'My involvement in the tragedy of the Primark fire helped set me up for a role at The Junction...'
The Big Interview: Chris Flynn
Chris Flynn has come into the role of centre director at The Junction in Antrim during a key period for the retail park.
The former manager of Debenhams in Belfast will oversee operations there just as its £30m investment that has seen it welcome a string of new retail names including The Entertainer, Intersport, Nando's and McDonald's, is in full swing.
His job will be to ensure that investment pays off when it comes to footfall and sales.
It's no easy task given the retail sector's hurdles of late including the loss of major high street names and consumer uncertainty impacting on spend as well as pressure from e-commerce.
But, he says, it's a task he relishes and one he's got much experience in.
The eldest of five children, Belfast-born Chris was always leading the pack.
He says his childhood was the beginning of his career in "managing people".
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"But going into retail was an interesting career choice for me," he admits. "My father is a plumber and my two brothers are plumbers. Before that my grandfather was a plumber so I was the first to do something different."
Chris' two sisters went into nursing and environmental health.
He recalls his childhood as a fun, carefree time, accented by joyous family trips to Newcastle Co Down.
"I remember the highlight being a trip to Tropicana. Sometimes half the street came with us and we all squeezed into the car. Different times then," he adds.
Chris' first career choice was journalism and he even undertook some work experience at the Belfast Telegraph.
"I went to the sports department and worked under John Laverty.
"I was really grateful for that opportunity but I am by no means sporty but I think that was the only department they had room in.
"It was a great experience. I was allowed to do a telephone interview with a power lifting champion from Northern Ireland and the story got published with a byline."
Chris' decision to study journalism at Dublin City University (DCU) did not become a reality and instead he completed a degree in German at Queen's University.
"Retail was always there in the background," he adds.
"When I was 15 I was selling Christmas trees after school in a car park. I got £1 per tree sold and if I tied it up and put it in the car I usually got a tip and when you're 15 that's a lot of money. Sometimes I would sell 20 trees a night."
His first "proper retail job" was at Subway in the Botanic area of Belfast, when the brand first came to NI.
"It was a bit of a phenomenon then. We had security on the door to manage the crowds and also because it opened late at night.
"I was a key holder in that role and I was only 16 or 17. I think I was just always keen to take on responsibility and I've always been very independent," says Chris who credits his grandmother Kathleen for encouraging him to pursue his own goals.
"I was very close to my grandparents. I actually lived with my granny and granda during the week while studying for my A-levels. My mum and dad moved to a new house in Crossgar, but I wanted to stay at school in Belfast, so it worked out better for me to stay up there during the week.
"I was very lucky to have had both sets of grandparents, plus two great grannies and a great granda until I was in my late 20s. I was the eldest grandchild on my father's side, so was nearly treated like my granny's son and went everywhere with her.
"I was the first in the family to go to university," he adds, referring to his German degree.
"As part of that course I spent a year in Germany teaching English in a school attended by both secondary and primary pupils.
"That was a project run by the British Council and it allowed me to work 20 hours a week but also travel and see the country.
"I was on my own and it was a big opportunity for me to grow up."
Renting an apartment and opening a bank account in a foreign language further fuelled Chris' independence he says, and after his degree he applied for a management course with the Arcadia Group - the name behind Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins.
"I decided to stay at Debenhams instead, where I was working part-time because they offered so much personal development opportunities," explains Chris, who went on to spend 18 years at the department store.
"I managed various stores including CastleCourt where I started working part-time in 2001. It was always a goal of mine to come back there and manage that store because it's so high profile and has 400 staff.
"And I look back on my time there and I feel I had a really positive career.
"My boss always pushed me out of my comfort zone and it allowed me to travel and gain a lot of experience from other retail bosses including the manager of Selfridges."
Asked if he feels his former place of employment has a strong future ahead following the chain's recent Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) which will see it close 22 Debenhams stores UK wide, Chris adds: "Debenhams has restructured and it has a good plan in place for the future. It will be introducing new cafes and restaurants too."
The Primark fire in Belfast that devastated footfall in and around Royal Avenue, the home of CastleCourt, was a curveball thrown at Chris during his time at the store.
However, he says that it was a challenge he believes helped him win the post at The Junction in November.
"My involvement in the tragedy of the Primark fire helped prepare me for this role.
"I was suddenly interacting with other businesses and joined the board of Belfast One and what I realised is, as much as retailers are competitors we have a role to play to cover each other and I hope in my new role in Antrim that I'm able to build that network of partners and stakeholders to drive The Junction on."
The Junction was bought by the Lotus Group in 2016. Since then it has invested £30m to attract new retailers and offer a new leisure experience to its customers.
The funds have also gone towards reshaping the infrastructure at the retail park.
"The traditional shopping centre has evolved so much and it has to," says Chris. "But while they talk about online shopping taking a lot of the trade, it still only accounts for 20%. Most shopping is done in stores. I think the world of online shopping will level off. As people become more aware of their carbon footprint, I think they will travel to their local shops more frequently, rather than have lots of parcels delivered directly to their door.
"We have the space now to make The Junction much more than a shopping destination, it's a leisure experience too and it's becoming more of a community with the new customer square where we hope to begin some kind of park run, yoga classes and different community events," he adds.
"One of the things that fascinated me about The Junction is that people come here for a coffee before work. It's a family attraction now and we are also pushing that which makes this role a lot of fun.
"We've invited the tram from the Titanic Exhibition to the site, which is its first time out of its home and it's going around The Junction at weekends and proving to be really popular.
"There will be a lot more of those interactive activities on offer in the future too," he says.
And there's room for more retailers too. In 2021 when all works are completed at The Junction, Chris says the focus will be on leisure with a mix of retail and "big box retailers".
Right now his immediate attention will be on the Christmas trade at the park which he describes as "really busy".
And after the sales he will take some well-earned time out with partner Eileen he says, who both love to enjoy the theatre scene here, but in the meantime, he adds: "I'm here for the long-term and the reason I moved from Debenhams is because this kind of opportunity doesn't come about often.
"I intend to be here to shape this business and there's enough to get my teeth into."