Kevin Keenan, who grew up in West Hartford, retired Friday after a 46-year career at Westfarms and will be succeeded by Alberto Arebalo.
By Ronni Newton
Kevin Keenan has been working at Westfarms since day one – actually before day one.
Keenan, who grew up in the Elmwood section of West Hartford, got a job in the cleaning department of the soon-to-open mall.
He never left.
Keenan, one of nine children (four boys and five girls) attended elementary school at Webster Hill, went to St. Brigid School for grades 6-8, and after attending ninth grade at Talcott Junior High he finished high school at Prince Tech. He wanted to be a carpenter like his dad, but got talked out of that and pursued a career in printing.
He worked for a short time at The Hartford in their print shop, but then decided he had to see the world.
“I traveled all over for a couple of years,” Keenan said in an interview earlier in this week. He went to Colorado, Montana, California. He spent time in the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and other National Parks before ending up in Tucson, Arizona – via Canada – where he worked at a cattle ranch for about a year-and-a-half.
In the summer of 1974, the 23-year-old Keenan returned to West Hartford to visit his family.
“I took a job here as a cleaner to get gas money to get back to Tucson,” he said. That was in September 1974, right as Westfarms was poised to open.
“I never left … I thought I’d be back in Tucson for Christmas.”
When Westfarms opened there was nothing like it in the area, and Keenan got in on the ground floor. “Next thing you know, it’s 2001,” he said.
There was plenty that happened between 1974 and today, however, Keenan said. And there have been plenty of changes at Westfarms, which opened with just 15 stores ready to go, and 80 more under construction.
Most were mom and pop stores, and included a wine and spirits retailer and a flower shop. There was a movie theater (the entrance was where Taco Bell is now located) that showed first run movies like “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It was a big deal at the time to have three screens under one roof, Keenan said.
Sage Allen was where the Macy’s men’s/furniture store is now, and G. Fox was an original tenant but that became Filene’s and then Macy’s as the ownership changed. JCPenney is the only retailer that has been at Westfarms the entire 46-plus years. Michael’s Jewelers opened soon thereafter and also remains today.
Keenan earned $2.25 per hour when he started, and after a month got a raise to $2.50 per hour. He was given additional responsibilities pretty quickly, and soon was managing the cleaning operations.
He moved to the mechanical department, and the next thing he knew he was running the cleaning and mechanical departments. Then he took over security.
“What I really liked about the place is I had the liberty of doing a good job,” he said. He had the support of management from the beginning. “I was proud of the work I was doing.”
He met his wife, Joanne, at Westfarms. At the time she was managing The Limited store.
In 2000, Keenan was named general manager. He remained in that role for nearly 21 years.
“As the shopping center evolved, I feel like I’ve evolved with it,” Keenan said.
Most of the retailers at Westfarms today are national brands – many choosing Westfarms as their entrance into the Connecticut market. “First to market” has been a strategy since the 1980s.
Keenan credits his team, and their dedication, with the success that the shopping center has continued, even through the pandemic which closed the building for several months in 2020. The average tenure of the core team, pictured below in 2014, now exceeds 40 years, and they are like a family, have an incredible camaraderie. Their decisions have always been collaborative.
Keenan shared some of his favorite philosophies: “None of us is smarter than all of us” and “Surround yourself with the best talent you can find, and then get out of the way.”
While Keenan lives in Plymouth (his wife is from Litchfield County), his roots in West Hartford/Farmington run deep. “Some of my closest friendships are the people I’ve worked with,” he said.
“It’s been great. I’ve been blessed with a phenomenal career I wish everyone had. I literally love what I do,” Keenan said.
There was no one magic moment when he decided to retire.
“I love what I do and I’m passionate about what I do … but I’ll be 70 in August,” Keenan said. While turning 60 or 65 didn’t phase him, he said, “At 70, you’re on the back nine.” His job has been 24/7/365, but he wants to be able to golf, fish, and travel.
“I haven’t had a normal holiday in 46 years,” he said, and wants to be able to enjoy other things – including golf and using the fly fishing equipment he bought at a West Hartford Chamber of Commerce auction several years ago that has never seen water. His wife is an avid gardener and that’s in his plans, too. His son lives nearby, but his daughter lives in Oregon and he wants to have the time to really visit with her, as well as with other family like his brother in Seattle.
Several of his sisters still live locally, and are also recently retired or getting ready to retire, and now that they’ve all been vaccinated he looks forward to some more family time as well.
Keenan has been actively involved with the West Hartford Chamber’s golf tournament, and he plans to continue that as well as other community activities.
When Keenan leaves the office Friday he will be succeeded by Alberto Arebalo, who officially becomes general manager of Westfarms on March 26. Keenan said he is looking “forward to watching the center progress in new and dynamic ways with Alberto leading the way.”
Arebalo, who has 24 years of experience, was previously director of Operations at Dolphin Mall, a 1.4 million square foot shopping center in Miami, and prior for that worked in the same role, overseeing operations, construction, security, and facility management for Harvard Retail Corporation, Urban Retail Properties and StoreTech+ Co.
“Westfarms is a premier shopping center thanks to the leadership of Kevin Keenan and the commitment of Taubman to continually deliver exceptional retail destinations,” Arebalo said in a statement. “I look forward to learning more about my new community while working alongside of this great team.”
Taubman remains a 20% owner of Westfarms after completing a sale of 80% share of its properties to Simon Property Group in December. The plan had been in the works since February 2020 – before the pandemic.
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