Bryan Furze is on the front line of efforts to make the marketplaces industry more accepting and diverse.
As senior vice president of leasing for WS Development, he sets the strategic direction for the company’s core, 12 million-square-foot portfolio of open-air, grocery-anchored shopping centers. While that means doing plenty of deals with major national chains, Furze also strives to court smaller retailers owned by women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented groups.
He and his 10-person team find some of those operators through WS Development’s Impact incubation program. “Smaller, boutique retailers owned by minorities bring character and a unique experience,” Furze said. “They’re representative of the customers who come to our centers every day.”
In 2017, the Massachusetts native co-founded the Boston Gay Real Estate Group, or BGREG, modeled after networks in New York and Los Angeles. Within months, it grew from a few colleagues meeting for dinner and drinks to a full-fledged service organization with more than 100 members.
Active in ICSC since 2003, Furze belongs to ICSC’s Partners in Diversity & Inclusion initiative and has contributed to a host of industry and ICSC events focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. He also has been a longtime volunteer leader in ICSC government relations throughout New England.
Furze also spoke out on social media, local news and at corporate events about the homophobic harassment his family suffered for many years until the perpetrator, one of their neighbors, was identified and arrested. While he’s outspoken today — and Pride Month now is celebrated widely across the marketplaces industry — the real estate executive remembers when being his authentic self around colleagues and co-workers seemed impossible.
Over his 23-year career, Furze has focused primarily on leasing, development and asset management, working for small, privately owned companies, as well as larger public and private entities. Prior to joining WS Development in December 2020, he was vice president of asset management at Federal in charge of the national REIT’s Boston, New York and Chicago portfolios. WS Development, based in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, “has a broad array of real estate, ranging from small, community-oriented shopping centers on the coast of Maine through 30 acres of urban development in the Boston Seaport to everything in between,” Furze said.
For the first seven or eight years of his real estate career, the University of Notre Dame graduate never talked about being gay. “The idea of a gay man cracking into the business in the early 2000s was difficult for me to fathom,” he recalled. “I had graduated from a very religious, conservative university, and so I worked hard to avoid conversations where I would need to talk about my weekend, my family or anything along those lines.”
That effort was exhausting. It also put a subtle distance between Furze and his contacts and leasing prospects, no small matter in a relationship-driven industry. “It is very difficult to go to a networking dinner and spend three hours sitting next to somebody without talking about their kids, their wife, their husband or their interests outside of work,” he said. “When you don’t do those things, you can come off as cold or aloof.”
Eventually, Furze came out to a few people at his company. “I had decided that I had had enough of living this dual life,” he said. While one or two colleagues expressed concern that Furze could hurt his career, the opposite happened. “As I started to come out to more people, my success soared. By really becoming myself, I was able to have closer relationships and build friendships that I still enjoy today. I used my personality and who I am to drive my success.”
In summoning the courage to take pride in himself, Furze was pleasantly surprised by the support he received from most of his co-workers and peers. “For example, I got married a year after coming out, and they were quite supportive,” he said. Today, Furze encourages other gay people in the industry to embrace who they are. Generally, he said, the business case for such openness, from signing LGBTQ-owned retail tenants to hiring gay C-suite executives to being forthcoming in professional relationships, is stronger than ever. “I tell people coming into our business who are in the LGBT community that they’re holding a membership card that is, candidly, not available to just anybody,” Furze explained. “You should take advantage of it. By embracing who you are, you can craft a unique career path. It gives you the opportunity to meet others who have had a similar experience. It can open doors for you.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Over the years, Furze has learned to take in stride the need to come out repeatedly, as he meets new people in the industry. “It’s as simple as someone at an industry event reaching out and asking you if you’re married,” he said. “You realize, ‘OK, I’m going to come out now for the 15th time tonight.’ Not having to do that is one of the nice things about going to a BGREG event. In fact, sometimes we have straight people attend and they have to come out as straight, which is really fun.”
Higher visibility also can mean facing — and deciding whether to speak out against — bigotry. While Furze prefers to reserve his LinkedIn posts for business only, he shared last year the story of years of harassment his family faced from a neighbor. That person used Furze’s home address to subscribe to magazines and services under extremely offensive and homophobic names. The bullying affected not only Furze but also his husband and their now-8-year-old son. Fortunately, they were able to get a handwriting sample from a subscription card and posted it on Facebook in an attempt to stop the harassment. A town resident identified the perpetrator through handwriting analysis and told police.
The June 2021 arrest sparked considerable media attention. “We woke up one morning and NBC was on our deck,” Furze said. “The first thing I did was call the partners at WS Development and say: ‘As a senior executive of your company, I want you to know that I’m going to be on the nightly news. Here’s why.’ Every one of them said, essentially: ‘This is awful. What can we do?’ There was no concern for anything other than my family and whether we were OK. That was the experience I got from pretty much everywhere in our community and in my professional life.”
Furze continues to receive questions about the high-profile incident from colleagues and peers. While talking about it can bring up painful memories, he feels a sense of responsibility to do so. His family also leveraged the incident to raise more than $35,000 to support the Gender and Sexuality Alliance in the Milton, Massachusetts, public schools, and to establish an anti-bullying scholarship at Milton High School. “I have been in meetings where people I don’t know have said: ‘I saw your story. It really resonated with my family,’” Furze said. “Or they’ll tell me they are struggling less with their child being gay simply because our story opened their eyes.”
He added: “A big part of what I do is try to educate people about how typical our family is, how we don’t negatively affect anyone else’s life at all.” The marketplaces industry can play a role, as well. For example, Furze said, companies should make sure their LGBTQ employees feel included and safe, and they should work to make their shopping centers and C-suites more closely resemble the communities they serve. They stand to improve their performance by doing so. “Minority communities shop,” he said. “Disregarding any population leaves money on the table.”
By Joel Groover
Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today