Paul Dobbins talks about running a mall world

Monday, April 18, 2005
Paul Dobbins is general manager of Westfield Shoppingtown West Park in Cape Girardeau.

After six months on the job, Paul Dobbins said he's learned that running a mall is like being a contestant on "Jeopardy."

"You have to know a little bit about a lot," said Dobbins, who became general manager of Westfield Shoppingtown West Park in September. "A lot of people say their job is different every day, but this one truly is. It's just interacting with so many different types of people inside and outside the organization."

As general manager, Dobbins, 25, oversees day-to-day operations of the mall, which has more than 70 stores. That includes managing the security staff, housekeeping, engineering personnel, marketing and specialty leasing. It also makes Dobbins responsible for the bottom line.

"You're really planning the future of the center," he said.

Dobbins, son of Southeast Missouri State University president Dr. Ken Dobbins, started at Westfield in the summer of 2003. He applied after graduating from Southeast to be a specialty leasing manager, but the company thought he'd be more suited to a management role. He then went through management training in St. Louis.

So far so good, he said. Customer traffic at the mall was up over the holiday shopping season and the year overall in 2004.

The mall was also home to one of the biggest business stories of the year in 2004 when Old Navy announced it would build on to the mall and open an outlet here, meeting one of the biggest consumer demands for new stores in the area.

But being mall manager is not a job without its drawbacks. When stores leave, as happens routinely, there is a public perception that the mall loses some of its luster and causes some to say that it's not as relevant to the retail sector as in years past.

That perception, true or not, is bolstered by the fact that one of the mall's three anchor spots has sat empty for four years, since Shopko closed its retail store there in April 2001 after the Fortune 500 company filed for bankruptcy.

Dobbins talked about these issues, his job, industry trends and the future of the Cape Girardeau mall in a recent question-and-answer session.

BT: How do you train to become a mall manager?

Dobbins: A lot of people don't even realize the mall has a management team. And the way Westfield is starting to do it is recruiting people to go through a management associate program. I was the first one in the region to go through it. It's basically learning the company and the business from the top down, the philosophy behind it instead of getting in and tied down with the day-to-day items right away. You really learn more about what direction we're going, what direction the industry's going, how to lead from that aspect. After going through that program, I was placed in the field. I went up to St. Louis and worked at the Westfield center in West County for three months where I shadowed the manager there. I also traveled to Florida to open a new center that we just purchased. ... The job was more massive than I thought.

BT: What are some issues in the shopping center industry right now?

Dobbins: Obviously, in retail, there's a lot of talk about mergers and a lot of talk about lifestyle centers. When shopping centers were first going up, they basically were brought in as a box. One thing the industry is moving towards is a "hy-style" concept. It's a hybrid, where you sometimes have an entrance to the stores from the exterior as opposed to the interior. That's one of the biggest trends in our industry. We're always exploring options like that.

(Editor's note: Westfield Shoppingtown West County perfectly illustrates Westfield's hybrid style, or "hy-style," development and redevelopment model. The new style combines traditional fashion retailing with so-called "lifestyle concepts" -- dining, entertainment and customer-service amenities.)

BT: Fair or not, the mall takes a credibility hit whenever stores leave. People may say it's cyclical, but are malls as relevant as they used to be? Is marketing the mall increasingly difficult?

Dobbins: When you talk about stores leaving, obviously, when you have 70-plus stores as we do, or over 100 at many of our centers, not every store is going to be successful, as you see in any town and any center. That's unfortunate. But the great part about a shopping center in a closed, regional shoppingtown, is the fact that there is really a community atmosphere you won't find anywhere else. That's definitely our strong suit here. When you go to your big-box retailers that are their own stores, it's definitely a destination point. But when you come here, you can find a lot of what you need and enjoy the company of other people around you and enjoy things like the common areas that you can't find in other places. ... As far as marketing, what we've realized is that a lot of our stores spend a ton of money on exterior advertising. And what we thought would be best for our shoppingtown is concentrating on the customers that are here when they are here. Giving them the best service -- what we call our "wow customer service." That's designed to enhance their experience. ... So when they see a Westfield logo, they know that's exactly what they're going to get.

BT: OK, let's talk about the vacant empty anchor store. It used to be Venture and then Shopko. Why has it taken so long to find a new tenant?

Dobbins: When Shopko filed for bankruptcy, Kimco bought up some of the properties, so Kimco actually owns the building. (Editor's note: Kimco Realty, which brought 23 of the Venture stores when they closed, owns and operates 273 shopping centers, two regional malls, 62 retail store leases and one distribution center in the United States.) So to get a deal done in that building, it would have to be a three-way deal. We'd have to come to an agreement on certain terms, whether it's them selling it back to us and us leasing it or them leasing it and us agreeing to it. ... But we're definitely working and talking with Kimco and some other good retailers. Hopefully, we'll have something soon.

BT: There are other big announcements that may affect traffic at the mall. Sears Grand and Kohl's are opening this year near Westfield. Is that something you pay attention to and does it worry you?

Dobbins: We definitely pay attention to those things. But we think it will be good for the region in terms of drawing more people. But again, we feel we can brings something to the table that they can't. We can bring that community feel. I'm not worried.

BT: What are your future plans?

Dobbins: My goal is to create more of a community center. People don't understand the amount of traffic that comes through here, especially on the weekend. Right now, this is the perfect spot for me. You don't know what you've got until you leave. I went up to St. Louis and I really loved the St. Louis area. I'll probably return there at some point in my life. But coming down here was definitely a good thing, with me getting married and being close to family. It was the right move at the right time.

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