Photo: Kris Kathmann
Winnebago-raised River Hills Mall senior general manager hosts 8.5 million visitors annually and works behind the scenes to build a better Greater Mankato.
Paul Wilke stars in southern Minnesota’s greatest attraction.
General Growth Properties began building River Hills Mall more than 20 years ago. Today, the retail behemoth annually receives 8.5 million visitors, who often want more and so spill over into Greater Mankato’s many retail nooks and crannies. About 75 percent of Mall visits each year come from people that live more than 30 miles away, and that includes 850,000 visits from consumer-hungry northern Iowans seeking tax-free clothing. Retailers on the 96-acre, 100-store campus employ about 2,500.
With potential chaos lurking around every bend at Merchandise Mecca, 50-year-old Senior General Manager Wilke must maintain a steady managerial hand and attract potential Mall tenants—all while pleasing superiors at Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which owns or has an interest in 143 regional malls in the United States and Brazil. And yet, just like Mall visitors into Greater Mankato, Wilke’s influence spills far beyond the congested intersection of Adams Street and State Highway 22.
In 2004-05, Wilke played a pivotal role helping keep Minnesota Vikings Training Camp in Mankato, back when then-owner Billy Joe “Red” McCombs saw Sioux Falls flash cash. For years, Wilke has played a pivotal role on his local school district’s financial advisory committee, through which he helped convince voters of the need for building Rosa Parks Elementary. He has a role as a Greater Mankato Growth board member. Until November 5, 2012, he and his family played a role owning Topper’s Pizza, which employed and mentored up to 40 college students at a time.
Wilke has played many roles, but stars only as The Ringmaster.
One of Paul Wilke’s greatest life adjustments didn’t involve his becoming operations manager at River Hills Mall in 1993—because he was ready and well prepared for that position—but as a 12-year-old boy moving from the Twin Cities to Winnebago in 1974. His father was hired as a building trades instructor at the vocational school in Blue Earth.
“There was a cultural difference,” said Wilke in a Connect Business Magazine interview. “I went from the Big City to a rural area. Sports had been big for me, so when we moved down the first thing I did was get involved. That was my way in with people. When I was in the Cities, there were tryouts for teams and people got cut. Not everyone got to play. But at Winnebago High, often you were hoping just to have enough players to fill up a team.” Wilke grew to 6’1” in seventh grade, his current height, which may have helped him adjust to a new crop of friends—and they to him. He also had his sister, Susan and an older brother, Jerry, who would go on to become a director for a HickoryTech division.
With the Winnebago move also came exposure to a rural work ethic. His first job in Winnebago involved walking beans for a local farmer, and the second entailed helping his father build a house. His father was a building trades teacher, had summers off, and used the time to build a new family home in Winnebago.
Said Wilke, “My parents bought a home in Winnebago in 1974, then built a new home a block away two years later. My father hired me for a dollar an hour. I worked hard and learned the construction profession, but also as a football player I enjoyed the workout of every day having to carry concrete blocks. It took us a month just to do the block work for that house. I remember pouring concrete on a 108-degree day. It was hard work.”
In high school, he also worked part-time at a NAPA store and spun records on weekends for KBEW-AM in Blue Earth, doing the American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. On top of all this, he worked two summers laying sod and seed for Bob Weerts (2006 Connect Business Magazine Business Person of the Year), who owns Blue Valley Sod.
Wilke said, “Bob was great. It was the first time I’d ever been in a situation where I didn’t have to punch a time clock. Bob just came over every week and asked how many hours we worked. He trusted us, and what he did stuck with me. Integrity is something to maintain. Bob gave you the opportunity to take advantage of him or to be trusted, and I decided I wanted to be trusted. Along with that, my grandfather always used to say, ‘When you get your first job, give your employer a dime’s worth of work for a nickel’s worth of pay.’ That type of mentality has been with me my whole life.”
After high school, he moved to Mankato to begin classes at MSU and married at age 20. Like many students, the Wilkes ran out of money and in 1980 both started at Carlson Craft full-time. They worked night shift four and a half years from 4:00 pm to 12:30 am or later, and Wilke became a group leader printing envelopes, letterheads, and business cards. Feeling a financial need with the birth of their first son in 1985 and, while continuing on at Carlson Craft, he started in at Rasmussen College at night to earn an accounting degree.
He said, “At Carlson Craft, I learned about manufacturing, about urgency, and about getting things done, and how to work with people. The company emphasized quality and paying attention to details. With printing, you had to make sure everything was centered, straight, and the colors were right. I also learned attention to detail from my mom, who was an accountant her whole life.”
In 1987, with accounting degree in hand, he applied to a blind newspaper ad and would win a job to manage the shipping/receiving department at Condux International. (Ironically, the Radichel family owning Condux International sold the land that became River Hills Mall only a couple years later.) The company had been struggling to get their products out to construction sites on time. Wilke had to find ways to make shipping more efficient and less costly, so he set up a system of hiring preferred truckers and negotiated discounts that saved Condux International $1 million in freight cost his first year. Condux International went through a substantial restructuring in 1990 with the sale of two product lines and Wilke was given a year’s notice he would be laid off. Six weeks later, he found an operations manager position with Conway Central Express in Owatonna, but was laid off 18 months later when that company let go 2,500 workers. Through a friend, he found a manufacturing production supervisor position at Mankato Corporation working 3:00 pm to midnight. (In morning hours, to fill time, he went back part-time working at Carlson Craft.) The Mankato Corporation job was fun, said Wilke, but he knew nine months in his professional dreams would not be achieved there. That was when he applied for and was hired at 31 in 1993 as operations manager of River Hills Mall.
“A snowstorm hit my first day at the Mall,” said Wilke. “My boss Steve Menne said the snow plow was broke and I had to fix it. Then I was out snowplowing and shoveling sidewalks and working 100-hour weeks. I was wondering why I had quit my job at Mankato Corporation for this. I knew if it continued on for another three months working 100-hour weeks I’d likely be divorced or in hospital. To remedy the situation, I went about building a system.” And build that system he did—and more. In 1995, he was promoted to general manager, and in 2010, to senior general manager.
By far, he said, his biggest challenges today at River Hills Mall involve trying to manage two things he has absolutely no control over: the economy and the weather. “The economy really affects everything we do in the retail business,” he said. “For example, a poor economy makes selling space more difficult. As for current tenants, when the economy is humming, they are happy and I can do ‘high-fives’ all the way down the Mall. But when things aren’t going well, they tend to look at me for solutions. I’ve seen some retailers go through some really difficult times. I can see the hurt in their faces.”
Gasoline and agriculture prices affect Mall stores perhaps more than the overall national economy, said Wilke. River Hills Mall retailers pull from 22 counties in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, an area covering about 8,500 square miles. About 75 percent of Mall foot traffic comes from customers traveling from more than 30 miles away. Higher gasoline prices means fewer trips to Mankato; lower agriculture prices translates to less money spent on higher-ticket items.
“As for weather,” said Wilke, “lots of snow can kill a Christmas retail season. Our customer travels 40 miles to get here—and that’s the average, about the same distance as St. James to Mankato. And if we have a snow day, people are more tempted to buy from retailers online.”
Wilke has his hands full trying to develop General Growth Properties (GGP) land around the Mall and in developing the Mall itself. The Mall was originally 80 acres until GGP purchased years ago another 16 acres from the Radichel family. Said Wilke, “That’s when the Raintree frontage road was built. We had a six-acre parcel out by Scheels and our leasing people sold it to David Peters who built the Courtyard Marriott. The synergy of a hotel and shopping mall area is great. People coming to town are looking for something to do.”
River Hills Mall also has proposed a 20,000 sq. ft. strip mall on undeveloped land it owns near Pet Expo, called “River Hills Plaza.” The site could have an end-cap restaurant with drive-thru and four retailers. The Mall owns all the buildings on its campus except for Target and JC Penney.
One of many other synergies has married River Hills Mall and Mankato Clinic, which sponsors a child play area near Scheels and operates Mankato Clinic Express inside the Mall. The latter seeks to serve Mall visitors that get sick or desire medical services while shopping or working.
Besides managing River Hills Mall in 2005, and as Wilke was wrapping up keeping the Minnesota Vikings Training Camp in Mankato (see page 30), he and his wife began making moves to open a Topper’s Pizza franchise in Mankato. His wife had been at Carlson Craft 27 years and was looking for something different and a family business that could include their two college-age boys.
Said Wilke, “Part of my (Mall) job includes prospecting. While in St. Cloud we found a Topper’s Pizza, took the product home and enjoyed it. We didn’t want to get into a trendy business that could be here today and gone tomorrow. The pizza industry is a $35 billion industry. It wasn’t going away.”
They picked a location in West Mankato on Front Street that could be seen from Riverfront Drive and was near other pizza deliverers.
“Our goals in starting the franchise were to provide jobs for kids trying to pay for a college education because we knew how hard it was and to provide our (Wilke) kids life experiences on how to operate a business,” he said. “My boys were involved in lease negotiations, hiring, purchasing, food preparation, plumbing—everything. We also wanted to spend more time with our kids should they decide to leave Mankato. Our last goal was to have a profitable business.”
Topper’s Pizza discovered a niche market delivering pizza to the college crowd until 3:00 am. The Wilkes sold their business to another franchisee this last November after their boys had graduated from college and moved away to Iowa and the Twin Cities.
“With Topper’s Pizza, as employees, we had many kids away from home for the first time,” he said. “My wife and I often played the role of mom and dad. I remember a few kids experiencing difficult times. My wife and I counseled quite a few kids through the process. We helped them with—you name it—from financial help to a ride when their cars weren’t working.”
While owning the business, the Wilkes met or exceeded all four family goals, including teaching their boys the nuts and bolts of running a business. Today, one son works for General Growth Properties in Des Moines and the other is a Twin Cities-area insurance underwriter.
And it’s not as if with Topper’s Pizza sold Wilke has nothing left to do. He still has a full plate serving the Greater Mankato community and continuing on as The Ringmaster at River Hills Mall.
Rosa Parks Elementary
CONNECT: You’re on the financial advisory committee for District #77 schools.
WILKE: I’m one of the longest serving members, having been on more than ten years. We review all the financials from the school board and determine if or when we should go to a referendum. We look at the total package of district wants and needs and determine what we think taxpayers will support. Years ago, we had seen enrollments climbing and knew temporary classrooms in Eagle Lake and on Monroe had been temporary too long. Just after we passed the referendum to construct Rosa Parks Elementary, the economy crashed. But what a great time that was to be out to bid. We got great pricing and returned $1.5 million to taxpayers.”
What Makes Wilke Tick?
What words best define Wilke as a person?
Said Wilke, “I say this to my kids all the time and with others—and in fact, I say it often. I just seem to have this thing in my DNA that says never, never, never, give up. I don’t know how to give up. Some people start things and give up halfway through. But I can’t give up.”
As for who helped make him into the person he is today, he said, “For one, I’ve had a great boss, mentor, and friend, Steve Menne, and Mall co-workers who have helped and supported me. They are dedicated, fun, hard workers who support each other and are like family. But no one has inspired me more than coworker Doug Weihe, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2007. He was a dedicated father, husband, and friend. Also, my wife and children inspire and teach me about life every day. I owe so much to them for all their love and support.”
About 2004, then Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs put Vikings Training Camp out to bid, and Duluth, Sioux Falls, and Fargo responded aggressively. To counter these competitive proposals, Mankato formed Minnesota Vikings Training Camp LLC. Paul Wilke was president, and other members were Dave Schooff, Pat Hentges, Denny Dotson, C.J. Person, and Scott Bergs. The group essentially took over all camp operations from the Vikings, including negotiations for housing and food service. They built Vikings Village. In 2006, new Vikings owner Zygi Wilf brought camp operations back under Vikings control, but not before Minnesota Vikings Training Camp LLC in two years had essentially kept the wolves at bay, raised more than $1.5 million for camp expenses, and saved training camp for Mankato.