Forbes – 22nd September 2019
Burlington Arcade is one of those places where time stands still. Goes backwards even. Those who tread the marble-floored walkway follow 200-year-old footsteps. Those who gaze up to the glazed roof above get a glimpse of the same slice of London sky that looked down on the arcade when its doors first opened, back in March 1819. Today, as then, enticing window displays invite passersby to take a step closer and, as they linger, they can be forgiven for forgetting the century never mind the time. Yet, for those behind the scenes, Burlington Arcade’s bicentenary is an unforgettable year, not least for the billionaire Rueben brothers who purchased the Mayfair landmark little more than a year ago for over $390 million.
Now in their 70s and with a combined net worth of $15.3 billion according to media reports, brothers David and Simon Reuben are veterans of the real estate and investment worlds, with interests as diverse as data centers, racecourses and energy. The siblings were born in Mumbai into a Baghdadi family with longstanding ties to India, and then relocated to the UK as children. Laying down roots in England, David went on to join a scrap metal business while Simon started out in carpets, before investing his income in property. The rest, as they say, is history, and as their wealth has grown, so too has their privacy. These days, they share little in the public domain, but when they snap up venues like Burlington Arcade, it’s difficult to go unnoticed.
In a headline-grabbing deal, the Reubens purchased the arcade from New York-based property company, Thor Equities, and European private equity firm, Meyer Bergman, who had paid £104 million ($163 million) for it back in 2010. Beyond the big numbers, it is difficult to coax more detail out of the brothers, but stepping into the limelight just this once, David Reuben’s son Jamie—the man in charge at Burlington Arcade—explains that the investment was a chance not to be missed. “It is extremely rare to get the opportunity to buy such a historic building,” says the 33-year-old, “It’s one of the world’s oldest and most iconic shopping destinations.”
Taking the helm at what counts as England’s oldest and longest-covered shopping arcade could be a daunting task for a young businessman, but Reuben’s age belies a wealth of experience. As a property developer, he has been behind the redevelopment of significant chunks of West End real estate, and he has a strong foothold in the world of finance too, serving as Managing Partner of Melbury Capital and Vice-Chairman of the advisory board of the U.K.’s Metro Bank. Rounding out his eclectic CV, he is also a director at Arena Racing Company and Queens Park Rangers Football Club.
Now, as Burlington Arcade celebrates its 200-year anniversary, the vision is to evolve the business, while staying true to the arcade’s legacy. According to Reuben, that means continuing to curate the most interesting brand mix and offering customers an experience that is not just special, but unique. It sounds like PR speak, but with shops offering rare vintage Rolexes, one-of-a-kind scents and clothing fit for film stars, it’s a statement that’s hard to refute—and with four million visitors per year, the formula seems to be working.
In fact, with brands such as Chanel and Manolo Blahnik standing proudly next to independent jewelers and timepiece specialists, the Reubens are following the very same formula concocted back in 1819. According to original records, Burlington Arcade was designed “for the sale of jewellery and fancy articles of fashionable demand, for the gratification of the public.” Its construction was commissioned by Lord George Cavendish, Earl of Burlington, who wanted to create a safe-haven where his wife could shop, away from the crowded streets of London. The arcade also served as an effective if extravagant way of preventing neighbors from tossing the remnants of oysters— the era’s most popular fast-food—into his gardens at the adjacent Burlington House, now the Royal Academy of Arts.
As a further deterrent to unsavory characters, Burlington Arcade was patrolled by private police officers known as Beadles, who to this day stand guard at the arcade’s Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens entrances, making them the oldest and smallest police force in the world. Today, while safety remains their top priority, their role is less about law enforcement and more about ensuring a positive experience for all who enter.
“You see the whole of humanity walking through here,” says Head Beadle, Mark Lord. “It’s one of the great things about the job—something they can’t put in your wage packet!” Over the 17 years that he has been at Burlington Arcade, Lord has had more encounters with the public than he can remember. “People seem to feel safe telling me things they wouldn’t usually tell a stranger,” he says. It’s a phenomenon that he attributes to the uniform; it made him feel a little self-conscious when he first took the job. Now he doesn’t feel right without it.
The Head Beadle is a larger-than-life character. Everyone seems to know him. Even people he has never met walk by and acknowledge him as if they were old friends. To the south Londoner, being approachable and welcoming to everyone who sets foot inside the arcade is part of the job—but so too is making visitors feel safe. “If someone is bothering you, you can just speak to one of us and we can have a quiet word,” explains Lord. The Beadles even escort shoppers to their cars if necessary. “Some of the watches in here are £1 million a go,” he points out.
If the merchandise on offer is valuable, the arcade’s long-standing traditions are priceless, if a little amusing by modern standards. Whistling, for instance, is still forbidden, though there are two notable exceptions. One is Sir Paul McCartney who was once stopped from whistling while passing through. The other is a boy from East London who was having trouble at school and was promised a license to whistle in exchange for a good report.
Whether the Reubens have the right to whistle their way through the arcade remains unknown, but their affection for their investment is clear. “I have many memories of Burlington Arcade through the years…from buying gifts to wandering through on the way to meetings,” recalls Jamie Reuben. These days, his visits are professional in nature, though legend has it that the owners sometimes stop by to have their shoes shined—one of the arcade’s trademark services and a great way to observe goings-on. From Beadles and shoe-shiners, Burlington Arcade is underpinned by its history, but the owners are careful to keep things current. “With such a historical property, it is important to preserve its history but also to ensure it is kept modern and attractive to visitors,” says the young Reuben. Most recently, that has involved a sleek website, new sound system and an increased drive on the food and beverage front—a move that resulted in an F&B pop-up shop from a Michelin-starred restaurant.
This mix of old and new is what appeals to many of the arcade’s tenants, including N.Peal, a cashmere clothing company that has been present in Burlington Arcade since 1936. “It is in the heart and soul of our brand … a place to pause and savor, removed from the hustle and bustle of London life,” says Adam Holdsworth, the firm’s managing director. Over the eight decades-plus that N.Peal has existed in the arcade, all manner of customers have walked through its doors. However, the most notable purchase so far has been “a significant number” of cashmere sweaters, worn by James Bond in the film Skyfall.
And the arcade’s cinematic connection doesn’t end there. A few doors down, The Vintage Watch Company has been adorning the wrists of A-listers with rare Rolexes since 1995. “The rarest we have sold have been the Paul Newman Daytona models made in the late 1960s and ‘70s and famously worn by the actor every day,” explains David Silver, the company director. Currently, the shop has one on sale for £250,000 (approx. $326,400) but there’s plenty on offer for those with more modest budgets. And of course, there’s no harm in a little window shopping—a popular pastime of visitors to the arcade. “Customers come from all over the world to visit the arcade and ogle at our unique display of watches,” laughs Silver.
For its part, Burlington Arcade’s luxury leather label, Strathberry, has its own share of celebrity appeal and counts the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, amongst its fans. When the new royal was spotted clutching the brand’s Midi Tote bag, the line sold out in 11 minutes flat. Now, as the company goes from strength-to-strength, Strathberry sees the Georgian shopping gallery as the ideal location from which to grow. “Burlington Arcade captures the spirit of Strathberry and is the perfect setting for our first standalone store” says owner, Leeanne Hundleby.
The fact that fresh, young companies are choosing to grow their brands from Burlington Arcade is a powerful statement: the arcade is two centuries old, but it’s still the place to be. Now, in recognition of its landmark year, a campaign is underway. “We have worked closely with our retailers to create an exclusive ‘Burlington Moments’ collection, which celebrates 200 years within the arcade,” explains Jamie Reuben. A smart marketing ploy perhaps, but in a nation where high-street commerce is in crisis and retailers are forced to focus ruthlessly on their bottom lines, the decision to pause and reflect on the past is a breath of fresh air.