Bob Hart, General Manager of the King of Prussia Mall, speaks with MONTCO Today about his West Virginia roots, moving around frequently when he was a kid, and how he used his athletic ability to make friends.
Hart describes his retail career that began when he walked into a local K-Mart, what was then the fastest-growing retail chain in the country, and landed a job in that company’s management program.
After four years, Hart decided he didn’t want to be managing a retail store after all and landed a job with Kravco, a King of Prussia mall management company, a position that put him on the path to becoming King of Prussia Mall’s general manager in 2004.
Hart talks about the day-to-day challenge of running a sprawling mall with 400 stores and 50 restaurants, equating the experience to running Disney World, saying, “It’s a show every day.” He also provides a glimpse into the mall’s future plans, including what his company plans to do with the recently vacated JCPenney’s store.
Where did you grow up, Bob?
I was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia in 1958 the oldest of five children. My mother was a conventional stay-at-home mom who took care of the family. My father, who was an up-and-comer for Union Carbide, got transferred a lot. Growing up, I lived in a couple of places in Ohio, Pittsburgh, Niagara Falls, Connecticut as well as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Geneva, Switzerland. While I lived in West Virginia only briefly, my roots are there.
In all that moving around, did you have a favorite place?
We lived in Pittsburgh two different times; the first time being in the early 1970’s when the Pirates and Steelers were so good. I saw Roberto Clemente play and saw the Steelers’ legendary ‘Steel Curtain’ defense emerge. I still love Pittsburgh! I have Direct TV and watch every Steelers game.
How did all that moving around impact you?
Growing up, I was very involved in sports. Participating in team sports made it very easy to make new friends in all of the places that we lived. I played four years in football, wrestling, and baseball at three different high schools.
Were you any good at any of those sports?
I thought I was good in all of them! I continued to wrestle in college, so I was a good enough wrestler to compete on the college level. My goal, however, was to be a baseball player. Immediately after I graduated from high school, my dad transferred to Switzerland. We found a college for me called the American College of Switzerland. Instead of playing baseball on a college team here in the states, I spent my freshman year at a ski resort in the Alps.
What other memories stay with you from childhood?
Every time my family moved to a new place my dad would get us involved in sports. I played a lot of little league baseball, basketball and football, and my dad was often my coach.
What was your first job, Bob?
I delivered the Plain Dealer newspaper in Bay Village in Cleveland’s western suburbs and eventually added a second newspaper to my route. In those days, I was responsible for delivering the paper as well as collecting the money from the people on my route. I developed nice relationships with several customers and ended up getting half a dozen lawns to cut. I was doing alright for a twelve-year-old.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school and college?
I like rock and southern rock including Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, Neil Young, Boston, and Peter Frampton. I was anti-disco! My wife and I saw Elton John play in Las Vegas one time and we were both big fans of his.
My uncle in West Virginia introduced me to blue grass music which I still enjoy.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Lynchburg, a small liberal-arts college in Lynchburg, Virginia.
It is a good liberal arts college and had a good baseball program. However, I lost some of my skills in the year I spent in Switzerland and my baseball career never got off the ground.
Otherwise, was Lynchburg a good choice for you?
I really liked Lynchburg College. The school had good professors and a small student body of just 2,800; a perfect size for me. I have a lot of good friends from Lynchburg College.
How did you get from Lynchburg to King of Prussia?
I had good grades coming out of college, but the country was going through tough economic times when I graduated in 1980. I had a few job offers but none that I really liked. One of my friends got a job with K-mart, which back then was the top retailer in the country. I walked down to the local K-mart, filled out an application and was hired into their management program. I started in Roanoke before being transferred to Waynesboro, Virginia, then to Pittsburg and South Jersey all in four years.
By that point, K-mart’s growth had begun to slow. I realized while I liked retail, I didn’t want to be managing a store. I started exploring other career paths and got a job as assistant mall manager at Montgomery Mall in Montgomeryville, PA. At 26 years-old, I was one of the youngest managers at Kravco, the company who owned the mall.
Was the new job a better fit for you, Bob Hart?
I liked it a lot! There are so many different facets of running a mall. I was responsible for leasing, collecting rents, controlling expenses, property management and customer service, which is an extremely important aspect of running a mall. There’s something different every day. While malls had been around for a while, my generation of management brought new and innovative changes to the business.
Short term leasing is one example. Short term leasing is when malls place short term tenants into otherwise vacant stores and carts and kiosks in the mall’s common areas. Short-term leasing income is ‘found’ money that goes directly to the bottom line. Back then, malls all had short term leasing programs, but they weren’t being maximized. I dug into it and found ways to optimize the programs which were already on the books.
Did managing a mall at 30 years old come naturally to you or was it a stretch?
I was trying to prove myself to Kravco that I was the best possible manager that I could be.
What motivated you?
I’m your typical Type A personality. I may have a soft edge about me, but under the veneer, I’m driven to do the best job I can.
How long did you stay in Montgomeryville?
After nine months, Kravco promoted me to Palmer Park Mall, a small mall in Easton, PA. After a short stint there, I was promoted again to Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I then moved to Oxford Valley Mall, and Kravco promoted me to district manager responsible for a number of malls plus the one I was directly managing.
In 2004, when Kravco and Simon merged, the then-manager of the King of Prussia Mall left the company. Management offered me the manager’s position. Since King of Prussia was the best mall around, I grabbed it.
How is King of Prussia Mall different today than when you arrived in 2004?
The mall is constantly changing and every year is a different experience. A big change happened when Simon acquired Kravco in 2011.
Not only did Simon retain all of the mall’s staff but they have been fully committed to KOP and continue to invest money to make the center the best it can be. This includes investments in infrastructure and capital projects that the public doesn’t see.
At the same time, we are still innovating and exploring ways to enhance customer experience. When we did, the major expansion linking the two malls in 2016, we added concierge service near our high-end stores. That had never been done before! We’re also offering coffee, snacks and newspapers to customers entering the mall.
Besides enhancing customer experience, what are you doing to keep shoppers coming to King of Prussia Mall?
Leasing is key. We have over 400 stores and 50 restaurants in the mall many of which are not found in other shopping centers in the area. Every year we’re putting 20 to 25 new tenants into the mall. The new stores and restaurants keep the experience fresh and exciting.
King of Prussia Mall is a destination. People travel long distances to take in the variety of stores and restaurants not found in shopping centers close to where they live.
What is the biggest challenge of running a mall like King of Prussia, Bob?
Put simply, our biggest challenge is operating the center at its highest and best use. Simon is a public company with a responsibility to its shareholders. As one of Simons’ most valuable properties, we want to exceed our leasing and financial goals. We’ll do that by providing the best possible shopping experience every day for our customers.
Running a mall is similar to Disney World. It’s a show every day. The mall has to be clean, safe and provide outstanding customer service every day.
What’s on the mall’s horizon?
We are excited about the plans we’re developing for the old JC Penney’s store. When JC Penney’s closed their store this year, we began meeting internally to flesh out ideas for what to do with that space. There’s a real sense of excitement on our team and in the company on how the plans are unfolding. Although the plans haven’t been finalized, we’re looking at all options including possibly tearing the store down and turning the space into an open-air center.
We will have over 20 new stores and restaurants open at the mall in 2018. One of the new stores is Zara, a Spanish retailer, which is opening a 30,000 sq. ft. store in 2018. In order to create the space for Zara, we had to move a number of successful existing retailers into new locations. Sephora, Footlocker and Kids Footlocker all opened new prototype stores this fall.
Restaurants continue to be in high demand at the mall. True Foods and Mistral are two restaurants that recently opened at the mall. 5 new restaurants are slated to open in 2018 including Eddie V’s Prime Seafood on a pad site along Rt 202.
Outside of work, Bob Hart, how do you spend your time?
My wife and I are very family oriented. We’ve been married for 36 years and have four kids and four grandchildren. Our youngest graduated from college last spring, got a job and recently moved out of the house.
I learned to ski when we moved to Switzerland and our family have been avid skiers ever since. Our one daughter lives in Colorado, and we make sure we get out to see her every winter for a skiing vacation.
I’m an active person who has run my whole life. I work out and swim at LA Fitness and am considering doing a mini triathlon in the future.
Finally, Bob, what is the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
I go back to what my parents taught me to work hard, give 100-percent in everything you do, be honest, and take responsibility for your mistakes. That’s the way my parents raised us and how my wife and I raised our kids.
I don’t recall my parents ever saying those words all at once. Rather, they conveyed those principals to us by the example they set and by how they lived their lives.
*This Leadership feature of Mr. Bob Hart ran on September 29, 2017.