Can you tell us something about the history of Agorà?
Francesco Della Cioppa: “Together with three other people I founded Agorà eight years ago. We opened our first project in 2002: Parco Dora in Turin, a 25,000-m² shopping and entertainment center on a 50,000-m² site. Parco Dora was one of the first urban shopping centers in Italy. In Italy, there is not much space for urban shopping centers, because of our historic town centers. That’s why most of our shopping centers are out of town. After Parco Dora we decided to expand our activities to the south of Italy, where we started in the province of Calabria. In the north of Italy the market was rather mature, while in the south the shopping center industry was still in a start-up phase. We had the chance to grow up with the emerging shopping center industry.”
You are now part of Aedes Group. Why did you sell your shares to Aedes?
Della Cioppa: “In 2005 we sold 85% of our shares to the Aedes Group – I still own 15% of the Agorà shares. Aedes is one of the oldest and most important real estate companies in Italy and listed on the Milan Stock Exchange. We were looking for a strategic partnership with a company like Aedes, because we understood that the shopping center market in Italy was going to change. In the past, shopping centers in Italy were not developed by real estate developers, but by the distribution sector. This started to change a few years ago. More and more shopping centers are now owned and managed by real estate companies.”
Giovanni Ferraresi: “We also provide added value to the Aedes Group. Aedes was an investment company. They were very interested in our management skills. By getting a majority of the shares of Agorà, Aedes became an asset management company.”
Della Cioppa: “Other real estate companies, like Pirelli RE, have their own asset management company that works solely for them. Unlike most of the shopping center management companies, Agorà was never connected to a specific retail brand or real estate company. We are independent advisors who work for many market players, and we have a good reputation. So Agorà is also a strategic partner to Aedes.”
How has your portfolio grown over the last couple of years?
Della Cioppa: “In the last two years we opened 16 shopping centers totaling more than 300,000 m² and 800 shops. An important step in our expansion strategy was made in April 2007, when we acquired 85% of the shares of Unicenter. Unicenter is market leader of shopping center management in the north of Italy. Due to this acquisition we became a top three shopping center management company in Italy. We currently have more than 50 shopping centers under management with a market capitalization of more than €1.3 billion.
Which projects do you consider your key projects?
Della Cioppa: “In April this year, we opened Bariblu in Triggiano, which to me is one of the most beautiful shopping centers in Italy. Most of the shopping centers built by the food distribution sector in Italy are simple boxes. In my opinion a shopping center needs to be a nice place to be. The concept of Bariblu is more focused on the customer, we offer him a pleasant stay. Another innovative shopping center that we manage, is Napoli. The design, by Massimiliano Fuksas, is beautiful. The exterior is built up in blue glass, in which all the brands, including Carrefour, have put their logos in negative. This is new in Italy. We do not aim to deliver a standard formula for a competitive price, but rather to distinguish ourselves with our creativity and quality. We try to look beyond the standard formulas and create innovative shopping center formats.”
Ferraresi: “With the Mediterraneo shopping center that we manage in Bremerhaven, Germany, we showed that our concept is can be exported abroad. With Mediterraneo we created a typically Mediterranean shopping experience. It’s our intention to multiply the Mediterraneo shopping mall concept on a European scale.”
What are your plans for the coming years?
Della Cioppa: “In the last two years we opened one shopping center a month. We intend to keep this up. One of our upcoming projects is a new shopping center of Carrefour in Milan, that will open at the end of this year. We will stay focused on Italy, especially on the Southern regions, where still a lot of work is to be done. We also see good opportunities in the redevelopment of former agricultural or industrial areas; these sites will be redeveloped into mixed-use projects with residential and commercial space. In Turin for instance we manage a shopping center that has been built on the former Michelin site. With Aedes we are also looking for opportunities to expand abroad. We are now exploring possibilities in the Far East. We see a lot of opportunities in China and we will soon start our first project there. But we have also plans to expand in Europe, in countries like Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Ukraine, etc. We do not focus on Western European countries because these markets are more mature, the lion’s part is owned by big real estate companies and there is not enough space. In Europe our focus will be on the emerging countries. Companies are buying a lot of assets in the CEE countries, that need to be managed.”
How do you keep ahead of your competitors?
Della Cioppa: “We distinguish ourselves with the quality of our managers. We invest a lot of time and money in the training of our people. Since we work for many customers we need to keep up a good level of quality and know-how. Additionally, together with Aareon, which is part of Aareal Bank, we have developed the first software program dedicated to shopping center asset management. This application brings together all the information that a shopping center manager needs, such as expenses, rents, marketing and commercial analyses. With this application we have all information in real time, so our employees can work more efficiently and can dedicate more time to their advisory tasks.”
Ferraresi: “This software program offers a two-way advantage. We provide quality information to the people in the field. So he or she is constantly trained, and the shopping center owners see that the quality is updated on an daily basis. Secondly, it creates a benchmark for management skills. If someone doesn’t maintain its level, we can easily trace the problem.”
What is your unique selling point?
Della Cioppa: “Our company is very young, while many of our competitors were founded decades ago. We have a very explicit way of managing a shopping center, in which quality and creativity preveal. Additionally, we spend a lot of time in creating a good social atmosphere in our company. We do not focus solely on financial targets, but also on the social aspects. I believe that a company can only have good results if all the interests are respected.”
Ferraresi: “Francesco is known in the market for being one of the most honest and careful people in the area of the human resources. He really takes care of his people. He builds up a relationship with all the people that work for him. This is rather unusual, even for an Italian.”