Julie Villet is the Director of URW Lab and Corporate Social Responsibility at Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW), Europe’s largest commercial real estate company, with over $65 billion in assets and a presence in 12 countries. Villet and her team are charged with transforming the group’s flagship shopping centers into omnichannel platforms. She also leads Better Places 2030 — the group’s CSR strategy — with the aim of reducing the Group’s carbon footprint by 50% by 2030. Since joining the Group in 2006 Villet has worked for URW’s development team in France, operations in Sweden, the International leasing team in France and for the group marketing team in Paris and Amsterdam as Head of Strategic Marketing and Events and Head of Marketing European Coordination. Villet holds a Master of Management degree from ESCP business school and Masters degrees in Business Law from Paris XI University and in International Public Law from Uppsala University in Sweden. She recently spoke to The Innovator about the group’s digital transformation and its drive towards sustainability.
Q : What is URW’s digital strategy?
JV : There are three pillars to our strategy : strengthen desire, strengthen agility and strengthen impact. We own shopping centers and office buildings that have a total of 1.2 billion visits per year so an important part of our job is to create desirable destinations by offering new activities and state-of-the-art services to visitors, but also by creating attractive places for digital brands. Secondly, we need to innovate to be more agile. To do this, we leverage new technologies to achieve operational excellence. The third pillar is strengthening impact for our brands by generating more value and business. This includes the transformation of our shopping centers into omnichannel platforms. Our innovation strategy relies on collaborations with startups : we were among the first to create an innovation lab back in 2012 and in 2015 we launched UR Link [now called URW Link], an accelerator that builds new collaborations with startups focused on retail and real estate. After one and a half years and meeting with hundreds of startups we decided to focus our efforts on one topic: experimenting and partnering. We understood quite quickly that they were looking for doing business with us, not mentoring. So how do we source startups? One key element is we invest in funds to get deal flow. Within two weeks the startups we connect with are given a yes or a no to work with us. Once accepted their product is tested in one of our assets for four months. If it goes well, we test it in a greater number of properties. As of today we have done more than 50 POCs [proof of concept trials] and about a third of them have scaled and we are very proud of this…
Q : Can you cite some specific examples to illustrate how URW is executing its strategy ?
JV: Mallcomm, a British startup, is helping us with our goal to become more agile. With its help we created “Connect”, a one-stop app that enables us to more efficiently manage our shopping centers by allowing management teams, retailers and suppliers to efficiently circulate information about security, maintenance, cleaning and parking. Since the launch of the pilot in Barcelona in 2016 the application has been deployed in 56 shopping centers owned by the group.
Sous les fraises, an urban farming startup in our second cohort, is helping us with our circular economy goals and our goal to create desirable locations. It has planted hundreds square meters of urban gardens on the rooftops of buildings in Paris, including the roof of our headquarters. Sous les fraises has also planted an urban garden on the roof of one of our shopping centers in Levallois. This garden produced 1.6 tons of vegetables last year and a part of it supplied some of the restaurants in the center At the same time and most importantly, Sous les fraises is also helping us draw traffic to our shopping centers by running gardening workshops on urban farming, yoga, sophrology, etc., for interested shoppers.
Another circular economy initiative we launched is a partnership with Too Good To Go, an app that helps restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets reduce their daily food waste by selling left-overs at a highly discount price. Since our shopping centers are home to 2,600 restaurants we realize that we could have a huge impact. We did a POC at Westfield Euralille and after just two months more than 2000 meals were sold through the app. We decided to scale it across France, resulting in 90,000 meals saved since January 2019, and have now introduced it in the U.K, Spain and Poland.
We have also taken steps to reduce our carbon footprint partnering with Hoffmann Green Cement on a building project in Montparnasse. Cement is the second largest producer of CO2 emissions and Hoffmann says its cement produces 70% less emissions so we are testing it. Our message to contractors is that if you work with us you are going to have to use green technologies.
Q : In the U.S. many malls and retail stores are closing. What makes you think there is a future for brick and mortar stores?
JV : We believe in physical retail, we see that our shopping centers are overperforming the national indexes in terms of visitor flow (+2%) and sales (+3%). Of course physical retail must be transformed and adapted to new technologies which impact consumption patterns. That’s why we have to offer state-of-the-art services to visitors. For example, as part of our omnichannel strategy we are building smart storage solutions that allow people who have ordered products from Amazon online to pick up their purchases at our shopping centers. We are also partnering with online delivery partners like UberEats, Deliveroo and others to increase opportunities for food retailers in our shopping centers to leverage the increase in the number of people ordering home food deliveries. And, we are welcoming pure-play digital players like Casper [a mattress vendor] into our shopping centers with plug and play offers of technology-enabled spaces and flexible lease terms. It is not a war between brick and mortar and digital. It is all about convergence to give the customer a seamless experience.
Q : What do you see as the company’s greatest transformation challenge?
JV : Change management. The challenge is to introduce a new mindset along with new tools and new methods. It is not just about the tools but accepting that what we are introducing might not work and that we constantly have to test new things.
Q : How do you ensure that top management is on board?
JV : We put into place an innovation board that includes all of the top management. The innovation board meets every two months to measure progress, take decisions, analyze projects from the regions and decide where we want to go.
Q : One problem often cited by heads of innovation at big companies is that by its very nature it is difficult to predict the outcome of innovation and determine the return on investment. How does URW handle this issue?
JV : It is true that in the past the first question usually asked is what is the ROI of the project but our company now accepts that open innovation requires new KPIS. In the case of Mallcomm the KPI is how many retailers and suppliers are using it and how has this impacted the number of incident tickets. For Sous Les Fraise the measurement is not the sales figures but how many workshops have been introduced to enhance the attractiveness of our shopping centers and how many restaurants are using the food produced.
Q : Based on what you have learned what advice would you give to executives charged with innovation at other big companies?
JV : As Peter Drucker said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The first condition for successful innovation is to be willing to take risks. To innovate can also lead to dispersion, that’s why it is essential to set a vision and stick to it while at the same time committing to test, iterate, learn and share feedback while making sure to choose your fights carefully!