Leslie Zemsky has perhaps the best job title in Western New York. As Director of Fun (and Vice President) of her family-run Larkin Development Group, she is helping infuse "whimsy amongst the warehouses" of what was Buffalo's first business district. A lifelong philanthropist dedicated to numerous nonprofit causes and board memberships, Zemsky began a creative new adventure in 2002 when the family sold its Russer Foods and bought the Larkin Terminal Warehouse at 726 Exchange St. Since then, the area has blossomed into a vibrant community hub powered by her altruistic energy, called Larkinville.
How did alpacas become a signature of Larkinville?
My son started it at his restaurant, the Hydraulic Hearth, with his Alpaca Porter Night - which is a beer that gets released in the fall through Community Beer Works in the back. Then we started inviting alpacas for the annual Ice Festival and there's also the great little shop of woolen goods, so it's been really fun. We also have a lot of weddings now. It goes with the trend of having less of a formal environment in a whimsical outdoor space. Food Truck Tuesdays will return this summer and we have a great lineup of other events planned.
You really encourage your team to get involved in the community, as well as in their work.
Yes. And the nice thing about the Larkin Square component of our business, it's almost as though they're doing it in their business, because there are a lot of community groups they're working with that are doing events or working with the police or the city. There are so many different components that we outreach from our company, there's a lot of opportunities to interact with the community in their professional lives. I love including them at meetings and developing those relationships are really important. I think it's sometimes the younger workforce being a little more hesitant. Sometimes with the younger generation, it's so much easier to do an email. Emails are efficient, but I'm an advocate of in-person talking.
Is that your method of inspiring others?
Yes. My family makes fun of me being so positive. I used to make fun of my father as, "Oh, my gosh, you're so optimistic," but for me, personally, it's just been a good way to go through life. For me it started when I was 28 years old. I chaired the Junior League Show House and I was new to Buffalo and had just gotten married, but I found myself chairing a meeting, in public speaking. So sometimes it can be within your company, but it also can be within volunteer situations that you can have a chance to progress in your leadership. That's worked well for me. Do you just phone in to situations, or do you really step up to the plate and just do it?
I'm newer to this whole work role. My husband recruited me in 2012, when they were opening Larkin Square, and said, "Hey, we could really use some help with the programming." And as my husband has become so involved with the state the last four years, there was potentially a vacuum, so I just kept stepping in. I would say to people, if something interests you, get involved, offer to do it or start doing it.
Now we have a new generation in our family: my daughter's in the business and my son and my son-in-law. My goal is, in a few years I can step back a little bit and refocus on my art because they've stepped in. Whether it's being comfortable to articulate our vision in an interview, or reaching out in a community meeting, or we have a lot of exciting building plans coming up in the next couple of years. I'm encouraging them to be part of the process.
Let's talk about those building plans.
Sure. This is what's next with us for the next two years. Our goal in Larkinville has always been to bring it back to what it was. We're not inventing something. Up until the 1960s, maybe early '70s, it was a very dense neighborhood. There were no empty parking lots or empty lots. A lot more people were living down there. People have become very familiar with our office buildings, our events and restaurants. The next chapter is, we need more residential. It's just like downtown, it needs to continue to build density.
So now we're looking at some of the empty lots we have, some of the former brownfield sites we remediated, and we're looking to build a 70-unit apartment building and bring back storefronts to Seneca Street. I'll be doing reachout on this project. I'm starting to meet with some of the smaller businesses that may be interested in having a storefront presence along Seneca Street. We have Paula's Donuts coming. They're really excited. We worked with them for a couple of years, getting to know them.
And there still is a lot of demand for people to build their companies down there, so we're building another office wing at what's called Mill Race Commons at Seneca and Hydraulic streets, and we're doing a couple of smaller buildings. Right now it's a gravel lot that people are familiar with when they park for events. That will be apartments along Seneca Street and a wing that will be office space along Hydraulic Street. It will have easy access to our cafeteria and things like that, with the idea being we want this to be a 24/7 community. The architectural firm that we're working with is Schneider Architects, who did the Shea's Seneca. We understand each other and it's been a great working relationship.
There's the expression in urban planning, "Live, Work and Play. We really have been the model for that and the next step is creating more of the "Live," more people living down there. We're excited because there are a lot of things to walk to and more to come. We're bringing back the old neighborhood bowling alley. That will be another fun, real community-binding place.
You're growing a community there, but urban planning and construction are traditionally male domains. How do we get more women, like yourself, in those type of roles?
That's a great question. My daughter and I am active in ULI, which is the Urban Land Institute, an international group that's focused on smart growth, smart urban planning, and they're addressing that exact need. They have a women's ULI, who can really be mentors to the mostly younger women, and my daughter is active in that. I think of the women and the men in our company so equally, but I think it's so important - whether you're male or female - to find your voice.
How do you find your voice?
I think some of that comes with age, with practice. You've got to keep practicing. I've found ways to develop my voice - I've been on boards, I've been the only woman on committees and things like that - so now I'm very comfortable. Be comfortable to speak up, but also be comfortable to listen. But it does take time. It's not like, "Here's a magic pill and it'll just happen."
I read things about being 60 as the best decade because you're so comfortable with yourself and I think it's true. I'm not trying to be anything I'm not. I'll never be corporatey, wearing suits. It's hard for me to know what working in a big corporate environment is like because I have not had that experience. I'm very comfortable with myself and I'm still learning a lot. That's, to me, a key of any age, is keep learning, because it gets you inspired.
My husband shared what his father had said to him, that you can find creativity in business. Yes, I have to do some of the nitty gritty - talking to the city, talking about salting our sidewalks, every day there's different components to the job if you're running real estate - but I'm also here wearing my scarf with our "Made in Larkinville" products. I have my own fashion style, usually skirts most of the year. A lot of people have become familiar with the wallpaper in our restaurants, so I've done that. Because we're a privately-owned company, we've been able to create a quirky brand, but one that's well run and well done because we've allowed our creative voices to come into the process.
How do you balance work and family in a family-run business?
Part of the unexpected joy I've found in this career is this family anchor. Our family business is Larkinville, so in some ways we approach philanthrophically the smaller projects. We helped a lot of small businesses to get launched and be able to operate in Larkinville. Then having the next generation working here, my children. Sometimes we'll see each other at work, sometimes we won't.
Yes, I have a leadership role in the company, but I really cringe when people take what I say as a mandate. What I've worked on since I got there is that I'm also one of the team. The whole renaissance that's been happening in Buffalo is really part of our business, as well, so I'm honored and privileged to be part of this family and business that's so focused on how we can do things well, but also make our community better.
That's also important with my children there. It's important that you don't have this privileged class of family. That's a recipe for total disaster and I learned that watching my husband over the years. When we moved into Buffalo in the early 80s, he came into his family business, Russer Foods. It was starting at the beginning, working harder than anyone, and that's how we raised the family. And I think it's really important for my children to see me working really hard and they suceed through their work ethic. We're really careful about not having any of that "sitting on a throne" privilege.
I don't see my husband as much with his state job. We do talk a lot about business when we're together, but we also have a lot to talk about. I've learned so much from him about general work ethic and so on. Howard has inspired me. I don't have a business background. I've learned from his example, that you can't do your job by just sitting in your office. I have to meet the neighbors, I have to develop these relationships, a lot of those type of things. And I've watched how he takes calculated risks by making informed decisions, where we're willing to maybe lose a little money helping restore a building because it will be better for the greater neighborhood.
If your business is so personal, how do you take a break from it all?
I'm a big Instagram fan. That's where I put my personal art. I've been learning animation of illustrations and then I put them on Instagram. About a year ago, I thought it would be so much fun if I could bring movement into my drawings. I draw with pencil and watercolor and gouache, which is a form of watercolor. So I followed a few people on Instagram, which is a great learning tool, studying them. The first ones I made, which are really fun and old fashioned, are literally painting each step of a movement and then taking a photo and then combining it into movie software. Then, my most recent, I took a class at Squeaky Wheel on Adobe After Effects. It's very complex professional software, but I keep learning a little bit more. So now I'm able to animate my little people, or animals, and it just adds that twist.
One of the things that I'm enjoying about it is that it has no value. All of it is for my pure amusement of making these and then sharing them. That is my little hobby and joy. If I'm going skating, I could make a little skater. I have some ideas about animating our food trucks. For me, creativity is a real fuel. I love learning something new. I've learned machine embroidery and how to digitize stitches. And this year I want to keep perfecting those things. That's my whole other life outside of work. What you can learn on YouTube or Skillshare is my evening relaxation. What class do I want to pop on now? Oh, I got a useful tip on that.
It's a big number when you turn 60, but I'm excited about what's ahead. You know, some people ask about where we're looking to retire, but it's just not even in our DNA. I don't ever see retiring.
So how do you define a woman of influence?
I think being an influencer is willing to put yourself out there, to get involved - whether as a volunteer or within your company. It's taking a chance, speaking up - whether it's men or women. Go that extra mile. Wear a lot of hats or learn new things so you can wear a lot of hats, especially in smaller businesses. In our company we talk about "Plus One": What is the extra thing you can bring to the table? Don't be afraid to speak up at meetings, participate and also be sure to listen.
Heels or flats?
Totally flats. I love the look of heels, I just can't. They hurt.
NOTE: Content has been edited. Listen Wednesday mornings throughout March on WBFO and watch online for more "Savvy Over 60." #SavvyWomenOver60