Retail specialist Robert Thurlow touches down at airport luxury mall

Profile: McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Vancouver Airport mall general manager

Robert Thurlow, general manager of the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Vancouver Airport mall on Sea Island, caps decades of retail experience with his move to Vancouver | Rob Kruyt

Scarcely able to be heard over the rumble of a jet plane, Robert Thurlow pauses while telling a story and waits for the large airliner emblazoned with Lufthansa’s distinctive yellow-orange logo to soar above.

It is the fifth or sixth plane to interrupt Thurlow’s half-hour coffee chat with a visitor at the Caffè Artigiano at the new McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Vancouver Airport mall on Sea Island.

“I’ve turned into a plane geek since I’ve been here,” said Thurlow, who is the mall’s general manager.

“I can tell from the sound of the engines before I even see the plane. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a 747 coming in’ or ‘That’s an A320.’ I think it adds drama and theatre to the shopping experience.”

Thurlow’s mall has been open about a week and all the tables are filled at the coffee shop, which is situated in the middle of a large circular plaza.

A serpentine lineup winds next to the Coach store across the plaza as more than 50 people patiently wait their turn to shop for discounted merchandise and products made specifically for that brand’s outlet division.

Thurlow is clearly excited by the mall’s success.

The mall’s launch was slightly delayed and followed speculation that the property would be more mid-market than other McArthurGlen properties.

Vancouverites, however, flocked there in droves on the July 9 opening day.

The 160,000 people who visited the mall in its first four days of operation caused traffic jams and outnumbered the crowds who visited the openings of McArthurGlen’s other 20 properties.

Tenants filled about 156,000 of the mall’s 240,000 square feet on opening day, and 12 more tenants have signed leases to open stores in another 60,000 square feet by the end of the year, Thurlow said.

That leaves 24,000 square feet up for grabs.

“All units without signed leases are in play from a negotiation point of view,” Thurlow said between sips of caffè latte. “There are six units that someone could choose from if they contacted us today.”

The job is Thurlow’s first as a mall manager, and it comes following a varied career dabbling in different aspects of the retail business.

The Toronto native cut his teeth in the retail sector in the early 1990s as an area manager at the Gap (NYSE:GPS). He worked up to operations manager and was tasked with rapidly expanding the chain across Canada.

The San Francisco-based company had 22 Canadian stores when he joined it in 1992. That had grown to more than 100 in 1997, when he was promoted to take charge of Gap expansion in the U.K.

A co-worker from that era, Kim Heppler, remembers Thurlow as being a people person with a mind for business.

“He’s out there talking with people, asking good questions and engaged in conversations,” said Heppler, who is now director of client design and delivery with Cadillac Fairview. “He genuinely enjoys retail, which is really a big deal when you work in this industry because it can be a tough go sometimes.”

By the time Thurlow left the Gap, in 2000, he had more than tripled the number of Gap stores in the U.K. to 120 from 35 three years earlier, he said.

“When I first moved to the U.K. and was responsible for a U.K. business, I thought my next step should be to get European experience,” he said. “I wanted to push myself beyond. I knew Canada and the U.K. but I wanted to understand and work in Europe.”

Opportunity arrived in late 2000, when Benetton hired Thurlow to manage business development at the company’s headquarters in Treviso, Italy.

He left a little more than two years later to get a different kind of depth. Up until then, he had been in the fashion business exclusively and at ventures that sold products in branded stores. Now he moved back to London and became the European sales director at the cosmetics giant Molton Brown, where he oversaw sales through many channels, not just branded retail stores.

One of the biggest sales avenues for Molton Brown was selling small shampoo bottles to high-end hotels, Thurlow said.

“If you’re trying to sell shower gel, the best captive audience is somebody in a shower using it,” he said. “So, what better place to have the product than in a hotel room?”

He also helped Molton Brown expand into retail with branded stores – first in the U.K., then North America and Europe.

That helped earn him a promotion to a role as one of the company’s three CEOs, each of whom reported directly to Molton Brown’s chairman.

As the CEO for the U.S., Thurlow lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, where he had a posh apartment complete with a view of Central Park.

“I really enjoyed New York,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d live there again but I enjoyed the time I was there. I’m a Canadian at heart.”

He moved back to the U.K., however, in 2007, and spent four years as the group’s global sales director.

Thurlow decided to move back to Canada in part because he wanted to be closer to family but also to take on the role as country manager for Calvin Klein.

He spearheaded that PVH Corp. (NYSE:PVH) brand’s first Canadian location and left the company with 23 stand-alone Canadian stores when he departed late last year to join McArthurGlen.

His ailing father passed away last year. With his mother wanting to leave Toronto to retire in B.C., coming to the West Coast made sense.

Married but with no kids, Thurlow plays French horn when not focused on the business.

“We had an orchestra perform here on the opening day – the Vancouver Orchestra Club,” he said. “They need a French horn player, so I might start playing with them.”•