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Lifetime Achievement
Trail-blazing Pioneer

Poornima Apte

Robert Norins was one of the first to see the potential of the mall's common area well before the specialty retail industry became the booming business it is today.

By all indications, Robert Norins met the definition of a visionary: He had an eye for what worked in business and keen foresight. It was this foresight that lead him to explore and profit from the common area in malls—way before most retail entrepreneurs.

Robert Norins passed away on April 2 at the age of 67, and was posthumously inducted into the Specialty Retail Hall of Fame. At the ceremony held at SPREE, Patricia Norins remembered her father as an entrepreneur who paved the path for many who followed in his pioneering footsteps. Patricia Norins is the publisher and CEO of Specialty Retail Report.

Specialty retail beginnings

Forty years ago, in 1971, Norins and his wife, Evie, launched their business Santa's Corner, selling personalized Christmas stockings from carts in malls. At that time, the field of specialty retail wasn't born yet. Most mall owners were skeptical about the idea of having merchants in the common area. But, says his daughter, Patricia Norins, Robert Norins saw the benefits of working the common area when most others didn't. "There was a fair amount of resistance from some people in permanent leasing who wanted to make their numbers, there were complaints about sight lines and the like," Patricia says. "But he found a way to work out the details and persuaded malls to become receptive," she recalls. Also in 1971, there were none of the efficient and high-tech kiosk and cart designs of today. Patricia remembers her parents set up shop using folding tables. Despite all these obstacles, Santa's Corner flourished. At its peak, Santa's Corner grew to 300 seasonal kiosks opening November 1 and closing December 26. Norins eventually sold the business in the '80's.

It was also in the early 1970s that Robert Norins launched a magazine for the mall industry, National Mall Monitor. The foray into publishing was strengthened further when Robert and Evie also launched a magazine for retail outlet centers called Offprice Outlet Report and a retail tenant directory that ranked all the retailers in the country.

Robert Norins' years of experience with his cart program did not go unnoticed. In the late '80s, the Mills Corporation requested Norins to set up a cart program for them at a couple of properties. That successful venture lead to the creation of Sales Dynamics Inc., a third-party operator that managed and operated cart programs for malls. "It was invaluable for malls developers because startup costs for carts or kiosks were covered, seasonal programs ran effectively. He made it all work," Patricia Norins says of her father. Robert Norins hired a team of specialty leasing managers—Sales Dynamics had 200 specialty leasing managers and a corporate office in Cherry Hill, NJ. Patricia says "there are still many people in the industry trained by my mom and dad."

Industry pioneer

Norins says she has heard from a variety of industry professionals—including retailers, leasing managers and mall owners—about her father's crucial role in developing this nascent field. "So many people have come up to me and told me that my Dad had an important niche in the industry and that they appreciate his business vision for the industry—it has been very gratifying," she says.

Patricia Norins remembers her father as a trailblazer who saw ideas and concepts where none existed. "He really forged his own trail, rolled out new concepts like petting zoos at shopping centers," she says. "That was shoppertainment before that concept even existed." A philosophy major at college, Robert Norins was also very creative in coming up with new ideas and in overcoming challenges while implementing them, his daughter recalls.

He and Patricia's mom, Evie, worked as a perfect team. "They were an amazing duo that completed the business package. Dad was the strategist and ideas guy propelling [the business] in new directions and working with the business model, while Mom did an amazing job finding the right people, motivating them. She was an amazing salesperson," Patricia says. "Both had great marketing ideas that helped propel the company to great heights," she adds.

Always an entrepreneur

Patricia says even after her father retired, the business instinct and entrepreneurial spirit never left him. He counseled many who came to him for advice. Patricia remembers her dad advised a real estate broker to get his real estate law degree which he did and now that broker has a flourishing practice. A neighbor who was a bookkeeper completed his CPA on Robert Norins' advice and enjoys great success now, Patricia points out, as examples of her father's counsel and generosity. "For a lot of people he provided inspiration, he was a huge proponent of education and understood business models inside and out," she says.

Patricia says she learned a lot from her parents and her father loved teaching her subtle lessons. Even as a young child, Patricia stuffed envelopes for the business. One of Robert Norins' favorite lessons was running business models by his daughter. "We used to go to a restaurant for lunch and Dad would be like 'how many customers do you think they get every day, let's run the numbers,'" Patricia says, "even when he was in the hospital, he would be like 'how many hospital beds are there here, is this a profitable business model.'"

"It really was in his blood," Patricia says. She will miss his ready ear and inspiration the most. "He was always there for me. I'll really miss all of that," she says.

Robert Norins' impact on the industry will be felt for a long time to come. "When you look around and see some temporary [merchant] and realize that my Dad had some hand in that, it's amazing," Patricia says. "There are so many people benefiting from the trail that he blazed."