John Ecklund, who made the jump from law enforcement to managing the Buffalo Niagara region’s biggest shopping mall, has spent the last five years guiding the steady expansion of the Walden Galleria.
The Jamestown native and father of three, who became general manager of Galleria in 2008, came to the mall in 2001 as director of security after a short stint as security manager for Chautauqua Mall in Lakewood. Before that, he was chief of Auburn police, a post from which he retired in 1995.
Q: That’s quite a career change, going from law enforcement to mall management.
A: People always ask, “How can you go from chasing bad guys to chasing tenants to bring them to the mall?” But the experience, skills and abilities are all readily transferable.
Q: What are some of the selling points that you use to attract new retailers and shoppers? What do you like to brag about?
A: The uniqueness of Walden Galleria and its pre-eminence in the market. Primarily it’s our location and our tenant selection. We have about 80 stores in Walden Galleria that are unique to the Buffalo market. They’re found nowhere else in the market.
Q: How does Galleria manage to get those exclusive retailers?
A: Well, we work very hard at it. We’ve got a great team here that we really couldn’t do it without.
National tenants particularly, they talk amongst each other. They share their experiences so they know which are the hot properties and where they should be if they want to reach their core customer and meet their sales goals.
Q: What’s next for Walden Galleria?
A: We’re currently finishing up a major remodel that should be done by this spring: brand new tile, paint, light fixtures, remodeled food court. We wanted to bring the appearance of the center to a more modern, fresher look.
We currently have some major stores under construction. Victoria’s Secret is doing a complete remodel. They’re adding their Pink store, which will be going upstairs on the second level and opening in a couple months. Pole Position indoor electric cart racing will be going under construction shortly in the former Steve and Barry’s space. Orazio’s Italian Crepes is going to be really special in the food court.
And then there’s more to come that I can’t discuss yet, but is very exciting. We’ll always continue to evolve.
Q: There really was nothing out there before Walden Galleria, but so much has sprung up around it.
A: It brings a sense of pride to our accomplishments here that we would have created such a key retail magnet.
Q: What was it like when the crash hit in 2008 and people just weren’t shopping?
A: Things slowed down a little bit, but truth be known, we weren’t severely impacted here.
I think it’s just the nature of the Buffalo market. We don’t have the economic highs they have in other locations where they have sudden significant growth. But we also don’t take the big hits; we don’t have significant drops. So while it did impact our business somewhat, it didn’t hurt us.
Q: How are things different now?
A: From my viewpoint, we’re back to conditions just prior to 2008. So things are on the upswing again. We’re bringing in a lot of new, exciting retailers; sales have continued to grow overall the last few years. It’s all very positive. I’m very bullish on the local economic environment.
Q: How important are Canadians to your success?
A: Currently, they represent nearly a third of our business. That’s our estimate. So they’re an extremely important part of what we do and our growth. There’s no question they helped smooth out the bumps in 2008, 2009, 2010.
Q: How do you market to Canadians?
A: We work very well with Visit Buffalo Niagara. They do trade shows in Canada and market the greater Buffalo area to Canada. With tourism comes a retail component and it all works hand in hand.
We work with an organization locally that reaches out to Canadian tour operators. And of course there’s word of mouth, where people who visit tell other people and soon enough the word spreads.
Q: You market the mall as a place to eat, shop and play. What’s the idea behind having everything self contained on the property?
A: It predates me. This was something Jim Soos, who is now our director of asset management, worked on. He worked on the expansion, which included the restaurants on the Thruway side of the mall, the new 60-foot-screen Regal Cinema.
The idea was to add hospitality, restaurants, and some entertainment along with the retail. And we’re not done yet. We’re still looking for some unique and interesting entertainment venues to add.
Q: What does the general manager of a mall do?
A: I’m responsible for the entire business operation – the facilities and the business, ultimately. I assist with leasing and do some leasing myself. It’s my job to make the place function as it’s designed to do.
Q: What does that entail?
A: We support the tenants, the retailers, with our marketing efforts and make this a warm, safe, comfortable place to shop.
Six days a week, I start my days with a leasing meeting. It’s about more than just attracting new retailers, it also involves obtaining a particular tenant mix and targeting retailers you want to bring to your shopping center.
Q: Do you market directly to consumers?
A: Absolutely. It’s one of our priority jobs to drive traffic to the center.