Retail veteran Michael Fenley embraces an aloha state of mind as general manager of soon-to-open International Market Place.

Photo by Bodie Collins

Photo by Bodie Collins

Assuming the role of man of the house after his father’s untimely death catapulted Michael Fenley, now general manager of the International Market Place, into an early leadership role and forged a sense of determination that still serves him today.

Fenley went from being the eldest child in a typical 1950s/1960s household to a 15-year-old forklift operator after his 52-year-old father George, a Los Angeles fireman, died of a heart attack on the job.

“I remember my mom [Barbara] being so scared, just terribly scared. My dad took care of all the finances, my mom was lost,” says the now 61-year-old Fenley. “I remember that I couldn’t help her really except to try and reassure her that it would be OK.”

Unsure of his family’s new financial needs, Fenley sought work at a local food processor as a forklift operator, which paid better than most jobs a teenager could get.

“At 15, I told them I was 18 and had a driver’s license and could drive a forklift,” he says. “I didn’t have a driver’s license. I couldn’t drive a forklift and I wasn’t 18. It was on-the-job training working with teamster truck drivers.”

Fenley worked the forklift for the entire summer full-time, then part-time during the school year and full-time for another summer. While it had nothing to do with his ultimate retail career, Fenley says the job taught him the importance of learning from your mistakes. He still remembers the day that he misaligned the forklift putting it through boxes of Italian dressing.

“I had Italian dressing going all over and I just knew that I was going to get fired,” Fenley recalls.

Instead, Fenley’s boss turned that split dressing moment into a teachable moment—one that he hasn’t forgotten today. Fenley went on to forge a 30-year plus career in retail leadership, where he manages employees and vendor team members.

Fenley with wife Julie enjoying their backyard on the Hoakalei Country Club Golf Course (photo courtesy Michael Fenley).

Fenley with wife Julie enjoying their backyard on the Hoakalei Country Club Golf Course (photo courtesy Michael Fenley).

“I’ve come to learn that the most important thing you can do when you are working with people is treat them with respect,” he shares. “Give them the opportunity and space and tools that they need to succeed. When they have failed, help them to understand how and why they failed and get them pointed back in the right direction.”

Fenley says he strives to treat his employees and coworkers the way that his mentors treated him. Thanks to retail mentors, he worked his way through college at Long Beach City College and Long Beach State. He started out selling traditional men’s clothing at Norm Meager in the Lakewood Shopping Center. From there, he ended up working at a retail store in a Taubman-owned-and-operated center in San Francisco Bay.

“I haven’t stayed with this company for this many years or this industry because I’m smart. I’ve done it because I’ve listened to people, who were wiser and more learned than I [am],” he says.

For instance, Fenley says his retail ambitions were focused on becoming an international buyer until a former general manager at Hilltop Mall tapped him to interview for an assistant mall manager job.

“I thought what better way to practice my interview skills until a buyer opportunity comes along,” Fenley says. “As he described the business, the way we provide shopping experiences to people and create an environment for successful retailers and satisfied shoppers, I finally came to realize this business was of interest to me.”

The decision to pursue that position put Fenley on the path to becoming a general manager, a goal that he achieved in 1982, when he assumed leadership of Meadowood Mall in Reno, Nevada. There he also met his wife, Julie, who was working as an office manager there.

“It was an office romance and she’s never forgiven me for having to quit her favorite job,” says Fenley, who still views the day that Julie agreed to marry him as the very best of his life.

Their marriage completely changed his life, he says.

Fenley on the IMP construction site (photo courtesy Michael Fenley).

Fenley on the IMP construction site (photo courtesy Michael Fenley).

“I don’t know where I would be or whom I would be if that day had not occurred,” he says. “My wife has been a big part of every one of [our family’s] challenges and solutions.”

Fenley credits further development of his character to his children Cassandra Fenley, 27, and son Cameron, 25, who have shaped his life immeasurably.

“The biggest challenge of my life is raising two wonderful children,” he says. “They’ve taught me that hard work and fighting through tough times can and normally does result in successes beyond your imagination.”

Fenley also has had many notable highlights during his tenure at Taubman Centers. Prior to being named general manager for the International Market Place, he served as general manager of Sunvalley in the San Francisco Bay Area where he oversaw the multimillion-dollar renovation and remerchandising of the center. Fenley also served as general manager for five other Taubman-owned super-regional shopping centers in Connecticut, Michigan, Nevada and California.

“It’s a great company to work for. It’s a company that views its most important assets to be their people, their employees,” Fenley says. “It’s a company that bases their business model on stated values.”

Fenley says he left Taubman for a short duration when a property that he managed for them was sold, but returned three years later when they presented another opportunity.

“It took me six minutes to make that decision,” he says. “It’s a company that I’m very proud to have been associated with for that length of time.”

While Fenley has racked up a plethora of memorable moments at Taubman, he counts the day he was named general manger for the Hawai`i project as the best one of his career.

Fenley sinking a 12 footer for par (photo courtesy Michael Fenley).

Fenley sinking a 12 footer for par (photo courtesy Michael Fenley).

“This is my first shopping center opening so every day creates a new challenge,” he says of the center, which is on track to open Aug. 25 with 75 to 85 shops and restaurants and a total workforce in the neighborhood of 2,500 people.

Developed by Taubman and CoastWood Capital Group LLC, in conjunction with Queen Emma Land Company, the revitalized International Market Place will feature the island’s first Saks Fifth Avenue and will seek to regain its place as a key aspect of Waikiki’s shopping, food and entertainment environment. In 2014, the more than half-century old market place and surrounding warren of low-cost shopping closed to make way for this massive transformation and gentrification.

Jonathan LoPatin, Taubman’s on-site owner’s representative, says Fenley was the obvious choice for the job because of his experience in the industry and ability to adapt to new culture.

“Michael displays a lot of passion in delivering a beautifully designed shopping mall that honors traditions and celebrates the future,” says LoPatin. “I am impressed by his ability during the construction process to identify opportunities to maximize the experience for future shoppers.”

As for his new stomping grounds, Fenley is eager to live aloha. “I love the Hawai`i sense of place and seek it wherever I can. That’s why I’m creating it in the Market Place,” he says. “I do anticipate this will be the capper for my career. How can you top this?”