'We want people to enjoy a healthy Princes Street' - Edinburgh St James managing director Nick Peel
Former pupils of the now-defunct St Mirin’s Academy in Paisley include footballer David Hay, artist and playwright John Byrne, actor Gerard Butler, and Gerry Rafferty – whose musical projects encompassed Stealers Wheel of Stuck in The Middle With You fame.
Also among the secondary school’s list of high-profile former alumni is renowned retail guru Nick Peel. He finds himself in the limelight as the newly announced managing director of Edinburgh St James – the forthcoming £1 billion mixed-used development located just beyond the east end of Princes Street.
“I actually have some John Byrne paintings and my best friend at school’s brother [Joe Egan] played in Stealers Wheel with Gerry Rafferty… I used to go round their house and sometimes Joe and Gerry were sat there strumming on their guitars.”
Peel is no doubt hoping Edinburgh St James will receive a warm reception from its expected 20-plus million visitors a year – the first of whom will arrive in October as work continues apace to complete its retail and leisure elements.
This will be followed by the 2021 unveiling of its residential properties, five-screen Everyman cinema, Roomzzz Aparthotel and, at the start of 2022, its W Edinburgh hotel pièce de résistance – the latter having made headlines for its controversial “ribbon” exterior.
It is stressed that the retail-led centre is running bang on both time and budget, set to offer five floors of prime shopping, dining, leisure and entertainment – with 850,000 square feet of retail space and 30 new restaurants, cafés and bars. “We’re a catalyst of change for a new Edinburgh that is shaping a modern Scotland,” the website states.
Peel is tasked with leading the on-site team, which will oversee the day-to-day management of the site whose jutting cranes have become a familiar fixture on the city’s skyline.
He has been recruiting his “dream team” to help deliver “something hopefully quite special for Edinburgh St James”. Having recently visited the site, hard hat and all, he states that there has been major progress in the last few months.
Milestones include windows being installed in apartments and the W hotel. “You can now physically stand in individual shop spaces. And you get a sense of what this thing’s going to look like and hopefully how it’s going to behave, and, equally, how exciting it’s going to be.”
That said, he also stresses that it won’t be finished on day one. “You might actually argue that it will never be finished, because we will want to freshen it up and change it as we go.”
More than 85 per cent of its retail space has been taken, with Spanish clothing giant Inditex signing on the dotted line for its Bershka, Stradivarius, Pull & Bear and Zara brands, the latter set to unveil a mammoth, three-floor, 37,000-sq-ft store. In addition, Mango will be opening its first Edinburgh shop on site.
It was announced last week that Yo! Sushi, @pizza and burger chain Five Guys will also be part of the offering, joining the likes of cocktail bar and restaurant The Alchemist that will make its Scottish debut in a 5,700-sq-ft spot.
Edinburgh St James replaces the rather less glamorous St James Centre that opened in 1970 after a large number of Georgian tenements were bulldozed, and was reportedly once branded Edinburgh’s “most hated building”.
And Peel and the team are mulling a fresh moniker for the new incarnation. “The brand Edinburgh St James was designed for pre-launch,” he states, noting that including the city name was key at that point. “But we would be foolish to stray too far from some of the history and the heritage of the site itself… it’s the right thing for us to do to re-examine all those components before we take it to consumers.”
Such a move would follow the rebrand of fellow Edinburgh retail and leisure outlet Ocean Terminal to Porta, a decision that did not receive a unanimously positive response.
Peel gained what he describes as a “pivotal” early grounding in commercial retail trading at supermarket Morrisons. But that wasn’t all – he also received the best business advice he’s ever been given (“son, keep smiling and never, never ever give in”) from Sir Ken Morrison, who built the chain from an egg and butter stall.
Peel has also held a key strategic role at designer outlet specialist McArthur Glen, spent three years in the Middle East with retail-focused Marka Holding, and led the retail arms of football teams Rangers and, more recently, Arsenal. He has in fact provided consultancy for a number of sporting institutions including tennis body ATP, and briefly sat on the board of the Scottish Volleyball Federation, “so sport is a bit of a thing for me”.
Also on his CV is a spell with Landsec – formerly Land Securities Group – whose interests include Fountain Park in Edinburgh and Buchanan Street in Glasgow.
His most recent role was head of asset and estate management at the £9bn Battersea Power Station project, which he notes is the UK’s largest mixed-use development (Edinburgh St James being the second largest). “We were effectively building a small town on the banks of the Thames. International investors, great project, iconic architecture. Great fun, really enjoyed my time there.”
But he was then headhunted for his current post, tempted in part by the prospect of returning to his native Scotland, while he was also impressed by the attitude of investors in the project – including Nuveen and APG.
“They absolutely ‘got’ consumer, they were trying to future-proof this particular project, so for me, that strategic vision, that long-term vision, the willingness not to be confined by the physical constraints of the project itself, but to try and elevate Edinburgh was very, very compelling.”
Visiting the city, he was pleased to see the strong retail offering on George Street, as well as the host of food and beverage sites in St Andrew Square. More broadly he highlights the city’s “burgeoning” fintech industry, with retail and residential property prices in fine fettle.
“First and foremost, I’m a proud Scotsman. And so the opportunity to play a part in something that I think, genuinely, is a regeneration of the east end of Edinburgh, but can create a legacy as well – it just joined a number of dots for me, and so here I am.”
It is hoped that the centre will boost the firepower of the city’s retail offering, and help stop “leakage” to Glasgow, he adds – explaining that the Scottish capital has historically ranked around 13th in UK retail destinations, with London obviously in first place. The hope is that Edinburgh St James will move the needle to around number eight.
“We would expect our overall retail takings to be buoyant on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. And it’s up to me and the team to make sure that there are reasons to visit.”
That’s a daunting challenge considering that in 2019 the UK lost more than 140,000 retail jobs, according to the Centre for Retail Research. The latest data from KPMG and the Scottish Retail Consortium found Scottish shop takings slipped during the critical Christmas trading period.
To combat this, Peel is looking to harness major earmarked drivers of retail growth such as sustainability and more space for events (Edinburgh St James will have nine such sites). He’s going to have a swearbox on his desk, but with “shopping centre” the banned phrase.
Also planned for inclusion is at least one independent Edinburgh retailer, although he keeps schtum on whether Jenners – whose Princes Street base is set to close – will be featuring.
As for the larger high-street chains, they are being asked what they are working on, what they’ve got in their development lab for 2021/2022, how do bricks and clicks mix, and whether they are looking to include in-store food and drink, for example. It is to make sure that “even those offers are exciting, new and different”.
But Edinburgh St James has not been without controversy, for example some ridicule over the W hotel design. Has this overshadowed proceedings? “I think everybody’s positive about the entire project,” he states, adding that architecture is always subjective to some degree. “But if you’re asking for a personal view, I love the design.”
And on the issue of potentially negatively impact on Princes Street, he stresses that he wants Edinburgh St James to complement the city rather than dominate. “We want people to walk down and enjoy a healthy Princes Street. We want the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker in Stockbridge… we want to play a part and elevate everything that’s good and the best of Edinburgh.”
He adds that he is keen to have a collaborative relationship with, say, Diageo and its Johnnie Walker visitor centre, which is set to open at the west end of Princes Street. “We want to work with Edinburgh Castle. We’re open for business and partnership. Edinburgh partnership is very much at the core of the team that I’m going to be driving,”