What started as Sam Moon Trading Co. in 1984 has grown into a real estate empire that's much more than a discount fashion store.
A herd of 18 longhorn skulls sculpted to resemble origami; a web of chalky lightning strikes represent flight patterns out of DFW International Airport; a collage of old floppy disks depict both an Asian girl in traditional garb and a Texas cowgirl: “West of Zen” is a fully immersive experience at the 304-room Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West Hotel.
Meanwhile, less than three miles away, a Sam Moon Trading Co. store offers a treasure trove of accessories and handbags in every possible color, size and style—at rock-bottom prices. It’s hard to believe that tote bags adorned with tiny pom-poms, faux-snakeskin belts glistening with rhinestones and “Gemstone Statement Earrings” are the foundation of a multi-million dollar business; a real estate empire with a portfolio that includes a 15-story hotel that cost $115 million to build.
Sam Moon Trading Co. was founded in 1984 by David Moon. Born in Seoul, Korea, David came to the United States in 1969 as a wig salesman. Today, he is 77 and serves as chief executive and chairman of the Sam Moon Group. It wasn’t until recently, however, that David saw his dreams come true.
“My dad has always wanted two things in his portfolio,” Daniel Moon tells me as we sip whiskey cocktails. “One was a golf course—we acquired Coyote Ridge Golf Club, in Carrollton, in 2005—and the other was a hotel.”
“I remember growing up in a small mom-and-pop shop; my parents did everything from customer service to deposits, to writing checks,” Daniel says.
After Sam graduated from University of North Texas and Daniel from Southern Methodist University, they both went to work for the family business. Today, Sam is the company’s president, and Daniel is vice president and general counsel.
While both their roles have evolved over time, Sam, who enjoys golf and great whiskey, is still in charge of the handbag purchases.
“I just buy whatever’s fashionable; what people like. Right now it’s a lot of tote bags and crossbodies,” he says. He’s clearly got an eye for it. My mother-in-law, who normally favors Louis Vuitton and Prada, still owns a Sam Moon purse she bought 20 years ago at the original store on Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas.
The Moons’ first big break came in the early 1990s when they transitioned from being a regional wholesaler to a retail superstore—but kept the same wholesale prices. It was the advent of “fast fashion”. Business boomed and shoppers arrived by the thousands.
This success brought the Moon’s to an interesting opportunity: real estate. “As we would open a new trading store, we’d develop a shopping center and use Sam Moon as the retail anchor. That way we could benefit from the mass amounts of traffic the Sam Moon Trading stores brought and also control our co-tenancy to make sure we weren’t getting copycats,” Daniel explains.
“Our Dallas and Frisco centers were both 100 percent leased when we opened,” he says. “But, right in between the opening of our Woodlands center [in Houston] and the Fort Worth center, the real estate market crashed. We suffered lower occupancy, just like the rest of Texas.”
For the Moons this economic downturn did not result in financial ruin. The retail stores continued to be profitable, so they stopped expanding their real estate developments and switched gears.
How Sam Moon grew from a mom-and-pop shop into a real estate empire
“Because shopping centers all over Texas had high vacancies, we were able to grow the retail stores through leasing [from other people],” Daniel explains. “We opened in Austin in 2010, Houston and Arlington in 2011, and San Antonio in 2013.”
Within the last five years, with 13 stores in eight locations, the Moons have been hit by the next hurdle.
“The Amazon Effect: more and more people are buying online,” Daniel says.
As a result, they decided not to continue expanding the retail business—despite David Moon once telling D Magazine, “I want to see Sam Moon be a major department store.” Instead, they decided to go into hotels.
That decision brought them to Fehmi Karahan who was working on a bid to develop the land surrounding the old JCPenney campus. Even before the bid was won, Fehmi and the Moons came to an agreement to build the anchor hotel for Legacy West on a simple handshake.
“As developer [of the Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West Hotel] we chose location, size and the style,” Daniel explains. “It’s just like developing a shopping center: you find a site, hire a really good civil engineer, a good architect, a really good construction company and you, usually, end up with a really good building.”
Now that the hotel is open and fully operational, the Moons are largely out of the picture. “We let the management, [Marriott Hotels], take over the day-to-day,” says Daniel.
“We are working on an Autograph Hotel, a boutique brand owned by Marriott,” Daniel says. “We are working with Fehmi and Robert Shaw with Columbus Realty on the last five acres of the restaurant-retail component [of Legacy West]. It’s going to be a joint effort project with Fehmi doing restaurant/retail and offices, Robert Shaw is doing the multi-family and we’re doing the hotel.”
This final piece of Legacy West will be located on the north west side of the development, opposite Legacy Hall.
In Frisco, another Sam Moon hotel is under construction: the Hyatt Regency at Stonebriar Mall.
“We had a site and were ready to move forward, and then [Stonebriar Mall] got approached by Kidzania—a global edutainment company—and they wanted to put their first U.S. location at Stonebriar,” Daniel says, “but in the exact spot our hotel would be.”
Rather than fight the change, the Moons embraced it.
“We had to relocate our hotel. But we thought it was great because the majority of Kidzania guests are travelling from out of town,” Daniel explains.
To the South, the Woodlands development is booming.
“Exxonmobil moved their global headquarters just five miles south of our [Woodlands] site,” Daniel says. “It’s the biggest headquarters in the world based off of square footage and number of employees; that has pushed a lot of business and families.”
Thus, what started in 2003 as a 156,000-square-foot retail center anchored by three Sam Moon stores is currently under construction to become a 300,000-square-foot development with new restaurants, retail, multi-family living, two hotels and office space.
“That was luck,” Daniel says. While that may have been luck, Daniel Moon credits their success to strong family values: the ability to pull together and navigate through tough times.