I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Gold, CEO of Skilken Gold, a national real estate developer. Gold is recognized as an innovative leader in business and real estate development, leading the company to national prominence. In addition to his 38 years as a premier developer, he is an adjunct professor for graduate courses in real estate finance and development at The Ohio State University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My grandmother, Rose Gold, opened a chain of department stores in Columbus, Ohio, called Gold’s Department Stores, in the 1930s. I have fond memories growing up in the store — and I credit my background to her interest in retail and owning her own buildings. There are not many people who can say their 4’11” grandmother set the pace of direction for not only her family, but my own children and grandchildren.
My wife, Tobi, also came from a family business — a construction and real estate development company called Skilken Properties (which is now Skilken Gold). After I graduated with my MBA in real estate and finance, I had plans to work for a major retailer here in Columbus. But about three months before I started, my father-in-law asked me to join his team, which allowed me to create a career opportunity that combined my love for retail and real estate.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It was the beginnings of our data analytics business, Farsite. My son, Michael, was pursuing his PhD in Early Modern Ottoman History here in Columbus, and in an effort to make some extra money, he started working part-time at Skilken Gold.
One day, I received a phone call from a retail client, asking if we could build a predictive model to forecast sales for their future stores. I didn’t know a thing about data analytics — but I also didn’t know how to say “no,” so I told the client I would get back to him. After talking it over with Michael, he took the idea and ran with it. He assembled a team of friends from college — one with a PhD in nuclear science and the other with a PhD in consumer behavior — and in 24 hours, wrote a white paper on how we could use data and create a customized decision-making tool for clients. So, I called our client back and told him, “Yes, we can do this.”
We headed to the client’s headquarters and had a meeting with 12 of their executives. Thirty days later, we were awarded the contract. Given that success, we decided to create an arm in our business dedicated to data analytics. Michael stopped pursuing his PhD and became my partner in this venture for twelve years, until we eventually sold the business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It would have to be my first day at Skilken Properties, which at the time had a total of five employees who averaged around 68 years old. I was 22, had just graduated with my master’s degree and walked in with confidence, proclaiming, “I’m here to change everything.”
Later that afternoon, my grandfather-in-law and the owner of Skilken Properties, informed me that all five employees had turned in their letter of resignation. Apparently, they were frightened of the “new MBA graduate,” and they didn’t want anything to do with me! While all five employees ended up staying, I learned very quickly that you don’t walk into a company that’s been around for six decades and tell them that you’re going to change everything. Whether you’re a new or existing leader, you must think before you act — and what you say can carry a lot of weight.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe we differentiate ourselves starting in the interview process with a new prospect. This approach helped us become one of four preferred development partners in North America for Walmart Neighborhood Markets. We had to go through an intensive interview and vetting process to win this particular relationship with Walmart, which initially started with 20 nationally experienced, highly qualified developers being interviewed.
I attribute this to:
- Our acumen of data analytics
- Our knowledge of the industry, as each member of our site selection team comes with a retail background
- Our problem-solving skills, as we consistently anticipate trends, analyze the data and adapt to client priorities
- Focus on teamwork
- Commitment to building relationships through collaboration and transparency
The combination agility and flexibility to accelerate timelines and reduce project costs
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Make sure you’re pursuing a passion that is entirely separate from the daily grind. You need an outlet to preserve your sanity. For me, it’s being an adjunct professor at The Ohio State University. I’ve been teaching for 38 years, and it has provided a way for me to give back to my community. Paying my knowledge forward to the next generation of real estate developers has made me a lifelong learner and has prevented me from getting stuck in my ways.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to one person beyond words — Skilken Gold President and COO and wife, Tobi Gold. Tobi is my 24/7 partner, both in business and life. We have been married for 43 years, and business partners for the last seven. I simply would not be the professional or man I am without her unwavering love and support.
Tobi has been by my side since the beginning, all the way back to when we went to our high school senior prom together. Since then, she has been there encouraging me to be confident in who I am and what I can contribute. She is a rock — for the company and myself — and she is the reason why both are as strong as we are today. She’s the reason why Skilken Gold has continued to pivot and remain as innovative as a startup, even though we are almost 100 years old — she puts those processes in place, and I could not do life without her.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We are working on a lot of exciting projects — and that’s because our approach is vastly different than any other developer in our industry. As a fourth-generation family business, we bring a combination of long-term experience and forward thinking to every discussion.
For example, we’re currently entering a new relationship with a restaurant group. The exciting part about this partnership is that we are going to be embedded in their company, serving as their real estate department. We’re overseeing their property management of their existing fleet and working hand in hand with their existing franchisees — we are the real estate development arm building and owning all their restaurants throughout the country. Most developers don’t have this capability, as their relationships are primarily external.
We’ve thrived for 100 years not just because we’re good at what we do, but also because our clients like working with us. We’re really excited about this approach and for the opportunities it will create in the future.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our company culture is a learning culture, and Tobi and I have made sure to do everything to positively impact learning in our community over the last 20 years. We’ve created the Columbus Jewish Day School, which just celebrated its 20th year. We take pride that we’ve helped to create a platform that educates children through a very special lens, allowing them to look at the world with a unique perspective.
Additionally, my 38 years at The Ohio State University, where I, again, have the opportunity to give back and teach future developers. We believe that by giving the next generation the tools they need for success, we’re bringing goodness to the world.
Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?
- The gap between brick and mortar and ecommerce will close. I believe the next generation is not going to see a difference between physical and online stores. Rather, it will become one holistic shopping experience. The thought process will become, “I need this item, and this is how I’m going to get it.” Some will be purchased online, and some will be purchased in store, but it will be a new seamless approach. Ecommerce companies will build their own brick and mortar stores, and vice versa. And, in turn, this will transform brand recognition. Soon you won’t be able to differentiate Amazon and Walmart.
- There will be a choice between convenience and experience. The successful retail companies will either be 100 percent about convenience or 100 percent about experience-centered shopping — there won’t be much in between. Retail leaders will need to decide whether they want to be convenient or if they want to create an entertaining shopping experience.
- Health and wellness will work into the retail experience. Retail will blend into health and wellness more than ever. As we move forward with developing hospital systems throughout communities, wellness companies will act more like retail than ever before.
- Stores will consolidate. Simply put, brands will have fewer and smaller stores — they’ll just be more strategically located. Retailers today don’t need fully stocked inventory because delivery is becoming more common.
- Empty stores will be the catalyst for new ideas. There is such a large inventory of empty stores — and I believe they will be the impetus for new stores with new trends to grow more quickly. Instead of buying land and building a building, there are already good, existing structures in good locations — allowing brands to seamlessly penetrate new markets in a way we’ve never seen.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
All too often, we’re consumed by technology, so I encourage people to lock their phones, laptops and tablets during evenings and weekends. Be in the moment, realize how important your relationships are and allow yourself to completely disconnect and recharge.
When you can’t ditch the technology altogether, don’t bring your cell phones to meetings. Be an active participant in the conversation. I want to get that addictive technology out of our hands — we must strive to be organically creative and communicate with the world around us in a more focused manner.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My personal LinkedIn
Thank you so much for joining us!
Interview by Aaron Weiner, Retail Fashion Thought Leader, CEO of two12fashion.com