Business Spotlight | Fall 2018
Nathan Forbes

Nathan Forbes: Connecting communities through social & financial entrepreneurship

How Nathan Forbes creates public spaces that have a financial—and social—impact

By: Adam Burroughs

Nathan Forbes keeps himself busy. He is managing partner of The Forbes Co., which owns and manages retail luxury shopping centers in Michigan and Florida. He was part of the investor group that purchased Quicken Loans from Intuit Inc. in 2002, and part of a 2005 investor group that acquired the Cleveland Cavaliers—and was there when the Cavs won the NBA championship in 2016. 

Forbes was also part of a group that successfully backed a state constitutional amendment that brought casino gaming to Ohio, and is a founding partner of JACK Entertainment LLC, which has gaming and entertainment offerings in Ohio, Maryland and Michigan.  

The thread connecting these ventures is people. He sees himself as a connector, with a unique capacity to fill community gaps and offer people a place in their neighborhoods to meet. 

“I love the idea of creating public spaces,” says Forbes. “People can go into environments where they feel good about themselves and get to express themselves through socialization. And it becomes part of the social fabric of their lives, so it becomes a community in and of itself."

The public spaces Forbes creates serve as a backdrop to a world curated by Forbes. To shape that world, he works to understand trends and uncover what people in a community really want. He’s keen to put his entrepreneurial weight behind projects that have not just a financial impact, but a social impact as well. 

“On the social impact side of it, there has to be a need. There has to be some part of a demand that’s not being fulfilled in the local marketplace,” he says. “And financial impact is not just being a financially sound investment. It’s providing jobs and benefits and opportunity for people. When you combine financial impact and social impact, it could become a very powerful driver to get us to commit our resources and our time to get behind a project and make sure that it’ll work.”


Deep dive

Understanding where social and financial impact can be realized means exploring an opportunity from every angle and in three dimensions to ensure the project is attentive to the relevant social and psychographic components. 

“We have to make certain we are providing and fulfilling a promise we’ve made to ourselves and the community we’re developing in. We are unrelenting in making sure we are digging out every last morsel of information, building a consistent approach and consensus within our teams of people,” says Forbes. “We then approach that project in an unrelenting way to make sure we’re succeeding at all levels, and we don’t stop until we get there.” 

That informed perspective is gained through focus groups and community events. For example, when he was part of a group that got a state constitutional amendment to bring casino gaming to Ohio, Rock Gaming was pursuing an initiative that had failed five times previously. His team discovered that Ohioans favored gaming, but they didn’t like the amendments that had so far been put before them. 

“We went out statewide and polled the people to understand, ‘We know you’re predisposed to gaming, you would approve gaming, but you didn’t like what was put before you in the past. So let’s write a state constitutional amendment that you will support,’” he says. 

The group learned what the people of those communities wanted—a finite number of casinos in the largest urban areas that provide local jobs and help rebuild communities—and provided it to them. 

“That’s an example on the gaming side that holds true in every project,” Forbes says. “Whether it’s building a new retail center or gaming, it’s really understanding what that broad spectrum looks like, because someday you’re going to ask the customer base to shop at your shopping centers or spend money at your gaming facilities. And you’d better have the right product and the right locations to attract those people.”

We’ve got to create that relationship and experience and need for that consumer to want to shop at brick and mortar.
Nathan Forbes
Managing Partner, The Forbes Company

Continuous innovation

When it comes to Forbes’ luxury retail shopping centers, finding novel ways to connect with people is a boon for both his business and the brands that call his locations home. He relies on providing great services to shoppers, such as valet and curbside pickup, as well as offering a menu of the top names in luxury brands. 

Although luxury shopping is relatively insulated from the digitization of retail, largely because of its personalized service and experience components, Forbes still pursues innovative ways to bring his retailers’ brands to the people.

Recently, through its Somerset Collection luxury shopping mall, The Forbes Company developed a mobile brand strategy that takes its retailers to the streets. Pop-up shops featuring as many as 20 retailers open around Detroit, anywhere that a lot of people congregate. It was designed to give both parties a chance to develop relationships with people to continue to expand brand awareness and brand identity to the metro region. 

Forbes noted, in retail, it used to be that a downtown retail establishment could just open its doors and people would show up. That’s no longer the case. 

“You’ve got to work harder today. Not only do you still have the component of your doors opening up every day, but now you’ve got to bring the stores to the people, where they congregate. They don’t have as much time as they used to because it’s easier to sit at home behind their laptops and order goods and services. So we’ve got to create that relationship and experience and need for that consumer to want to shop at brick and mortar. You can offer something different in a great environment and a different experience.”


Connecting communities

For Forbes, much like other retailers, it’s a continuous battle to stay at the forefront of a retail environment that is in a perpetual state of disruption. In that effort, he’s finding unique ways to connect consumers and provide an experience they can’t get anywhere else.

Huntington is helping make those connections in some of the communities which Forbes is active. Forbes says the relationship he’s developed with Huntington starts with its people. “You look at the trust factor that’s been developed with some executives at Huntington,” he says. 

“You look at relationships I’ve had with executives at Huntington over the years. There’s a mutual respect and an understanding of the vision of the bank and of us as developers and of us as people.” 

Forbes says the ability to find that common ground and the mutual benefit of a project makes Huntington an easy choice. 

“You have to have that mutual respect working both ways—an understanding of our business and an understanding of their business,” he says. “That’s been something that you can achieve with the people of Huntington.” 

A championship connection 

As a minority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise, Nathan Forbes saw first-hand how the team’s championship victory unified generations of Cavs fans and their community. 

“You really learn what it means to a community of people that have been born and raised in a Midwest town,” he says. “It’s not just the kids. It’s their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents. Three and four generations of people have been begging for a championship in their city—they haven’t won a major sports championship in 52 years. When you can be a part of a team that delivers that to a city and the bond between the franchise and the community, it unifies a city like nothing else.” 

Being part of a professional sports franchise also informed the idea of making connections among the myriad stakeholders in a venture. 

“You deal with people from all levels, from sports ownership to people working at the arena, to people attending games, to sponsors, to all levels of people that have different interests,” says Forbes. “It’s about how you can build a bond with the different interests and provide a product that provides good entertainment value for the dollar they’re spending. It’s watching a city grow up around it, and development, and creating jobs because of the success of that sports franchise. You learn how to connect with people, to connect people together and to create social influences that have a positive impact on the future of our children, educational systems and community growth.” 

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