General Manager, Paddock Mall
One of the largest “community centers” in the Ocala area is the Paddock Mall, which is continuing to flourish under the leadership of Ashley Wheeler-Gerds. Under her leadership, the mall has greatly expanded its community outreach efforts and has undergone numerous improvements, while attracting new tenants. It is vital to Ashley that the many community events she stages benefit as many worthy local nonprofits as possible and that such partnerships as the “mall walking program” help individuals maintain or establish a healthy routine. Ashley is a strong believer in teamwork, stressing that every member is important and that every voice deserves to be heard and success is most often the result of collaboration.
What was the catalyst that led you to this industry?
In my former career I traveled a lot and wanted something that would allow me to be home with my family and yet keep me active in my community. I prayed for God to lead me and I received a call from a recruiter about interviewing for my current position. Many interviews and a trip to Ohio later, I found my new home.
What are the biggest challenges facing your industry, and how are you overcoming the hurdles?
Everyone says malls are dying, but we are actually growing. Millennials want to see and feel what they buy and are “last minute” shoppers. They are what fuels our centers and keeps us growing. We are community centers, not malls. We host free events, fashion shows, nonprofit events and even 5K runs now. It’s all about adapting to what your community needs and benefits from. My team and I have created monthly events to help drive different types of traffic to our center, as well as other initiatives, ranging from a Mall Walking Program with AdventHealth to enhancing our holiday sets to compete with other centers across the country.
Who are your role models and mentors?
I don’t really have one role model or mentor. I look to different people in different situations and always seek advice. My husband was born at the hospital he now works for and has been an active member of the Ocala community for a long time. He is my rock and always helps me with what I may need or leads me to the best person to help me. I have met some many wonderful people since I moved to Ocala, and we all give to our community in so many ways.
What causes are close to your heart, and how do you hope to advance those causes through your contribution?
I deeply love so many causes and my team and I try to be as active as possible. My favorite is the Public Education Foundation of Marion County. I was invited to a lunch-and-learn by a close friend, Jennifer Hatchett, last year. I left that meeting feeling empowered and with the never-ending thought of, “How I can continue to help?” We are now a business partner to Shady Hill Elementary School, along with Chick-fil-A Paddock Mall. We donate to the foundation each year monetarily, and also through clothing and shoe donations for their Rock Program and through any other events to help raise funds. We also work closely with the Transitions Life Center and help raise money through our annual Brunch, Bourbon, and Beer event in June. We “stuffed the bus” and hosted one of the largest back-to-school events with Marion County Public Schools (MCPS). We hosted and financially took care of every detail for MCPS during the event that benefited thousands of people. We also work closely with the College of Central Florida Foundation, Night of Hope, Florida Kids Helping Kids, 21st Century Oncology, AdventHealth Ocala, Voices Of Change Animal League, The Dance Collective, the American Heart Association, and so many others. It is our goal to help each nonprofit in a unique way that fits their vison. Each event that we host at Paddock Mall is tied to a nonprofit. We use those funds to donate back to the community.
What advice would you offer anyone who aspires to become a leader in their industry or community through service?
Your team you work with is everything. Treat them as you would want to be treated, have compassion each day, and help guide them to grow. Without a team supporting you, you have nothing. Remember each person communicates differently, and it is your duty as a leader to speak their language, not expect them to speak yours.
Do you have a mantra?
Each day is a gift and tomorrow is never promised. Live each day as if it were your last. Would you be proud of the legacy you left behind?
The best leaders lead by example, so what do you hope your example encourages others to emulate?
Lead your team as if they were your family, encourage growth personally and professionally, and never underestimate the power of the phrase “Thank you.”
What is your favorite part of living in this community?
Never in a million years did I think I would end up calling Ocala my home. This community has not only welcomed me with open arms, but they have supported me through everything. We are all there for one another through any high or low. I have never met more people so involved in giving back to a community on so many different levels. We are one big Ocala family.
Contact Ashley Wheeler-Gerds, general manager Paddock Mall and Gaitway Plaza, Washington Prime Group, at (352) 237-1223 or Ashley.firstname.lastname@example.org