The Big Interview: Ocean Terminal centre manager Dennis Jones

He entered the shopping centre industry in his native US nearly four decades ago, after completing a degree that saw him major in economics.

Sunday, 8th September 2019, 4:21 pm
Updated Sunday, 8th September 2019, 5:21 pm
I think Porta is actually a better name for us,' says Jones. 'Its short, its easy to remember.' Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

It was a path Ocean Terminal centre manager Dennis Jones hadn’t planned to pursue, but he took to the sector immediately, finding it “exciting” and involving a host of aspects.

“A lot of people don’t even know it’s a business… [they think] it’s just a facility and you go there and shop,” he states, but on seeing behind the curtain he realised it had many component parts including retail, lettings, marketing and asset-management needing to work in unison.

“I liked it – so I stuck with it,” explains Kansas-born Jones, who has led the complex in Leith since it welcomed its first shoppers in 2001 (“I don’t think I even had any grey hair then,” he laughs), on a site previously occupied by Leith’s Henry Robb shipyard.

Ocean Terminal, home to shops including Debenhams, Waterstones, and Boots, and restaurants like Nando’s and Pizza Express, now has more than 4.3 million visitors passing through its doors every year – and is preparing to rebrand as Porta in October.

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The name change was unveiled in November to some scepticism (“sounds ridiculous” was one response) but how would Jones characterise the reception? He says it has been positive overall, although he acknowledges that there are always some people resistant to change.

“I remember, when Ocean Terminal first opened, a lot of people didn’t like the name then,” he states, speaking in the centre’s brightly coloured Porta suite located among its retail outlets. “I think Porta is actually a better name for us, to be honest. It’s short, it’s easy to remember, I like it a lot.”

Porta means “gateway” in Italian, and the new moniker comes as the shopping centre pivots towards becoming a premium outlet destination in what few could deny is a changing – and challenging – retail market.

The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC)-KPMG Scottish Retail Sales Monitor found that in July, sales north of the border were down 0.4 per cent on a like-for-like basis from 12 months previously.

When the figures were published last month, SRC director David Lonsdale said: “Shoppers have kept a firm grip on their purses and wallets of late, with July rounding off an underwhelming three months for the industry. Indeed, over the past year as a whole, retail sales have essentially been flat.”

The figures followed SRC-Springboard data finding that Scottish footfall fell by 2.8 per cent in July, in line with the rate seen in June, although retail parks bucked the trend, with growth of 2.4 per cent. It was also highlighted that overall one in ten shops was lying empty.

Jones does not shy away from the fact that it is a “difficult” environment to adjust to, as factors such as the rise of online shopping have opened growing fissures in the retail landscape. “It’s just challenges, there have always been challenges – and it still makes it fun, actually, to overcome them.”

He explains that the transition to Porta was an “evolutionary step” for Ocean Terminal. “You can’t afford to be static or sit on your hands any more. It’s such a dynamic world we live in,” he says, flagging the need to look for opportunities, ways to adjust, and “keep ahead of the curve”.

Ocean Terminal has, as per US malls, always had a leisure offering – such as its 12-screen Vue cinema, while it also has major tourist magnet the Royal Yacht Britannia.

The leisure side “underpins” the centre, while it is the retail part that is getting “tweaked by becoming Porta” to harness high consumer appetite for sniffing out a bargain. “You need the value for customers, and there’s no better way to get that, really, than outlets,” says Jones.

Porta will be bringing that in a major metropolitan area, with some stores to have converted to outlets by around Easter next year.

Ocean Terminal owner Resolution Property has invested in the centre, with a programme of works due to start imminently. Changes to the site include a colourful tribute to Leith’s naval connections – and specifically fleets of “dazzle ships” that were berthed in its docks during both world wars.

The vessels were painted vibrant, geometric designs making it difficult for their scale to be appreciated by enemy ships, and therefore more difficult to target – and a subtle nod to such a feature is to be shown above Porta’s entrance, for example.

Resolution’s cash injection is amid a bid to emulate other brands in the firm’s portfolio, including Honfleur Normandy Outlet in France and Soltau Designer Outlet in Germany.

But Ocean Terminal was originally a joint development by Bank of Scotland and Forth Ports, with the latter later taking full ownership. In 2012 it was snapped up for an undisclosed sum by Resolution, which later unsuccessfully tried to offload it for a reported £57m.

“Usually most things get sold somewhere down the road,” says Jones, who notes that Forth Ports selling up came after it was acquired in 2011 by Arcus Infrastructure Partners, with its portfolio then realigned. The Edinburgh-based port firm last year saw PSP Investments become its major shareholder.

There are hopes for further changes of ownership in the Scottish shopping centre market with the news last week that the Gyle Shopping Centre in Edinburgh was being put up for sale for £125m, while The Bon Accord centre in Aberdeen has been put on the market for the same price and Clyde shopping centre in Glasgow is targeting buyers with a spare £51m.

Resolution said when the rebrand of Ocean Terminal to Porta was announced that the mall already saw “good footfall and an impressive line-up of international brands, but we believe there is greater demand for a destination that provides experience as well as value”.

Jones enthuses about soon-to-be-Porta’s unique offerings, such as The Little Shop of Memory Reminiscence Centre, described as a “hands-on museum” full of old items and photos as well as boasting its own radio station.

He also highlights the adjacent £10m whisky-focused Port of Leith Distillery billed as Scotland’s first ever vertical distillery, which is set to open in 2021. The facility aims to put the Port of Leith back on the map as a hub for the spirit and eventually produce 400,000 litres of a year. “It’s like a new form of anchor for a shopping centre,” Jones states.

There is also cycling-focused Bike Craft, a retail, rental and repair offering that opened its first service centre on Ferry Road in 2013. Ocean Terminal had not expected to have a whisky distillery or bike repair store, for example, but enthusiastically grabbed both opportunities.

And there is the recently launched Porta Waterfront Market, selling artisan food and crafts. It is a “point of difference… there’s an element of randomness about it that I think people like,” says Jones – while he points out the increase in footfall to come from the major Cala Waterfront Plaza development adding nearly 400 high-end homes a stone’s throw away.

When he took the helm at the centre he was already a veteran of US shopping centres, starting out with Canadian firm Bramalea. “Times were different – there was no internet back then, no Amazon.”

Jones worked for the company in Philadelphia and Florida on different assignments, and then joined General Growth Properties, a major player that had started out in Iowa and spread to both coasts. He started out in its head office, later moving to the West Coast to open a site in California, followed by a launch in Oregon and subsequently Florida.

He very much enjoyed opening malls in different markets in the United States. “It’s work – but it’s fun as well, because it’s a creative thing.”

But he had by then married a woman from Edinburgh, and they decided to move back to the UK with their young family. “It was a long route to get her home, ultimately.”

He worked for a shopping centre management company that had close ties to Silverburn owner Hammerson.

And when the chance came to get his current centre off the ground, “it just seemed like it was a perfect fit… Ocean Terminal was brand new then so it was what I had done already three times before”.

Now, Jones’s duties are a combination of ensuring the centre operates smoothly on a technical level, as well as being involved in, say, marketing and events, and dealing with a whole host of different people, including existing and prospective tenants.

It is a case of trying to maximise opportunities rather than waiting for the phone to ring, he explains, “creating and moulding and shaping stuff… it’s a challenging environment, but at the same time it makes you get more creative – and that’s the fun part of this business.”