by kathleen nicholson webber| March 2, 2014 |
He may reign over a vast kingdom, but Robert Hart always has time to give his subjects directions.
Robert Hart has seen and done just about everything in the world of retail. Since taking over as general manager of King of Prussia Mall in 2004, he has hobnobbed with celebrities like Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray, and the cast of Twilight. But he’s also not afraid to roll up his sleeves—such as the time in 2011 when 10 inches of rain flooded a portion of the mall and he had to make sure his 400 stores were ready to open the next day.
Since he assumed the helm of America’s second-largest mall, which opened in 1963 and continues its 50th anniversary celebration this year, Hart has overseen continuous growth, including two expansions—the latter slated to break ground this year—despite rocky economic times, with many wondering about the future of brick-and-mortar. But he’s also still the guy who gives directions to customers searching for the right store among the mall’s 180 acres. It’s all in a day’s work.
On any given day, scores of out-of-towners, international tourists, and locals descend upon Hart’s retail behemoth to look for items you can’t find at your average strip mall. Here they’re treated to designers like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Gucci and dining that ranges from The Capital Grille and Sullivan’s Steakhouse to Shake Shack. “We’re like a big city,” Hart says. A city that welcomes 20 million visitors a year and has a footprint large enough to accommodate the Great Pyramid of Giza five times over.
In 2013, Hart saw 20 new retailers serving every age group join the mall. The latest expansion will add another 140,000 square feet and 50 more stores and will connect the mall’s two halves, the Plaza and the Court. “It’s so big that sometimes it gets confusing,” he admits. But of course, Hart had a solution, adding greeters to give directions, shuttles to carry shoppers to different sections of “the city,” and golf carts to whisk them, laden with packages, back to their cars. It’s the kind of service that keeps both mere mortals and celebs coming back (Tiger Woods and the Kardashians have been spotted shopping here).
FAR LEFT: Plans and blueprints for additions to King of Prussia Mall are stacked in Hart’s office. LEFT: In the management office hangs this rendering of the 1966 opening of Gimbels at the mall.
Hart’s insight into the modern shopper is an amalgamation of observations from more than 30 years in the business. Out of college, he joined Kmart’s management training program and stayed there for four years. (At the time, the company was the number-one retailer in the country.) By the mid-’80s, he’d become assistant manager at Kravco Company’s management training program, before taking on the role of district property manager, responsible for overseeing approximately one third of the company’s portfolio, including regional shopping centers. It’s here that he honed his skills as a leader. “You’ve got to surround yourself with good people,” he says, “and trust them to work hard and empower them to do their jobs.”
While contracts for the next expansion are currently being negotiated, Hart remains involved in choosing new tenants. Recent experience shows that the future of retail includes plenty of restaurants: The mall has 40 and plans to add more. “People come here for higher-end stores and restaurants you can’t find just anywhere,” he says. “Shopping should be an experience, and that includes having a great meal.” It could mean a cuisine from halfway around the globe or maybe a bit of local flavor—with a restaurant like Tony Luke’s luring even Brad Pitt in for cheesesteaks.
Despite his lofty post at this retail colossus, it’s still his daily interactions with customers that keep Hart excited about the business. “I just met a couple from upstate New York,” he says, “and they come here one weekend every year, stay in a hotel, and shop. It’s an annual tradition.”
When he’s not traversing King of Prussia Mall’s endless corridors, Hart enjoys outdoor activities like backpacking and hiking. But it’s another love, climbing—equal parts skill, strategy, and perseverance—that mirrors his career in retail. Among the mountains he has scaled is Yosemite National Park’s iconic Half Dome. “With 20 million visitors a year, I enjoy the challenges of working here,” Hart says, “but I also like to get away to the peace and beauty of our national parks.” Whatever the setting—a mountain or a mall—this is a man who feels at home poised at the peak.