Growing up on a farm in the Roseland district, Kim James initially pursued a career as a cashier. She worked at all the IGA stores in Brandon and was head cashier when IGA opened its location in the Brandon Gallery, now The Town Centre. But in 1985, she took a job in the office at Shoppers Mall and has been there ever since. She became the mall's General Manager a couple of decades ago, and while she adores her home life with her husband Bob in Alexander, and continues to curl and play golf, she still can't wait to get to work every day. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD / BRANDON SUN)
You came to the mall, if I’m not mistaken, as an administrative assistant. Is that right?
Yes — started off as the admin assistant in 1985. And it’s kind of funny because two weeks after I started, I got married. So it’s very easy to remember what anniversary it is because it’s the same one every year! And next year it’ll be 30 years at the mall and 30 years married.
Isn’t that something! What was it that intrigued you about the mall? Because it seems to me you’ve always been business-focused.
I guess I have. Interesting thing about when I first started off — I thought I was getting into like a secretarial position, typing letters and that sort of thing. And right after I started, my new manager said to me, ‘I need you to find cows.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean ‘cows’?’ And he said, ‘We’re going to have a cow-milking competition in the mall and you need to find cows.’
So that was my first job to do. And I remember calling my mother and saying, ‘Help! How do I find cows?’
That’s hilarious! But it’s not uncommon — well, but it is! — to come in as an admin assistant and work your way up to general manager. And you’ve been general manager for how long now?
Since 1993. It’s kind of a unique story. When I started here as the admin assistant, I went through eight managers in eight years. I was number nine and I’ve been here ever since.
I don’t know how malls operate or anything like that, but this is a massive, massive property, Kim! What’s it like on a daily basis? I bet no two days are the same …
You know, that’s probably the best part about this job. No two days are the same. It’s challenging, it’s rewarding.
Challenging why and rewarding why?
You meet so many different people — there’s such a diversity of folks that you work with, from your merchants to customers to the team that runs the mall. It’s just different all the time.
It’s such a people place. And that’s one of the things we’re really proud of with the mall, is how it’s such a community place — it’s a community meeting place. We have our regulars in the food court and we have our walking club — there’s 200 people in our walking club. We have community booths and we do all kinds of charitable events. And it’s really important to us to give back to the community and to be there for the community and have a place for them to use.
I can’t conceive of being in charge of this massive amount of real estate, though. There have to be plenty of things that go right, but because facilities wear out, because there’s always new construction, there’s got to be things breaking down — I can’t imagine the list of stuff that just pops up on a daily basis.
And it definitely does! I think that’s what makes the job so interesting is that you never know what’s going to happen from day to day. We’ve had all kinds of challenges here. But the big thing is the team you build around you. And I’ve got a fabulous team here. From our operations manager to our specialty leasing manager to our marketing director to our accounts administrator, they’re all great. And my administrative assistant has been with me for 17 years. Lee, my Girl Friday, is always there and so helpful. So I just have a fabulous team. Our Guest Services offers amazing customer service — we’re really proud of the service that those girls provide. Evelyn is the head of Guest Services and she’s fabulous. So it’s the team that makes it easy for me.
Is it ever daunting, or is it just exciting for you when you walk in every day and look at the expanse of this place?
I love my job. I really love to be challenged. I’m not one to just sit in an office and be bored. I’ve got to be busy. And I’m VERY busy in my position here! But it’s just such a great place. When people come from head office and we tour through the mall, it’s amazing how many people I say hello to. And they can’t quite grasp that. ‘Do you really know all these people? Or are you just friendly?’ And I say, ‘A little bit of both.’
That’s a Brandon phenomenon, too — as so many people say, you can’t go anywhere here without seeing somebody you know. And if you’re going to see anybody you know, it’s going to be in Shoppers Mall! You mentioned the folks coming from head office — it makes me wonder if things have changed much in big business in terms of females in high-ranking positions. Are you a rarity as a woman who’s general manager of a mall?
You know, in Morguard, the company that I work for, off the top of my head I can honestly say there are more women GMs than men.
Is that unusual?
I don’t know if it’s unusual or not. It’s not unusual in our company whatsoever.
Was it in your earlier days?
Probably at the beginning, 20-some years ago. It probably was a minority. But it sure isn’t now — not at all.
Well, that answer surprises me, but encourages me. Now those in the know say that youngsters should prepare for not just one career, but five or six across the course of their lifetimes. To have stayed in one job, one career, so long — you like challenges, but did you find enough challenges at the mall that you didn’t feel the need to move on to do anything else?
I’ve never been complacent in my position. I’ve seen SO many changes in the last 29 years. It’s been amazing. Changes within the mall and changes with what we do in this office. Back when I started here, I used to hand-deliver all the memos to every store. And that’s crazy to think of now! These days we’re trying to go paperless and do it all through email. But changes keep you excited about your job and liking what you do, and I have never been interested in looking for another job because this one is so rewarding.
Rewarding in terms of …? You mentioned the people aspect, but there must be more to it than that.
The people aspect of it, but also the fast pace of it, and the unknown of, ‘Gee — what’s going to happen today?’ The team up in our office says that all the time: ‘Gee — I wonder what’s going to be thrown at us today?’ Because something always is. You just never know. I mean, I had a car drive through the centre in the time I’ve been here. Who would have thought THAT would have happened? And just to be clear, it wasn’t planned! You just don’t know.
So what’s on the horizon for the mall?
Our biggest announcement is Bath & Body Works, and everyone is so thrilled to hear that they’re coming. We’re very excited — we can’t wait. At the very latest, they’ll be opening in June and gearing for possibly May, so that’s great — they’re the next big one for us. Of course, we had Target open last year in May. And boy — when I started here, it was Woolco, so I’ve seen it go from Woolco to Wal-Mart to Zellers and now to Target. And that’s been a big change. And we’re really thrilled to have Target here. They kind of had a bit of a slow start but they’ve really turned that around and are doing well now, and we’re happy they’re our anchor over there.
You certainly don’t seem to have empty store space for very long. There must be a demand to be here.
We’re very fortunate that way. Right now we have two vacant stores out of 89, which is fabulous. There were years when there were 12 to 15 vacancies here. And there’s not anymore. And the two that we do have, we try to put in temporary month-to-month tenants until a permanent comes along. They’re not going to be vacant long. There’s a real interest in this centre.
Is there any reason in particular for that? Just because Brandon seems to be blossoming and burgeoning?
I think Brandon’s doing very well. We’re becoming the fashion centre of southwestern Manitoba. So that’s helped a lot and we’ve seen a lot of the fashion stores open in the last few years here.
Do you prefer having chain stores to independents?
We don’t have a preference. It depends who they are and how successful they are. We’re seeing more and more national tenants all the time. But Hedley’s Health Hut is a great example of an independent tenant who does EXTREMELY well.
And has been here for ages!
They’ve been here a long, long time. We have three original tenants from 1971 in Safeway, Hair Today and Reesor’s Jewellers, and two of those are independents and still here.
And another thing — we have a parenting room here in the mall. And we’re doing a renovation on it this year, and we have discovered that a lot of people didn’t even know we HAD a parenting room. The parenting room opened in 2000 when we did the expansion into the food court, so it’s been here 14 years. And we put it out there on Facebook saying, ‘We’re going to renovate this year — what would you like to see?’ And on Facebook, we had a lot of comments come back that said, ‘We didn’t even know you had the room!’
So we want to put it out there. It’s somewhere comfortable you can go and nurse or feed your baby, take your toddler in there — we’re hoping to make a bunch of changes so there are things for the toddlers to do and just relax and be safe. It’s on the way to the washrooms — there’s a sign on the door that says ‘Parenting Room.’ So obviously we need to make the sign bigger!
Do you anticipate being at Shoppers Mall until you retire?
Well, for SURE I’m going to be here until I retire! But I don’t know when that’s going to be. I’m in no rush. I just can’t fathom that people work in jobs where they don’t like to be there. It’s a huge chunk of your life. And how can you go to work every day and not like what you do? I’m fortunate to be able to say I love what I do and I’m happy to come to work every day.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 8, 2014