes no sense. That's narrow thinking. The big thinking is Columbus adding a million people. If you can take 250,000 of them and put them in transit corridors and use the existing infrastructure rather than taking hundreds of square miles of farm land, that may be fiscally more responsible,” he says.
“I'm seeing transit as a way of dealing with intelligent land use. Intelligent land use can increase prosperity and happiness in a community if you do it well,” Steiner adds.
And that takes you to the core of what Steiner values.
“Everything I do, whether it is ULI, Buckeye Lake, my company, or what I volunteer, there's only one goal and this is to help improve the wellbeing of the people that you impact. In my company, I impact my employees. By Easton, I impact Columbus. With ULI, I try to impact the region, and the whole goal is about wellbeing,” Steiner says.
The developer credits Wexner—both by working with him and by observing his actions—with influencing his focus on improving things for others.
“He taught me civic engagement, the importance of giving back, taking care of your family, taking care of your alma mater, taking care of your church, taking care of your community,” Steiner says.
He adds, “For my wife and I, that was a turning point. The difference between our engagement, giving back, before Les and after Les, the difference is one to 100. There is not even a comparison. So that's one area, giving back and understanding you are only who other people made you, and you need to pay forward but you need to pay back for those other people who made you who you are.”
Wexner's insistence on high standards is another lesson Steiner embraces.
In Wexner's world, efforts and outcomes are measured against the best possible results in the world. “That is the point of reference. It's not about what have you done in Franklin County, what have you done in Ohio, not even the United States. Our school is the world and we should always learn from the best. That's our lesson always from him,” Steiner says.
Steiner continues to learn from Wexner, even following his lead to share concerns with his own 180 employees about events of Charlottesville, Va., and the ensuing uproar over the response from President Donald Trump.
Steiner and the firm's other two owners—his wife, Pat, and Barry Rosenberg—had sent a message in mid-November to all associates to reinforce a commitment to company values. “When the values of our nation, enshrined in our Constitution, are openly and publicly being challenged, when persons are being insulted and vilified for their faith, their gender or their race, we believe that it is essential that we stay guided by a set of values that are not adjusted to fit the opportunity of the moment,” the owners wrote.
“With this email,” they wrote on Aug. 23, “we are reaffirming our values as stated in our email of Nov. 17, and to say again that at Steiner, we believe in soulful leadership and a commitment to the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing for all people regardless of where they worship, who they love, where they were born, their gender, who they voted for, or the color of their skin.”
They add, “The issue here is not one of freedom of expression which is also enshrined in our Constitution, but of the moral ambivalence of the President which allows groups to claim his support for divisive values abhorrent to our nation. Consequently, going forward we will not support any political candidate or political agenda that does not clearly show that they stand with us on these principles.”
Steiner is unabashed in his views. “I love this country like only immigrants really can, I think. People ask me why did I become a citizen. I became a citizen because I love the American Constitution. ... What despairs me the most is that I'm not sure many Americans understand the fundamental strength of that document and the values it contains and how easy it would be to destroy it, and it's a precious document. …We are a resilient system… but oh, we are being shaken to our roots, and we have to be clear about what is important for America.”
–Mary Yost is the editor.
What is going on these days at Easton Town Center?
We are doing the remodeling, as you can see, the 20th anniversary fixing of Easton. We are continuously adjusting to tenants, and especially in turmoil times like we are in right now. More tenants are coming in and more are disappearing so we are continuously adjusting for that, but that's the traditional approach.
And then there's things happening in Easton at large, which is residential.
What lies ahead for retail?
The next biggest challenge we face is the introduction of technology or adoption of new technologies into our thinking, and this is the most disturbing thing right now because there are no pre-established models, and typical for Easton, we are kind of on the cutting edge for thinking about what to do, how to go about things, like having strong fiber, behind the scenes lots of electronics … We are trying to think if we can organize like food delivery systems in the region.
What else do you have in the works?
We're a founding member of a Conscious Capitalism chapter for central Ohio as well. That's a book written by John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, how capitalism can be used to further societal goals for qualify of life and happiness; how capitalism is the most effective tool to achieve those goals. We are about to start a chapter in Columbus.
What is your workplace wellness initiative?
My wife actually is our chief wellbeing officer. …In our office you cannot get a Coke, because it's no good, you can get sparkling water. So there is like food police, but there is also meditation and then there's a book club and they're about to publish rules about emails. … We're asking people not to send emails to people in the middle of the night or evenings or the weekends.
I understand you teach meditation.
I'm certified almost a year now… I've done only two classes so far. …The method I teach requires training for two days. So far I've done it for others. It's always delicate with employees. It's kind of an intimate experience. It's tough to be the boss and (also) a meditation teacher, but you could; that's something I'm considering doing but I didn't do it yet.