SVI 2013: James Johnson-Piett, Urbane Development

“To me, the most important thing is providing services that matter, and that have sustainability built in, both in terms of environmental impact and longevity.”

“I’m completely in love with cities,” says James Johnson-Piett, one of the leading experts in independent food retail development in the United States.  “Shanghai, Vancouver, Philly… I love cities that are really authentic because they’re where people live, work and play.”  What’s more, James has a passion for driving wealth and opportunity into the parts of cities that are naturally neglected and distressed—a passion that’s at the heart of the “community development venture” he’s built over the last five years.

SVI Hollyhock

James is one of a cohort of BALLE Fellows who’ll be attending the 19th annual Social Venture Institute at Hollyhock September 18-22, where he’ll be presenting his company, Urbane Development, as a live case study.  The forested environment he’ll find on Cortes Island couldn’t be more different from the poor urban area in Philadelphia where James grew up, and where he got firsthand exposure to the importance of the community anchor institutions he now helps to develop.

Food as a catalyst for community development

In the years leading up to the launch of his own business, James says, he worked as “everything from a bond underwriter to a tarot card reader to a screenwriter to a real estate developer.” Clearly, this is a man with a great deal of worldly experience under his belt. But it was his role as a program manager for a $120 million State of Pennsylvania fund, meant to create bridge financing for supermarkets in distressed markets, that opened James’s eyes to the work that became Urbane Development.

In that role, James began to appreciate the idea of food being a catalyst for community and economic development. “Whether we’re talking about how we get it, consume it or are nourished by it,” he says, food plays a central role in community development, as does the influence of those players involved in procuring and purveying food, particularly in lower-income communities.

Five years after its inception, Urbane Development is a leader in neighborhood scale development and the revitalisation of urban commercial and retail assets, providing technical assistance, program development and thought leadership to a wide range of clients and partners.

Physician, heal thyself

Notwithstanding with the success he’s achieved, James admits he could probably use a dose of his own medicine. “I’m the quintessential business consultant,” he says with a chuckle. “I work with others on fixing their financial systems, but I can get so excited about a project, I probably overextend myself, and certain things fall through the cracks—business development, marketing, administration…” If he could start over again, James says he would probably not have hung out his shingle without a partner. “I was fine with the content, but underestimated how much it takes to administer a business. All the things that relate to the ‘not doing what you preach’ get complicated.”

He acknowledges that entrepreneurs always struggle with “the grand compromises you’re making. To me, the most important thing is providing services that matter, and that have sustainability built in, both in terms of environmental impact and longevity.” But, he says, at some point, “the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.”

While he has some regrets about how he managed the nascent stages of his business, he has learned a great deal along the way. His mission has stayed the same—solving problems in distressed markets using economic drivers—but how he approaches it has changed dramatically. While the firm’s focus started out in food retail, the last project they worked on was with a team who has the charter for the first national hip-hop museum.

Asked what he credits with his success to this point, James replies that while he doesn’t hold to many conventions, there is one he stands by: understanding the value proposition of his business. “I appreciate the “good, fast and cheap” analogy—you’re only going to get two.  We focus on creativity and value for the dollar, and having a strong sense of integrity around getting things done, and done properly.”

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