Irma Castor arrived in Miami in April to begin her new job as mall manager at Dadeland Mall, but she is certainly no stranger to the world of bustling shopping centers.
Dadeland is the latest — and largest — shopping center for Castor, who has spent more than 14 years working for Simon Property Group, including 10 years in mall management, working at various centers in Texas before landing in Miami.
Dadeland, one of Miami-Dade’s first shopping malls, has come a long way since it was launched as an open-air complex in 1962. At that time, it featured 60 stores and services in 530,000 square feet of space. After expanding and renovating several times over the years, today Dadeland encompasses 1.5 million square feet and has 185 stores, including the largest Macy's in Florida. Since 1997, Simon has held a 50 percent ownership stake in the mall and has served as its managing partner. The other 50 percent is owned by Morgan Stanley.
Currently, Dadeland said it attracts 17 million visitors annually, with about 40 percent of its business from tourists.
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The mall recently added a new Kendall wing, which offers 102,000 square feet of shopping, dining and entertainment space, with an airy, modern feel, thanks to high ceilings and skylights that beam in rays of light.
Soon, more renovations are on the way, including expanding the mall’s restrooms, Castor said.
“We want to focus on enhancing the customer experience,” she said. “That’s how we can differentiate ourselves from other shopping centers.”
We met with Castor at the mall’s new Kendall wing, and then emailed her these questions, to which she responded.
Q. Where did you grow up and how did you start your career?
A. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas. I started my career at a Savings and Loan firm, Bexar Savings.
Q. How long were you at Bexar Savings, and how did you progress there?
A. I worked at Bexar Savings for 10 years and held various positions ranging from teller, vault teller, new accounts, word processing and ultimately administrator for the chief financial officer.
Q. How did you make a change to property management?
A. After leaving the S&L, I joined Simon Property Group as an office administrator in Midland, Texas, and that is where I fell in love with property management.
Q. What made you fall in love with property management?
A. The shopping center business is fun because it’s a gathering place for families and friends to spend time together. When I see mothers and daughters or friends shopping and dining together, it reminds me of what it means to be truly part of a community.
Shopping is about being together with friends and family, or even spending some quality alone time. It’s about the joy of discovery — walking by a shop window and loving a new outfit and being able to have instant gratification when you buy it. It’s about seeing families during the holiday season spending time together. Not on their phones, but actually talking to each other. Even though it is hectic during the holiday season, the part I love the most is looking at our busy mall hallways and knowing I had a part in making sure the shopper’s experience was a great one by ensuring a safe, clean and fun shopping environment. Our new restaurants also offer a brand new experience to many of the local Dadeland shoppers. They are living the changes with us.
Malls are communities in action. Property management also allows me to interact with our shoppers, our stores and our community and hear what they want to see in their local mall. I love that I can have an impact on making these things happen.
Q. Please tell us more about being a mall manager. What does a mall manager do?
A. As mall manager, I am accountable for leasing, negotiation of contracts, staff supervision, office management, budgeting and monthly financial analysis, security and daily operations as well as overseeing the development and implementation of mall marketing programs, sales analysis, corporate and tenant communication and community relations. A mall manager is very similar to a mayor of a small town. As mayor, I need to make sure that all aspects of operations run smoothly, so our shoppers, tenants and guests have a productive day. I am also the face that our community sees when they come to Dadeland Mall. The mall manager is the person local community leaders, tenants, and shoppers go to for partnerships and answers.
Q. Did you need to supplement your education to enter mall management?
A. After four years as office administrator, I realized that I wanted to become a mall manager so I left the company and pursued a bachelor’s degree in business administration. I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Texas in Odessa.
Q. What was next for you in property management?
A. While I was taking real estate classes, I met a broker who was looking for someone to manage and lease small shopping centers. I worked for Dominion Advisory Group for three years, and in addition to gaining property management and leasing experience, I became a Certified Commercial Investment Member (CCIM) in 2002.
Q. Then you worked again at Simon Property Group? What has been your progression there?
A. I rejoined Simon Property Group in 2003 as an assistant mall manager at Lakeline Mall in Austin, Texas. Shortly thereafter I was promoted to mall manager of Rolling Oaks Mall in San Antonio, Texas, followed by assistant general manager for Houston Galleria Mall, area mall manager for La Plaza Mall and Palms Crossing in McAllen, Texas, and finally mall manager for Dadeland Mall.
Q. What has been the common thread at each property?
A. While each property is unique, the common thread is “customer service.” The staff works really hard to provide a safe, clean and enjoyable place for shoppers to shop and store employees to work.
Q. When you were promoted to mall manager at Dadeland in April, had you already been familiar with Miami and the mall?
A. Prior to accepting the position, I was familiar with Dadeland Mall and I understood what a wonderful center this is. However, I had never been to Miami. I fell in love with the people of Miami during my first trip for my interview. Everyone has been so welcoming and gracious. I’m really happy to be here.
Q. Dadeland has just undergone an expansion with the new Kendall wing. How are the new stores and restaurants doing so far? And has the new wing had an impact on the mall's overall traffic?
A. We are very proud of the new wing expansion and have gotten many compliments. The new stores and restaurants are thriving.
Q. What is Simon’s philosophy and strategy for the mall and how does it fit in with Simon’s other properties?
A. Dadeland Mall is considered one of the top properties in the Simon portfolio, and as such, the mall is always looking at new and exciting developments. We continue to bring new retail concepts to South Florida and look for ways to make our shoppers’ experience top notch. From enhanced amenities like our complimentary personal shopper program to new restaurant and dining options, we are constantly looking for ways to bring new excitement to the mall.
Q. What are the next steps for Dadeland Mall?
A. Much more to come. As I mentioned, we are always searching for new retail concepts that will be new and exciting to the marketplace, as well as constantly searching for ways to enhance our shopper experience. I think you will see us bring new ways to make the shopping experience more interactive.
Q. What are the biggest challenges to being a mall manager at a mall as big as Dadeland?
A. There are so many people working behind the scenes to make Dadeland Mall run smoothly, and my job is to keep it all together. We are very fortunate that Dadeland is one of the utmost retail properties in the country with a desirable tenant mix, in a metropolitan city like Miami. The biggest challenge for me is making sure that all the moving parts run smoothly, all the time.
Q. What would you recommend as preparation for someone who is considering a career in mall management and what traits does it require?
A. Simon’s most valued asset is their employees. As a company, Simon encourages all employees to seek a long career in mall management and offers training programs for employees to grow within the company. I actually am the perfect example. I began my career as an office administrator, and learned quickly that I wanted to be a mall manager. Simon assisted me in making this happen when I joined the Mall Manager Training Program. It was a stepping stone to where I am today.
The reason I chose Simon is because there is unlimited possibilities for career growth with this company. It’s an exciting company to work for that has so many facets. Simon is expanding globally and consistently offering varied opportunities for career growth. The common thread that I see amongst my fellow mall managers is a desire to be the best leader possible and always seek ways to improve the customer experience, which consists of not only shoppers but tenants, mall staff and the community leaders.
Q. What would you say is your goal for Dadeland Mall?
A. My goal is to continue to bring the most interesting retail mix to South Florida, and always offer the best customer service possible. We continuously work with our stores and our own staff to ensure our shoppers enjoy their time at Dadeland Mall.
I want to take service to the next level. I want our shoppers to feel that Dadeland Mall is THEIR mall. They will know who I am and who my staff is.
This will create loyalty to our mall, not just for the best retail mix around, but because they are part of the Dadeland family.