Question: Watch World
Ian Reisner: My father was a stockbroker. My mom was in the clothing manufacturing business and I wasn't sure if I wanted to be in retail or if I wanted to be in banking and when I graduated college I took one interview with the Federated Training Program for department stores and one interview with Salomon Brothers. My father pushed me towards the stock side of the business and I started at Salomon Brothers and I had a 15 year career there. Along the way, I had an opportunity to start a retail watch chain with my partner and I got to have a daytime job with an entrepreneurial job helping him grow out a watch company, a retail company.
My partner Matty had worked for many years for the Swatch Corporation and told me that he wanted to start a watch shop that sold Swatch plus everything else. Swatch was a very big seller in the '80s and '90s in the US and once I heard the idea of opening up a watch emporium where you would have Swatch plus everything else, which we named Watch World, I knew that was a great concept, so I spent all my excess time working on designing with my best friend from Cornell, who's an architect, and Matty, to design a store that we ultimately called Watch World. Which was basically a Sunglass Hut for watches. Once we opened that first store it was clear to me that first Saturday that we were onto something unique and different. I could tell from the reaction of the consumers they hadn't found a store where they can see sport and fashion watches displayed in such a neat, museum-like experience where we also offered service for bands and batteries. So we attracted many people from all over the neighborhoods of the city to come to our store to get bands and batteries and while they were there they'd buy an expensive sport fashion watches. Once I saw the success of that first store, I knew it made sense to do a second and a third. Once we did a second or third, I knew it was time to write a business plan and grow the business, and we did and I used my Wall Street connections to raise venture capital from a DLJ retail venture capital group as well as a traveler's venture capital group. We raised around $15 million and grew 119 stores in seven years and then finally I used my Wall Street connections to market and sell the company. We sold the company to Sunglass Hut International in 2000.
Topic: The business of family
Ian Reisner: One thing as an entrepreneur, you are always looking for ways to cut costs and very often you hire family members and a couple times I had family members involved in the company and that often would be a big cause of stress and debate and fights. So I'd be very careful to mix business and family; that's what one lesson that I learned from being an entrepreneur.
Topic: The competition
Ian Reisner: Never underestimate your competition and their ability to be more creative and copy what you do. Right after we opened the first store, Sunglass Hut started to copy us and produced a copycat chain called Watch Station. They literally took pictures of our stores, they hired away our workers, they wrote down our exact product mix and they copied us. And they actually opened 45 stores while we only had three. We went from one to three and they went from one to 45 in the same timeframe. Fortunately, we understood the watch business better than them and we understand the nuances of service and the right selection and we managed to beat them in terms of sales per store throughout the country. But I think one lesson is never underestimate the ability of your competition to copy you and beware of that and be prepared to fight.
Question: What’s your outlook on the future of New York City real estate?
Ian Reisner: In 2005 and 2006, when we were planning a building, many of my friends and family and colleagues in the industry said that it's crazy; there are so many condos being constructed in New York and there would be a glut in the market and we'd suffer just like other places, like Las Vegas and like Palm Springs and San Diego, and for that matter, Miami. And what I've always told people is you really have to always go back to the demographics and New York has a unique situation. Every single family in every part of the world wants to send their first born, their brightest child to get ahead in the world and one of the first places they think of is New York, maybe London. So we have the brightest minds, we have almost every major corporation with some type of headquarters here. We have every industry here and as a result the demographic inflow of people is consistent and it means we have a growing population. We had eight million people just a couple years ago; we're about eight and a half million people now and growing. So there are consistent needs for more houses and more apartments and more hotels and more restaurants. So the demographics of New York are positive and it's a growing city, and as a result I'm still bullish on residential real estate. That doesn't mean prices are going to go up five, ten, or 15 percent a year or more like they did a couple years ago, but it means that prices will remain firm and probably trend up over in time with inflation. So I think that New York City -- so New York City real estate is a stable, growing market in my view.
When we were looking to develop residential real estate, I was trying to think of where would be the best place to develop. And many brokers showed us extremely inexpensive land in places like Newport, New Jersey and Newark, New Jersey and Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Williamsburg and Long Island City, and even the World Financial District downtown. What I said to Matty is what we need to do is we need to find a needle in a hay stack. We need to go back to what my father always taught me in real estate, which is location, location, location. And when we found this piece of land on the far west side in Hell’s Kitchen, I knew that was it. Why? I watched as I grew up, my Uncle was gay and I saw what was going on in the West Village in the '80s and '90s, I saw what was going on Chelsea where I came out and where I went to my first gay bar and I had lots of friends living. I had lots of friends living and starting around the year 2000, I saw a migration of bars and restaurants and, for that matter, friends, moving to Hell’s Kitchen and I knew that would be the next Chelsea. I really did believe that.
And when I bought the piece of land on West 47th Street, west of 10th Avenue, everybody thought I was in the outer, outer zones of the city and I thought it was crazy. We were a five minute walk to Times Square and we are in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen and now 10th Avenue is becoming a little bit like 9th Avenue. A Bar-Tini bar opened a few weeks ago on 45th and 10th. There is a great restaurant called 44x10 on 44th and 10th and here we are on 47th and 10th with a robust neighborhood; the gentrification is in full swing. And to solidify that gentrification, Kimpton Hotels from San Francisco just opened a hotel on 48th and 11th called Ink48 and Ogilvy & Mather moved their Worldwide Headquarters from Worldwide Plaza to 47th and 11th in July with 2,000 young professionals working there. So I had a belief in Hell’s Kitchen, I saw the gentrification happening, I thought it would continue and it's actually happened much quicker than I expected.
Topic: The business of coming out
Ian Reisner: I joined Salomon Brothers in 1990, this was the time when John Goodfriend was still there; this was the time that the book Liar’s Poker came out. I worked on a fixed income trading floor. There were big swinging dicks was established at that point. I worked in the most machismo masculine straight difficult environment. So bad. There were many times I wanted to quit because of the discriminatory behavior, the comments, the notes left on my desk. Fortunately, at one point, I came out to my boss and it turns out he was extremely homo-friendly and he was quite shocked that I was experiencing such a difficult time on the trading floor at Salomon Brothers. And what he did is he had a meeting with the entire trading floor one day when I went home and told people that in his environment, on this trading floor, there was going to be no discrimination, there wasn't going to be no making anybody uncomfortable. And Salomon was a very diverse culture; there were many minorities of every type working on the trading floor, there were many woman, and for that matter there were some gay people as well. I was the first person that I know of that actually came out on the Salomon trading floor and I was known as a gay guy, a gay professional, I was also a top salesman and I think people respected that I was so successful.
Coming out ended up being a good experience for me at Salomon and I was comfortable being out and forward about it and I think my clients for that matter, many of them knew I were gay and it worked fine and I would even get invitations to parties, both corporate as well as personal parties where my significant other was invited. My partner was invited to corporate outings. I was proud to be a leader in the gay community of being out and successful.
After I came out to my boss and in a very direct fashion he made it clear to everybody on the Salomon trading floor that making somebody that's gay uncomfortable would be totally unacceptable, it became much easier to work there. I think people generally speaking are not homophobes, they just go with the stereotypes but once they realize that one is among them it all falls in place. I think the same thing in the Army; everybody thinks that gays in the military are going to cause -- the opposite of cohesion. They are going to disrupt unit behavior, but it turns out most people don't have an issue with it but everybody thinks somebody else has an issue with it. So people don't have an issue, generally speaking, with gays and we're in a very liberal city in New York anyhow.
Question: What challenges do you face as a gay entrepreneur?
Ian Reisner: Any troubles starting a company being gay entrepreneur. In the real estate development business, being gay has been a bit of a challenge. Most of the people in the construction industry are pretty straight, pretty tough and I think that they might view gay men as a client as easier. We've had to be firm working with our construction crews and to make it clear that we're as tough and as nimble as any straight or gay businessman.
Question: What advantages do gay entrepreneurs have?
Ian Reisner: I think it is true that gay men, generally speaking, have the design gene, the designers touch. And being gay, I think, has helped us; we understand people's aesthetic wants, dreams, and desires and we're able to offer that product. I'm not sure if it's because we're gay but being gay I think has given us an aesthetic sensibility that's appreciated by gay and straight people. And I think that's been part of our success.
Question: Who is your favorite gay icon?
Ian Reisner: My favorite gay icon and why? This just shows I don't think about people gay or straight; I just think about people that are talented. My favorite gay icon would be the Head of the City Council in New York, Christine Quinn. Number two to the Mayor, talented, smart, open, out, vocal; that is a great icon. She's a real leader in the community, in the gay community, and she's a real spiritual leader in the city and she's a real leader of the city. So Christine Quinn would be my favorite gay icon.
Recorded on October 14, 2009