PUBLISHED: 12:38 14 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and often regarded as the UK industry benchmark, it's no wonder that Bluewater's general manager Andrew Parkinson is smiling
First of all, a confession. I absolutely love Bluewater, and have ever since it opened its doors in March 1994. There's nothing quite like that sense of arrival as you first glimpse this futuristic 'mini-city' glittering in the disused chalk quarry dug out to contain it, always full of promise and with a sparkle that's undiminished after a decade.
I'm not alone in my obsession - more than a quarter of a billion of us (nearly five times the UK population) have visited since it opened, and every week half a million people shop here, spending on average £150, or £1 in every £10 spent in the UK.
But Bluewater is more than a shopping destination. Jointly owned by Prudential, Lend Lease Europe Ltd, the Lend Lease Retail Partnership and Hermes, its 1.5 million sq ft of retail not only includes 330 shops, but also 50 restaurants and bars, 50 rather lovely acres of parkland, seven lakes and 13,000 (free!) parking spaces.
"Bluewater is so many different things to different people", agrees general manager Andrew Parkinson. "It's a shopping centre, yes, but it's also a business - we'd be in the FTSE 100 if we were a public company - and we're also part of the local community, which our tenth anniversary is underlining.
"People are proud to work here, they may work for different companies, or in facilities or management, but if you ask them who they work for, they say Bluewater."
Bluewater has had a huge impact on employment in the region and when it opened, Dartford experienced a 25 per cent drop in unemployment, the largest single reduction anywhere in the UK. The in-house Learning Shop, originally set up for the cement workers on site, has helped find jobs for 15,000 people, 23 per cent of whom were long-term unemployed, and it has offered training to 10,000, resulting in some 8,000 qualifications.
School groups visit every week from all over Kent and, with the launch of the National Skills Academy, they can find out all about a career in retail.
So how is the UK industry benchmark faring in the current economic climate? "It's definitely tougher", Andrew admits. "We've got 330 retailers and everyone is aware there are national administrations and because of that we will be affected. But Bluewater will be able to ride it out better than most places because it's so multi-functional and delivers night and day. We had a record 27.5 million visitors last year."
The centre is indeed a 24-hour operation and Andrew, 45, puts in a long day that sees him at his desk by 7am. "We use Bluewater a lot as a family, we're here even on a Saturday, when my wife can't believe that I still want to, after being here all week! "The worst thing is me picking up litter, when I'm not in my suit. I can't stop myself, the culture is inbred."
Such a substantial community needs looking after, and the chaplaincy, first set up to take care of the pastoral needs of the construction workers, is still part of Bluewater. Chaplain Malcolm Cooper offers a 'quiet room' that can be used by visitors and staff for reflection away from the centre's bustle. There's even an on-site police station and ambulance.
Andrew was retail manager here six years ago, but left to to take over as general manager at the sister centre in Solihull. When the same role came up three years later at Bluewater, it was a case of right time, right man, and the family headed south once again.
"I've just dipped my way halfway up a bucket of paint in terms of learning Bluewater", laughs Andrew when I confess to still getting lost if I don't always go round it in the same direction (which makes me their most challenging kind of customer, apparently).
But he's not talking about knowing every back way and shortcut (which he does), it's about understanding the whole brand, "doing everything in a 'Bluewater way' and giving our guests a different experience every time. And yes, I always do say guests!"
Andrew's first taste of retail was, like most of us, a Saturday job, but cutting meat out back in a butchers' shop made him realise how much he preferred interaction with people.
University was followed by a variety of roles, from working for Corals - including, at just 21, doing the confidence-boosting calling at bingo clubs for 2,000 people on a Saturday night - to a stint at the NAFI, when he led a team out to Bosnia and went from being a civilian to a captain in the army, an experience he'll never forget.
Then it was back, effectively, to the high street until the top job came up at Bluewater. "It felt like coming home," Andrew smiles. "I love Kent, and it's great to be part of a place where people feel very proud to work.
"Everything about Bluewater connects you to Kent, from the oast houses on the roofs to the Rose Gallery that reminds you you're in the Garden of England. Eighty per cent of our guests are from south of the Thames and most of those are from Kent - and with the arrival of the Thames Gateway and the high-speed domestic link trains at Ebbsfleet International, we'll see a lot more people here from London as well."
Andrew stresses that he would never have achieved his goals without the support of his wife, Trish, and their children, now 22, 21 and 11. They clearly have a lot of fun together.
"I love theatre, from seeing my son doing stand-up to my daughter in her school play," Andrew tells me. "I love football and support Liverpool - my great-grandfather played for the team and my father is from Anfield - I do the Bluewater 10K run, I've run a couple of marathons and I also play a bit of golf with my dad."
Andrew's Bluewater 'family' is also vital to his success - he heads up a management team of 17 to 18 plus 270 in facilities. There is a wider family, too. "We sit between Dartford and Gravesham, we're in Stone parish and we're very much involved in the livelihoods of the 7,500 people who work here," he explains.
"Community also means the 50 acres of parkland we own and the million trees and shrubs that have gone up in the past 10 years. My areas of responsibility cover all those. No single day is the same."
Looking to the future, the tenth anniversary year will see the seven lakes being named, areas redeveloped (John Lewis is to open a food hall in September, for example) and expansion into the 50 acres of land the triangle-based centre sits on.
"A lot of people struggle with their working life, but I have never felt that working for Bluewater. I don't see it as a job a lot of the time, I feel very lucky that it's part of my life", says Andrew.