There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. In a new series that coincides with the launch of BoF Careers the global marketplace for fashion talent, we highlight some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Agnieszka Nowak has been managing director of Esentai Mall in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, since November 2013. After a stint of seven years at the University of Lodz in her native Poland, where she focussed on marketing, management and venture capital finance, Nowak earned her retail stripes as marketing director on 'Manufaktura,' a new development which involved the transformation of an old textile factory into a vast city-like complex complete with museums, restaurants, a hotel, a shopping centre and a public square. Subsequently, she became marketing director of the Galeria Shopping Center in St. Petersburg, Morgan Stanley's largest investment in Russia in 2013. Today, as managing director of Esentai Mall, her responsibilities include planning and executing marketing strategy and overseeing tenant relations.
BoF: Please describe your current role.
AN: I work for real estate developer Capital Partners as the managing director of Esentai Mall, which is a shopping mall in Almaty, the largest city and former capital of Kazakhstan. Esentai is a retail destination in our market for brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Loro Piana, Marni, Lanvin, Burberry and so on. We also have Saks Fifth Avenue as our anchor tenant, located over three floors of the mall.
I'm responsible for what I call the “software” of the shopping centre, meaning aspects of the business like marketing and tenant relations. I also advise on the mix of new tenants and that's something that needs to be conveyed to the market in the right way at the right time: it's all about the correct positioning.
BoF: What attracted you to the role?
AN: The challenge, definitely. When I first saw the mall it looked like a sleeping beauty just waiting for the right stimuli to rouse it and help it reveal its full potential. Before moving to Kazakhstan, I worked for JLL and Morgan Stanley where I successfully repositioned the large-scale Galeria shopping center in St. Petersburg, Russia. So I was pretty confident that I had enough knowledge and experience to go through a similar process here. But this project meant I'd extend my responsibilities while trying something new in a new culture.
Working here really is a being part of a brave team. Our challenge is to transform the mall into a full luxury and premium shopping destination and this has meant not only changes to the tenant mix but also a lot of architectural and construction work on a significant scale, just two years after opening. So from that point of view, being part of a mall project this dynamic probably wouldn’t be possible in many other places around the world.
BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?
AN: The transformation we've been doing for Esentai Mall is like doing open heart surgery while the patient is still awake. That's pretty exciting in a way, I'd say. I'm facing a set of circumstances right now that you usually face before opening of shopping center – it's not something you usually face while a mall is in full service like we are. Esentai Mall also gives me a great thrill because we're literally the gateway to the Kazakhstan market for many brands.
But I shouldn't forget another exciting experience I had. While working on the Manufaktura project in Lodz, Poland, we transformed an old textile factory into a complex that could be described as city within a city. We created a space that had three museums, a hotel, a shopping centre, slow food restaurants and, above all else, a public square that became a renewed city centre. That was the beginning of my adventure with shopping centres and the retail world.
BoF: How is your role changing? What are the forces driving this change?
AN: I never had a very detailed career plan in mind, or an especially clear vision of my career path, for that matter. Eventually, I did follow a path that's not uncommon for the marketing and management fields but I also followed my instinct in places along the way. I'm attracted to people who I can learn from. It's this combination that led me to the place where I am right now – being 5000 kilometres from my home country of Poland in another country – Kazakhstan. It's a place that some people still only associate with oil and mare's milk [kumi] but in reality, it's very complex, proud and has a great history. My colleagues and my work environment here at Esentai here in Almaty are incredibly international and cosmopolitan.
Demand for luxury is high in Kazakhstan now. Just two years ago people had to go abroad to buy many of the brands that we now have at Esentai. Our customers are highly educated and tuned in to the latest trends. They expect a certain level of experience at retail and we're here to provide what they deserve. Our customers are fast becoming more demanding – and by customers, I mean our brand tenants as well as the end consumer – so my job is to support them all, maximize their benefits and make sure that they have a great customer experience.
BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it.
AN: My grandma taught me something important: "he who does nothing spoils nothing". If you're afraid of making mistakes all the time, how will you ever do things that no one else has done before? So naturally I seek out other people's opinions and recommendations, but sometimes I decide to go completely against the rules. Actually, it works out pretty well that way. But if something doesn’t work the way I wanted, then I take the time to find the reasons why, and try to make sure that I use this knowledge in the future. I am very rarely 100% satisfied; there's always something that could be improved, done differently, better. So I've realised that if I fail at something in that way, I need to fix it and move on.
BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?
AN: Stay positive and don't adapt too much; be open and curious, and question your reality. For a few years now, I've been a foreigner. I've been someone who many people here think doesn't really understand the local 'particularities'. But I think it's my strength that I don't accept that something can be justified simply because it's ascribed to a certain place. I don't want to compromise. If customers in Paris can have something, why not to deliver something even better to Almaty? If something isn't good enough for New Yorkers then why should it be tolerated somewhere else? We need to stay open, try new things, soak up experiences – our own as well as those of others – make connections and transform all those things into something fresh and unexpected. And not forget that by improving our work projects, we should also be improving our lives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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