It was April 2011 when Brickell Key developer Swire Properties announced it bought 9.1 acres in Brickell for creating a new mixed-use development in downtown. At the time, the world was still reeling from the 2008 recession; jobs were scarce and real estate was in an abyss. The announcement, by then-president Steve Owens, brought badly needed investment and confidence that helped jump-start Miami’s recovery.
In the years since, Brickell City Centre has materialized as a Brickell-area beacon. Office space in two buildings, measuring 260,000 square feet, is now fully leased. More than 90 shops — including Saks Fifth Avenue — are open. Reach condo is 95 percent sold and sister condo Rise is about 60 percent sold. Restaurants such as Casa Tua Cucina, sister to pricey Miami Beach celeb haunt Casa Tua, are drawing culinary-focused diners, and a massive Italian food hall is just weeks away. Quinto La Huella restaurant, a Uruguay transplant, and the views from rooftop bar Sugar have helped make East Hotel a favorite stop.
Plans are underway for a second phase of the project, but no timeline has been released.
Owens retired in January 2017. Keiran Bowers, 44, was named president of Swire Properties, part of the Hong Kong-based conglomerate that includes Cathay Pacific Airways, hotels, luxury apartments, marine services, and retail and office developments throughout Asia. He arrived in Miami about 18 months ago. Now that he has had time to settle in, we talked with him about his background and the project’s future.
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Q: Tell us about your background. Where are you from?
A. My father is from Stoke-on-Trent, a city in central England, and my mother is from a small area near the village of Burnham, England. I was born in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of England.
I spent a few years in Staffordshire and then went off to the East Midlands to attend a boarding school in Derbyshire, England. Then I moved to the southeast region to attend the University of Oxford.
Q: Yours sounds like an American story: policeman father, first in your family to go to university. That’s somewhat common in the U.S. but not in England. How did that come about?
A. My father was a policeman and retired as the superintendent of the Staffordshire Police Force. My mother was a great saleswoman. She started off her career by selling clothes and Tupperware, and later selling memberships.
My parents were always strong supporters of education. As a result of their hard work and diligence, my sister and I were privileged to have the opportunity to attend a leading university.
Q: You and your mom once applied for the same job. What was it, and who got it?
A. My mother wanted to encourage me to apply to a sales position. The job entailed selling memberships to a health club in a town nearby us. We both applied to the position. While I only made it to the second round, my mother proceeded to the final round and was offered the position. She had previous experience in sales, and I was not there yet.
Q: You studied Japanese in school. Why? What other languages do you speak?
A. When I first started looking into what I wanted to study at the University of Oxford, I realized I wanted to do something entirely different than the traditional business areas, including banking, management consultancy and accounting.
I ended up studying Japanese history and language due to the multiple opportunities available in the program, including living in Japan for a year, which was incredibly striking to me.
Aside from Japanese, I am trilingual and a half, as I am fluent in English, French and a bit of Chinese. I claim I can speak Dutch, although my wife would disagree and that’s where the half comes in.
Q: How did you come to join Swire, the Hong Kong-based company that owns Cathay Pacific Airways and developments including Brickell City Centre?
A. In my final year at the University of Oxford, the school held a career fair where hundreds of companies participated from many different industries, including worldwide operations such as Swire. A good friend of mine suggested that I meet with the executives from Swire, as the company’s objectives aligned with what I was looking for, an Asia-focused company with lots of different businesses that I could try. Swire is a diversified conglomerate with multiple assets. They are the largest shareholders of Cathay Pacific, own Swire Coca-Cola, and develop multiple trendsetting projects.
I thought they were a great company and did not hesitate to apply for a position. Thankfully, I was successful and joined Swire right out of Oxford, where I had the option of having a varied career and learning from strong, knowledgeable industry veterans.
Q: How long have you been at Swire, and what different roles have you played there?
A. I have worked with Swire since 1998. I started the first 10 years of my career working with the airline Cathay Pacific. I began as an assistant to the general manager in Hong Kong, moved to a sales position in Tokyo and then held several management positions in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands. I finally made my way back to Hong Kong to join the planning and strategy department for Cathay Pacific. It was an exciting time for the company as it bought Dragonair, the largest shareholder in China National Aviation Co., in 2006.
In 2008, I moved into Swire Properties and took the helm of INDIGO, a mixed-use development with office and retail space in Northeast Beijing, and Cityplaza, a thriving commercial hub in one of Hong Kong’s most exciting and desirable communities.
As time passed, I was asked to make another move in my career and assist with the opening of Brickell City Centre. I flew to Miami in August 2016 and moved into the presidency role in January 2017 to oversee the company and continue expanding our presence in the United States.
Q: You’ve worked in many different countries. Which ones impressed you the most?
A. With Swire, I have worked in nine countries in 18 years. My career started in Hong Kong and has taken me across the world, from Tokyo, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Benelux, Scandinavia to Miami.
I loved living in Japan. I think the country is impressive and culturally dynamic. Being fluent in Japanese allowed me to get around easily and work there. I also loved living in Sri Lanka. It is a rural area where the locals appreciate the basic things in life.
Amsterdam holds a special place in my heart. I strongly believe it is one of the most-beautiful cities in Europe with the most-impressive museums.
Q: What have you learned from your international experiences, and how do they apply to your work here in Miami?
A. The key thing that I have learned is to be aware of cultural sensitivity. You have to be adaptive to the people you work with and your neighborhoods. I have applied this lesson with my team here given that Miami is a diverse workforce.
For example, in Miami there is a strong Latin American community; however, it is important to recognize that each nationality that falls in this group is distinct. Every culture should be respected and accredited for their own individualities. It is a great challenge to build a cohesive team with such different backgrounds.
Q: Your predecessor at Swire Properties, Steve Owens, conceived and launched Brickell City Centre and EAST, Miami Hotel. What is your plan for taking them forward?
A. Steve Owens was the mastermind behind Brickell City Centre and EAST, Miami Hotel, and it has been a phenomenal achievement for him, the team and the company. The project is an achievement in innovation and artistry.
Swire’s original vision for BCC was to create a destination that added to the city’s vibrancy and created an urban oasis. My plan is to ensure that Brickell City Centre and EAST, Miami Hotel live to its fullest potential, and I think month-by-month we see that vision come to fruition.
Additionally, Swire likes to build on its existing and/or previous successes in every sense of the word. In Miami, we are looking to build on the capital that we have invested in Brickell City Centre by continuing to build on the project and in the community, all while ensuring it ties back into the original vision.
Q: There’s quite a lot of upscale retail now in the downtown corridor. Are your retailers seeing the numbers they had hoped for? How do you compete?
A. The retailers are under a lot of pressure nationally and some internationally, for a number of reasons. I believe being a part of the Brickell City Centre experience is a compelling offer to our retailers. We have a good, diversified mix of stores with a very high-street feel to it, with brands such as Zara, Apple and Lululemon mixed with an aspirational element, with brands like Saks Fifth Avenue and Coach.
In terms of the numbers, we are seeing a good, positive trend. I think we will continue to expand our retail plans here.
Regarding competing, when Swire designs a mixed-use development or retail center, we are very design-led, which means we like to create that “WOW” factor on a human-level. With Brickell City Centre, the key to our success was focusing on the experiential aspect.
Swire built the project to be a destination where people can gather, specifically with the new food hall, La Centrale, opening in the retail center. We have been very successful positioning Brickell City Centre as a true mixed-use development with a work, live and play lifestyle. BCC has become the place where people aspire to be close or connected to.
Q: During this summer’s storms, the Brickell area suffered several floods. How did that affect BCC? How much does that concern you?
A. The Brickell area was the highlight in the news during Hurricane Irma. Brickell City Centre was barely affected by the storm; it only had minor cosmetic damages. Brickell City Centre was designed above and beyond to undergo any measures. Part of Swire’s DNA is to build projects to withstand any environmental and economic factors. We are long-term investors!
Once the city lifted the curfew, we were ready to open on Monday. Where the storm really affected us was having our employees travel back to work on Monday, as many were out of town. As a whole, we decided to open and welcome the community on Tuesday.
It is concerning to see how a storm can impact the area, but I do believe it is on the radar of the city and new mayor Francis Suarez to really tackle this issue and protect the Downtown/Brickell area, which is the commercial beating heart of Miami-Dade.
Q: Miami is sometimes compared to Hong Kong, as each city is something of a capital in its region. Do you think that comparison is valid? How or how not?
A. I think the comparison between Miami and Hong Kong is very relevant and accurate. Both cities serve as the nexus of trade between two major commercial continents.
Both Hong Kong and Miami are located in strong countries with the advantage of the rule of law, where other countries do not have the reinsurance of a firm legislature.
Both cities are service-oriented with the banking, legal, financing and accounting industries continuing to grow. Overall, both cities are well-connected internationally, have a diverse culture and strong ambition. I think it is great that Swire is a part of both stories as they continue to expand.
Q: How many employees does Swire have in Miami?
A. Swire has under 500 employees in Miami, including Brickell City Centre’s EAST, Miami hotel. As a whole, Brickell City Centre is responsible for approximately 6,000 jobs.
Q: What’s Swire’s view of property values in the region, and what’s next for the company here?
A. On the residential side, there is a pullback in the market at the moment; however I do not see a decrease in value, certainly in our experience prices are being well held. I think there is a long-term demand for properties in Miami, as it is a people city.
There is more hotel supplies coming to Miami over the next few years. The city has strong fundamentals to sustain this market with the cruise trade and commercial growth.
Regarding office spaces, there will be a tight supply over the next few years with vacancy rates decreasing and rents increasing, which is looking positive.
From a national perspective, retail continues to undergo pressure. Although, we are beginning to see clear trends with emerging brands successfully operating online and in stores. Swire Retail value is looking on the upside.
Our goal for the upcoming years is to continue expanding while sticking to our coherent set of principles: integrity, originality, long-term focus and quality. Swire is committed to the people and will continue to enhance communities for years to come.
Q: How long have you been in Miami now? What has surprised you about it?
A. I have been in Miami for over a year now, and I think the international perspective of the city is based on a resort feeling. People envision the beaches and the enjoyment of life.
When I talk to a number of natives, they express their feelings toward Miami and envision it as a very serious commercial hub, and I agree. I think that is one of the untold stories of Miami, and I hope it is emphasized moving forward.
Miami is a city with lots of commercial aspiration and it is not defined by a single, well-known operation. One of the most-surprising aspects of the city is that there is a sufficient amount of business interest here, which is turning Miami into one of the major player cities.
Q: As someone who has lived in many places, what do you think are Miami’s strengths, and what are its challenges?
A. Miami’s strengths are that the city is incredibly energetic and ambitious. The city is filled with diversity, and I think we should all continue to add to that. Miami’s business and political leaders are willing to take it to the next level to really make it one of the first/second tier cities in the U.S.
Miami’s biggest challenge is its infrastructure aspect of transportation. The city is growing rapidly, and without sufficient investment in transportation it will become incredibly difficult to maneuver throughout the spread-out city.
The city’s future planning needs to focus on infrastructure investments, similar to how Hong Kong and Singapore have developed transportation around its urban density. Those two cities have a good model to work from, as they have a rising urban population.
Job title: President, Swire Properties Inc
Age: 44 years old
Education: undergraduate in Pembroke College of the University of Oxford and master’s degree and diploma in real estate from Reading University
Personal info: Married with three children
Hobbies: Playing rugby, cycling, water sports