Willowbrook Mall Senior GM Celebrates 40 Years Recalling the Past and Building the Future

Willowbrook Mall Senior GM Celebrates 40 Years Recalling the Past and Building the Future

By Steve Sears

Welcome, reader, to the story of an involved, wonderful career.

In the front foyer of the office of Brookfield Properties, the management company of Wayne, New Jersey’s Willowbrook Mall, are posted the following words and statements: Humility, Attitude, Do the Right Thing, Together, Own It.

Nancy Barbary, Senior General Manager of Willowbrook Mall, states, “It’s our mantra. In terms of the company, that’s what we stand for, that’s how we try to behave, do our jobs, and interact with others. I really live by them, whether they were the company’s or not, but do the right thing when you’re in a negotiation, making sure both sides win, doing your job with humility. So, each one stands for how we interact and do our jobs.” While Barbary states all 5 mantras are equal, she places a lot of weight on “Own It”. “I think in my position, you have to own it. This has to be everything you do and stand for, and if you don’t own it, then things can happen, and you would never know that they were going on.”

Barbary in September of 2019 will celebrate 40 years of working in the realm of shopping malls, her travels taking her from Wayne to Paramus. She landed in her current post in 2006. “It’s been a great career,” she affirms while smiling.

Barbary often wonders where all the time has gone, how the past years have sped by, and she does this during her favorite hours at the mall: prior to opening and after its closing. “It’s just an extremely peaceful, quiet…the lights are off, the stores lights are still on…it just has a whole kind of a very sentimental feeling.”

Barbary, a Cedar Grove resident, has had multiple jobs with mall management companies through the years, the current being Brookfield Properties. Prior to her 1979 employment, she shopped at Willowbrook often, many times with her daughter. She hadn’t planned on retail as a career, but employment at the facility close to her home was in another area.

“My first job was in 1979 as a night receptionist. I was a single mom at that point, my daughter was four, but I also wanted to work in an office position. The night receptionist was an extension of the accounting department, so I was able to do payroll and a lot of the accounting functions. I was able to come in at 4:30 and work to 9:30, because in those days the mall office was open.”

Thereafter she got involved with security, customer relations, “because as the front desk receptionist you handle the radio, security calls, call for lost children over the PA system that we had at the time, so that was my first introduction to the shopping center industry.” Yes, working at Willowbrook was convenient and familiar, but. “I had  shopped here, but it was an industry I knew nothing about, so it was a real learning experience.”

Barbary worked as night receptionist for a year, and then an opening as a Marketing Secretary emerged. Her daughter was now a year older and in kindergarten, and she applied for and got the position, working on Christmas and Easter promotions, and in advertising. In 1981, a marketing position opened up in Paramus Park Mall, and at that time the Marketing Manager at Willowbrook had departed, and while secretary, she served many of the functions like managing budgets, writing newsletters (“I just kind of took over jobs that had to get done”), and the manager at Paramus Park – his name was Phil Duffy, who ended up being a real mentor to Barbary – saw a newsletter and asked who wrote it. “When he found out it was me, he offered to have me become the Assistant Marketing Manager at Paramus Park, it was called the Promotion Assistant, I think at the time.” Barbary trained with the then-pregnant marketing manager at Paramus Park, prepping herself to be eventually named Marketing Manager. She stayed in that position for eight years, and then got deeply into advertising, working with The Record, doing onsite photography at the mall, which was an exciting time for her. After that, an Assistant Manager Retail Operations position opened in Willowbrook, and she worked in this position from 1989 to 1990. Soon after, Barbary found herself back in Paramus Park when the manager there left, she applied and was selected. “So, I had known that center from a marketing standpoint, and I managed that center for 15 years.” In 2005, the Senior General Manager position opened at Willowbrook and, after serving in her role for 15 years which included major mall renovation, she headed back to her first “home.”

Barbary has enjoyed every experience and feels very fortunate to have worked in an industry for 40 years and still say that she loves to come to work every day. “It’s a unique industry, I think. Every day is different.”

How has the different modes of shopping, online as opposed to visiting a mall, and the shopper had changed, has it affected her career? “As ironic as it may sound, I don’t think it has changed much,” she says. “People still come and shop, they like to touch and feel their merchandise. From a mall management standpoint, we’ve had to create gathering spaces. We know now that people like to gather, have coffee, charge their computers, and we work with the retailers who are providing that frontline customer service. So, it’s changed, but not so much.”

Barbary’s biggest challenge in life is balance. “I think the job always gave me a lot of flexibility because I worked a lot of hours, but come first day of school, I could be there for her (her daughter, when younger), come Halloween I could go to the parade. So, although it was a demanding job in those marketing years, I worked a lot of different hours so I had nice flexibility to do things with her that I could. She had always been my priority. Later in life I’ve remarried, I married my husband Joe in 2002, so that kind of changed things up, having a husband who was waiting at home for you. But he’s an extremely patient and understanding man, so it’s worked out wonderful. We were older, so you had the ability to have these two lives come together. In the role, it’s just staying fresh. There’s always something new, always something to be concerned with, there’s always that 24-hour need to be on call. So that’s probably one of the biggest challenges in a job of this position.”

Is anything missing in her life, her career? She answers while smiling, “There really isn’t. The only thing I’ve really never had a chance to do is volunteer. There’s just not enough time to volunteer and to work and to raise a family. Also, my husband and I like to travel. We’re somewhat limited to how long we can go away; a week here, which is wonderful, but sometimes you’d like to take a couple of weeks and go someplace. I think in terms of ‘missing’ I would look at future volunteerism and probably a lot more travel.”

Willowbrook Mall works very closely with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), but also works a lot with Chilton Medical Center, and also has a mall walking club – and Barbary created one of the first back at Paramus Park in the early 1980s. “Every morning I would walk the mall, check on things, and there would be this man there, and I’d say, ‘Hmmm, why is he always here when I’m here?’ One day I asked the security to check on him and see why he was following me, and it turned out he had had a heart operation and his doctor told him to walk. He Picked Paramus Park and he walked. In Paramus, we hooked up with Valley Hospital and we created the first mall walking club up there, so that by the time I came to Willowbrook, the mall walking club had been in place, but it’s with Chilton. You sign up and you get a badge, because we’re inviting customers into the mall while we’re still cleaning, so we want to know who you are in case anything happens, and you have to sign off on it. Now, we’re going to be sponsoring a Walk with a Doc program (also through Chilton).”

Another very special endeavor that Barbary personally works on is through her parish, Saint Ann’s in Woodland Park. Quarterback Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine organization holds a prom for Special Needs persons in over 600 churches across the country. “It is the most amazing night ever! (This year’s event is scheduled for February 9th). Every Special Needs person has a buddy, so there are over 200 volunteers that work on it, so that’s a special thing to my heart that I do outside of work,” she proudly states.

What is her definition of success in business and life, and has she entirely lived it? “I don’t think that you ever entirely live it, so I’d have to say I still think there’s more to come. I love to learn, and I always kind of lived my life trying to be the best I can, whenever I can, at everything I can, to the best of my ability. For me, I have to try the hardest that I can. If I don’t know how to do it, I figure it out. I’m very self-taught in that respect. I’ve always felt that I’ve always done the next person’s job as well. I’m very conscientious and I do feel that ‘Own It’ is something that I truly do.”

Barbary, as she did in Paramus Park, treats Willowbrook Mall as her home. “I wouldn’t expect anything different here, and I do have high expectations. I expect a lot of my team, I expect a lot of myself, and I expect a lot out of making sure that we’re meeting your expectations. I have to make sure mine are high so that I’m always making sure I’m meeting yours.”

Nancy Barbary  does now and always has lived by the Golden Rule. “I want to treat others the same way I want to be treated. So, if you respect others maybe you can earn their respect back. Someone once told me that I was really tough; that I did my job and I was tough, but that I’m very fair. I really pride myself on that. I don’t mind being tough, because I’m going to be tough, but I’m going to be fair, and that’s something that I am proud of.”   

Exciting things are in store at Willowbrook as Barbary enters her 41st mall year presiding over important changes and additions. “Shopping centers have to evolve as well, and again we are kind of mini cities, and if you don’t move on with the times, even though people may be shopping differently, they are still eating. They want to be entertained, they want to have an experience. So that’s kind of Willowbrook’s next stage, to give them a dining experience, to give them an entertaining experience. So, I think that Dave and Buster’s, the movie theater (12-screen Cinemark), Buffalo Wild Wings, P.F. Chang’s, and we’ll have a couple more restaurants here in the next couple of years.”

“There’s a lot more to come, a lot coming forward.”


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