Bob McGowan, the COO of Peddler’s Village, the Delaware Valley’s top tourist destination in 2020, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Northeast Philadelphia as one of 11 people (his parents and eight siblings) living in a three-bedroom Olney row house; how his family moved to Bucks County when his father started his own company and how sports helped to ease the transition to his new suburban surroundings; and deciding to attend Penn State seemingly without much thought.
McGowan also discussed the person who gave him an important break in his career; how he landed at Peddler’s Village; and what opportunities and challenges lie ahead for the tourist attraction as it celebrates its 60th year.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Bob?
In Philadelphia, I was born the seventh of nine children, three girls and then six boys in a row, and grew up in the Olney section of Northeast Philadelphia. Growing up in Olney, we had eleven people in a 3-bedroom row house. We had very few material things but were big on family. All six of us boys lived in one bedroom. My parents moved to Holland in Bucks county when I was thirteen.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a homemaker. She worked at the company where my father worked before they got married, and then she stayed home taking care of us kids.
My father worked in the title insurance business. When we moved out of Philadelphia, my dad started his own company. He was forty-two years old at the time. The title company he worked for was a national company, and they sued him at the time, to prevent him from going out on his own.
My father won the case, started his own company, and was extremely successful. He was able to put many of us through college without any debt, something that would be all but impossible to do today.
What memories do you have of growing up in Olney or Bucks County?
For me, it’s always going to be what I grew up with. When I look at where I’m at now versus where I was at then. At night, the six of us slept in two sets of bunk beds and a single bed with a trundle bed. We had a lot of fun together in those days.
Every Sunday, we went to a swim club. Even though we had tons of friends, my five brothers were all good friends and always could field a team. I really enjoyed living in the city back then. When we moved, things changed a lot.
Was the transition to the suburbs a hard one?
For me, yes. It was very hard initially. In Olney, I went to the same elementary school with the same group of friends for seven years before doing my 8th grade at a new school. When we moved, I missed my old friends a great deal, but as my mother said, “you’ll make new friends”, which I did! Many of whom I’m still close friends with today
What got you through the transition to a new neighborhood?
I was quiet back then. Sports were very helpful with the transition. I played baseball and basketball, ran track and was one of the better players in football. In my senior year at high school, I turned down a scholarship to Villanova to play football. I didn’t tell my dad that until after I enrolled at Penn State! I had been playing football since I was seven years old, and I decided I didn’t want to play football anymore. I was done.
How good of a football player were you?
I started varsity at the beginning of my sophomore year, but I was small, so I was getting beat up a fair amount. I was put back to JV that year but started junior and senior years. Archbishop Wood had a good program at the time. I had numerous scholarship offers from Division II schools. Villanova was a full ride. I would have graduated with Howie Long had I gone.
Did you have any jobs growing up?
I cut grass with a push mower and clippers when we lived in Olney. I had five or six steady customers, but that was enough because I was so busy with sports. My brothers and I also painted house numbers on the curbs for tips!
In high school, I worked for Bateman Lumber in Chalfont. It was a family business, and I went to school with one of the kids. Great people!
What lessons did you take from those jobs that stay with you today?
I always remember the people that I work for and work with. At the lumber yard, my friend’s father and uncle, the guys who owned the business, taught us how to treat the job: getting to work on time, customer service, presenting yourself, and hard work in harsh conditions. I worked for very good people who cared about us.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I was then and still am a classic rock fan. I love The Who, Cat Stevens, The Eagles.
How did you end up at Penn State?
I didn’t look at any schools. There was very little communication or coordination with our parents back then either. One day my friends and I decided we wanted to go to Penn State, and that was it.
Looking back, was Penn State a good choice for you?
I wouldn’t have done it any differently. I was not a great student. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so it was a great learning and growing-up experience.
I’ve been in the business world for 40 years, and I have hired many Penn State people. I know I can count on them. They’re not always going to be at the top of their class, but they always come out very well-rounded and prepared to work hard.
Looking back over your career Bob, who were the people who saw promise in you and gave you a chance?
A woman named Felice Barsky took the biggest risk on me. Felice was the Director of Sales at a Hilton in Trevose. I interviewed with her fresh out of college and didn’t know anything about the hotel business. I got lucky. She was looking for an infusion of young blood in the office. She wanted someone she could train on selling to get out, hit the street, knock on doors and get the word out about the hotel.
Trudy Rubenstein also worked at the same Hilton as the head of catering and events. I learned everything I know about catering from her. I was a 21-year-old kid selling Bar Mitzvahs to Jewish moms. I needed to know what a Bar Mitzvah was all about and how important the event was in Jewish culture. Trudy gave me that understanding and knowledge.
Another mentor is Rick Odorisio, who is very well-known in the Philadelphia hospitality business. I worked for him for twelve years.
I’ve always been lucky. I think it’s a lot of timing and luck, but I’ve always been surrounded by good people.
What brought you to Peddler’s Village?
I was running two hotels in King of Prussia for twelve years. Through my affiliation with the tourism bureau in Montgomery County, I became friends with a member of the Peddler’s Village board of directors. Mike Bowman, President & CEO of Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, was the Chairman of the Board at Peddler’s Village, so when I was looking, I spoke to Mike. He set me up with an interview at Peddler’s. It was Mike’s recommendation that put me over the top.
What opportunities and challenges do you have ahead of you and the 60th year celebration at Peddlers?
As exciting as this year promises to be, we are desperate for staff, as many businesses are, both in our stores and our restaurants. We need to re-evaluate wages, benefits, and our contributions to our current staff. We need to recruit for the upcoming spring/summer season and are hiring people now, even though our busy season doesn’t happen for a couple of months. We want to be ready once the weather turns nice in a month or two.
We have numerous events scheduled. The pandemic forced us to do more outside events, something we should have done years ago. We bought a 4,000 square foot tent. We do weddings, comedy shows, food, and more entertainment outside now.
It takes the Village from a place to shop to an entertainment venue. We had a record December in our shops, with sales over 50% of those in 2019. The retail stores were up over 36% from 2019. The influx of local Bucks County residents was tremendous for our business!
Do you get many out-of-towners into Peddlers Village?
We are very much Pennsylvania-heavy, but we get a significant base of our travelers from New York, North Jersey, and other cities in New Jersey, D.C., and Center City Philadelphia. We do a lot of partnering with Visit Bucks County, a great organization focused on bringing business to all of Bucks County.
They rediscovered you! What do you attribute to your success at Peddlers?
Hospitality management is really about management, not so much of an expertise in any one field. In the end, Peddler’s Village is only as good as the people I put in the positions to support me. We have a solid team in each department: marketing and communications, human resources, sales, restaurant, festivals, events, etc
When I took over here, I told the staff that I wanted Peddler’s to be known not only as a shopping destination but as an entertainment destination. I wanted it to be known as much for the comedy shows, the cabarets, the murder mysteries, a fun place that also includes unique shopping experiences.
Peddler’s Village was designed by Earl Jamison in the 1960s to be a mini town that had stores and other aspects of entertainment. In a sense, Earl was ahead of his time because we are turning 60 years old in June, and the pandemic really forced people to be reacquainted with the Village. It’s outside, and it’s free.
We have so much to offer on the weekends. Food, music, shows, and more. We want people to come over and feel like this is a place to hang out.
When Christine Triantos, our director of marketing, and I came in, we changed the demographics on where we focused our advertising and promotions. We wanted to diversify and make Peddler’s exciting and attractive to younger people and other groups to create their own history here. Christine pushed me to buy more media spots on tv and billboards.
What will we see different at Peddler’s Village for your 60th Anniversary this year?
The biggest event that is new this year is a sand sculpture exhibit. We received a grant from Visit Bucks County, plus funding from the Village itself, to create nine, ten-feet-tall and ten-feet-wide three-dimensional sand sculptures all with Bucks County themes.
We are partnering with local organizations in the promotion of this major event, hoping that visitors will learn more about the Bucks County history, culture, and landmarks that inspired the sculptures. The sand sculptures exhibit will officially open on June 1st and run through August 31st, but the artists will begin creating them in mid-May.
It seems you’re just starting to scratch the surface of Peddlers Village’s potential.
We are developing a Visitors and Events Center, with a General Store and permanent display of Peddler’s Village history. We are always trying to develop ideas that will be interesting to people.
What do you do with all your free time?
It’s not as all-encompassing a job as it may seem. I have quality people in our director and management positions that make overseeing the Village much easier. I’m into sports, and my family and I like to ski and golf. I spend time with my family and a core group of friends I’ve been getting together with since grade school and high school.
Do you get to many concerts?
My wife and I used to go to a lot of concerts – Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffet, Peter Gabriel. We have similar tastes in music. My wife is also into country music, so we’ve seen Toby Keith and a few other country artists.
What gives you hope, Bob?
Every place that I have worked, I’m sad to leave the people I work with when I leave there. When I go to another job, I always think it won’t be the same. My wife always reminds me that I always meet new people and create those relationships with my new team.
What gives me hope is the group of people I work with here at Peddler’s Village. I don’t think anything can compare to the last two years. We were closed for months. Sixty store owners were thinking their livelihoods were gone. We forged on and did better than where we were before the pandemic! I’m excited about the prospects of where we can go.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I can’t think of one individual piece of advice but many. Be true to who you are, always. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing. Make sure you take care of your team. They will take care of you. If you strive to reap the rewards you have to be willing to take the risks. My favorite thought though is something I say to myself often when I come into a new position…Leave it better than you found it!
Publisher’s Note: Laura Manion contributed to this profile.