By rights, Phil Steele should have pursued a very different career.
With a degree in Geography under his belt and academic parents, a job in retail wouldn’t have seemed the obvious choice.
The fact he’s celebrating 30 years in world of retail this year, has to be testament to the fact he chose the right career path.
And three years ago Phil landed a job that he describes as “tailor made”, heading up one of the UK’s largest city centre shopping centres, Eldon Square in Newcastle.
Since his arrival in 2010, the centre has seen numerous changes, most recently of which was its major re-branding to intu Eldon Square.
Phil, 51, said: “It’s been hugely exciting to be a part of it all. The branding change to intu as a company and as a brand has been fantastic. We now have intu Eldon Square and intu Metrocentre within four miles of each other.
“It’s given us the opportunity to benefit from national marketing and promotional activities. There’s all sorts of benefits and it’s really helped to modernise the look and feel of the centre.”
After 10 years heading up The Bridges shopping centre in Sunderland, Phil was no stranger to the craft and the top role at Eldon Square more than had his name on it.
“I was looking for a new challenge, but my family were very settled in the North East. I always wanted to run a larger centre, so when the opportunity came up to take over as manager of Eldon Square, it really was tailor-made,” he said.
And after just three short years, Phil has more than made his mark. He was instrumental in extending the centres opening hours until 8pm, and is currently at the helm of its £18m makeover.
Phil said: “This will really make it look and feel like one centre. We extended and modernised parts of Eldon Square back in 2010 with the opening of St Andrew’s Way with its new retailers like Hollister, Apple and Debenhams. What we’re doing now is to get that same look and feel right the way through the malls. At the moment we’re working on the Northumberland street entrance which will be slightly extended and improved. It’s going to be an even better environment for our retailers to trade in and our customers to visit.
“The whole look and feel is more modernised with a new customer service lounge. That’s the kind of world class service that we’re looking for.”
There are also plans to open a new food mall in 2015. It will be based at the centre’s Sidgate and High Friars shopping streets, with businesses already based there set for relocation.
“We’re very much going with where we think shopping centres should be in the future,” said Phil. “It’s about leisure and extending people’s time in the centres and the new restaurant quarter will really help us to do that. It will create about 400 new jobs and will involve 21 restaurants open all the way through until 12pm.
“We are talking to a lot of restaurant operators and there’s a great deal of interest. We’re optimistic that we’ll start work in June 2014 and it will take 18 months to complete. We are very excited about this. It’s not just a great thing for Newcastle, but for Eldon Square as well.”
Phil was born in Ashington in Northumberland, yet raised from an early age in Wokingham, Berkshire, along with his twin brother David and their younger brother Kevin. Their father was a professor of chemistry and their mother a geography teacher. Phil remembers a pretty normal stable upbringing.
He said: “We always had relatives up here so I loved the North East. When I had the chance to come to university here I did. It always felt like home. I also met my wife future Carole at university, who hails from Sunderland.”
Phil’s first brush with retail came in 1983, when he embarked on a management development programme with BHS. He went on to work for the retailer for 10 years, managing three major stores along the way.
He said: “Like a lot of people, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left university. I knew I didn’t want to go down the academic route. I had a few interviews with retailers and it sounded really good in terms of the training and development so I decided to join BHS. It was the logical path. More than anything else I wanted to work with people and in a team environment. I enjoy working with people and in a team.”
After a decade moving around the country with BHS, Phil decided a change was in order.
“It got to the point where I knew I wanted to do something else. I thought about going to another retailer, yet ironically I knew the general manger at Eldon Square. I ended up coming to see him to have a chat about a career in shopping centres, which he very much recommended.
“He showed me the shopping centre magazine where the jobs are advertised and six weeks later I was managing the Cameron Toll shopping in Edinburgh.”
“When I managed stores, the main role is one of implementation. In shopping centres, you have a lot more autonomy to make decisions as well as a much larger budget. That was one of the biggest changes and one that I really enjoyed and thrived on.”
So much so that he returned to the North East to take over at The Bridges shopping centre in Sunderland.
“It was a relatively small centre and we went through a fairly big development programme almost as soon as I arrived there.
“We expanded the team which enabled us to support our retailers in a much bigger way. It also helped us to ensure standards were higher than they’d ever been before.
“I was involved in running The Gate centre in Newcastle, and setting strategy for Land Securities in the wider context. I very much enjoyed my time there.”
In 30 years, Phil has seen huge changes in the retail sector, and more recently the effects of the economic downturn.
“It’s a very tough retail environment and I think the North East as a whole has struggled as it’s very reliant on the public sector which has faced a lot of cuts.
“I think we’ve been less affected because we are one of the large regional shopping centres. But also in an eight year period, we’ve invested around £230m into the centre.
Moving with the times therefore, is imperative says Phil.
“It’s vital. The retail industry is very mature and there’s an awful lot of competition out there. People are a lot more mobile now so they’ve got a choice. And it’s not just a choice between the Metrocentre and Eldon Square. People can go to Edinburgh, they can go to Leeds, or one of the out of town centres.
“We’re very much in competition and it’s important that we stand out from the crowd. Not just in terms of retail, but the service we provide and the range we can offer.”
There isn’t a typical day when it comes to being the general manager of intu Eldon Square, according to Phil. “Every day is different. I have lots of meetings. Not just about the centre, but about involvement in activities that are happening within Newcastle. I spend a lot of time talking to Newcastle city council who are our partners in the scheme and own 40% of the centre. As well as other business organisations like NE1 and NGI, where I sit on the board. I talk to businesses and retailers within the city to really understand what’s going on out there and to have an input into the city as a whole. Working with a very professional and very supportive team is the thing that I enjoy most. The best part of the job is the people.”
intu Eldon Square’s busiest shopping period is underway, and it’s hard to believe the centre started planning for the festivities back in February.
“As soon as Christmas is over, we start planning for the next. By the time we get to October, everything is ready to be implemented.
“We have up to a million people through the centre a week at Christmas. We have 36 million visits a year. So it’s an extraordinary busy time and we are one of the busiest shopping centres in the UK in terms of visitor numbers. It’s an exciting time.”
When Phil does find time to unwind, he likes nothing better than a spot of golf. He also likes to walk, and travel the world with Carole, 51, who works for M&S. The couple have two children, Andrew 23, an aerospace engineer, and Julia, 21, who is doing a degree in Business Studies and HR.
So what about the future?
“There’s loads of challenges for Newcastle and indeed the North East. And there’s also lots of challenges for Eldon Square. Results is really what drives me.
“To see a successful centre and to have the figures to prove that, is the thing that really motivates me and what makes me get up in the morning.
“But perhaps even more than that is having a successful team.’’
6.00 am: Check early emails and breakfast
7.30 am: Arrive at work and catch up with the team. Check any issues that have arisen overnight. More emails and planning for the day/futures
8.30 am: Walk around the centre to inspect overnight activity in the redevelopment of intu Eldon Square. Check that the centre is ready and shipshape for trading.
9.30 am: Management Team Meeting. Focus on the forthcoming day, week ahead, and future plans.
10.00 am: Visit intu Metrocentre to catch up with their GM Gavin Prior to discuss joint corporate responsibility initiatives and group activities.
12.00 noon: Working lunch Development Meeting with Sir Robert McAlpine and the intu Development Team and our consultants to discuss progress of latest development work and progress of new restaurant scheme scheduled to start in 2014.
2.00 pm: Meeting with Tyneside Cinema to discuss intu’s support of film-making project with Northern Stars Documentary Academy.
3.30 pm: Meeting with Newcastle City Council looking at progress of schemes within the city including the Northumberland Street redevelopment.
5.00 pm: Catch up with emails, ‘phone messages and queries from the team.
6.00 pm: Check the next day’s diary and flag up any priorities, then head home.
6.45 pm: The lovely Carole, my wife of 27 years, is waiting for me with a home cooked meal and a large glass of wine! During the week, if I’m not away from home on business, it’s great to wind down and watch some TV before hitting the sack.