Meet the broker behind Wal-Mart’s expansion in the Washington area


John Meyer of KLNB is at an old Georgia Avenue auto dealership, site of a future Wal-Mart. Among his secrets: Make sure the client has fun. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

M. John Meyer has worked at KLNB, the brokerage firm based in his hometown of Baltimore, since 1994, but began paying his dues before that. As an intern at an office leasing company in Columbia, his first foray into the brokerage business, he cold-called tenants and, because there was no Internet, canvassed nearly every local office building to determine who the tenants were and who was the point of contact for each.

“By the end of the summer I had gone through 95 percent of everything that was in Baltimore County,” he said.

The work also allowed him to see brokers forming close relationships with clients, even small ones. “Those tenants would grow over the years and they had all these success stories about mom and pops that grew to 50,000 square feet and they were bought by all these national contractors,” he said.

Ever been to a Men’s Warehouse in the Baltimore-Washington area? Meyer brokered every one of them.

Meyer still believes in putting in legwork and forming relationships — he drives about 500 miles per week — but his main client today isn’t a mom and pop but the world’s largest retailer and the biggest employer in America, Wal-Mart.

When he became the lead broker on the account, in 2000, the company wanted to open in areas on the outskirts of Washington that were experiencing surges in population. Meyer’s work was rather straightforward: Find enough available land in an area where Wal-Mart wanted to be and fashion one of the chain’s supercenters onto it.

“In those days, it was all about going to every governmental office, every jurisdiction, meeting with the planners and the folks that had all the land records and looking for the land that we could put a store on,” he said.

When choosing between so-called green fields in counties such Culpeper, Frederick, Loudoun and Prince William, the choices aren’t always that complex. “We would be in a van and looking outside and it would be like, ‘What about that?’ ‘Well it’s a farm.’ ‘Well, why can’t I be there?’”

At the tail end of the decade, Wal-Mart’s thinking began to change, Meyer said, for a couple of reasons. First, although Wal-Mart was the dominant retailer nationwide, Target was gaining cache and was taking spots in shopping centers that Wal-Mart resisted.

“At the time Wal-Mart was just very independent, and they had a model and they stuck with it,” Meyer said. “It made it much more challenging for me than it did for the competition.”

Then the recession hit, and many retailers began to retrench. Not Wal-Mart. For the champion of low-cost goods, it was time to step on the accelerator. The chain began considering a wide variety of sites, even those in dense urban areas.

“John and I would talk about Wal-Mart deals for years, years and years. At that time they weren’t flexible,” said Grant M. Ehat, principal of developer JBG Rosenfeld Retail. “I was sort of resigned that we were never going to do a Wal-Mart deal.”

Ehat eventually did get a deal to build a Wal-Mart in Alexandria and he is working on two others. Wal-Mart itself now plans four stores in the District and two others in Northern Virginia, in Tysons Corner and the Dulles Expo Center.

Meyer’s persistence was not lost on those watching Wal-Mart pursue its D.C. locations. “I’ve been meeting with him every year for the last nine years,” said Keith Sellars, senior vice president of development and retail for the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership, which markets the city to retailers.

The basic principles of retail brokerage have not changed since Meyer got into it. As he describes it: “We’re basically representing retailers generally that are not from the region coming into Washington-Baltimore, and my goal is to make sure that they understand everything that they need about the locations, the demographics, the shopping trends, and we come up with a retail strategy for where they should put their stores.”

Meyer knows his clients wake up in a hotel many mornings to be driven around by him in a 15-seat rental van, looking at vacant lots and empty buildings before they shove off to the airport. So he tries to make their time in Washington as unique and memorable as possible, showing them the good local places to eat, suggesting a hotel with a quirk or taking them on tours of the National Mall. In short, even though his clients represent brands that are often trying to provide exact replicas of an experience at each and every one of their stores, Meyer does not want them to experience that when they visit him.

“Most of these guys are traveling all over the country,” Meyer says. “I mean, their life is on the road. I view it as if you’re going to come to our market, I want to make this as enjoyable as possible. I want this to be fun for you.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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