This week’s Friday Focus is local woman Leona Barr, nee McDaid. One (1) of six (6) children and eldest daughter to Leo and Bernadette - of the McDaid clan from the Cashelhill area of Galliagh, Leona has carved out an extremely successful career in retail spanning 30 years.  Beginning on the ‘shop floor’ at the tender age of 16, Leona has steadily risen the ranks of retail progressing to her present day position of Centre Manager of Northern Ireland’s largest retail outlet -The Junction (formerly Junction One).  Leona is a past student of St.Brigid’s Primary School followed by Thornhill College, is 45 years of age and currently lives in Ballymena with her 3 children and husband Rikki.  Former chair of both the Northern Ireland Region of Shopping Centres and All Ireland Shopping Centre committee, Leona continues to be on the committee of both these associations as well as collaboratively working with the Regional College on initiatives aimed at supporting young local business students.   

‘Cutting her teeth’ in the Ladieswear department of Dunnes Stores Richmond Centre, Leona fondly recalls Sunday trade first being introduced in Derry and reminisces on ‘bus loads of excited shoppers coming from across the border to shop in the centre’.  Immediately discovering a passion for retail, Leona particularly enjoyed the arrival and merchandising of new stock, relishing the opportunity to be involved in the design and layout of the shop floor.  Constantly learning from her senior peers and gathering the experience which has helped put her in good stead for her present day role, Leona loved the job so much that she continued to work part-time in Dunnes after taking a change of direction and joining BT in Derry at the age of 18, before taking a 3 year break from retail.

At the age of 23, Leona relocated to Ballymena, a choice which wasn’t easy given her love for her home city and close family.  Of the move, Leona says  ‘’It was a tough decision for me leaving Derry but we decided that my husband’s job as a BT Engineer was more secure and that I had an opportunity to move career in his hometown of  Ballymena. Ballymena had a good reputation as a bustling retail town in those days so I was fairly confident I would get something’’.  Her instincts were right and Leona returned to retail, promoted to managing a bridal store concession within the year.   From there on, she worked for an eclectic mix of retailers, ranging from furniture to department stores eventually settling in Next which was the last retailer she worked for ahead of joining The Junction.  While in Next, she opened the first ever infamous Next Clarence Sale in 2004.   

As Centre Manager, Leona has a diverse role that can involve anything from tenant liaison, marketing, facilities, community engagement, lettings and events.   More recently, Leona has been on a self-confessed learning curve after significant investment in The Junction brought new development plans.  Working closely with architects, landlords, letting teams and managing agents, Leona has found it incredibly rewarding to continue to evolve and learn despite her already significant experience in retail. 

Forging such a successful career in a incredibly demanding sector, Leona also managed this alongside starting her family with husband Rikki who was also in full time employment.  Having her first two children before the introduction of extended maternity leave, Leona had only 10 weeks off work each time before returning to her full time job.   For Leona this meant dropping off her two young boys into crèche each morning before a long drive to Coleraine.  She was 32 before finally having her longest career break to date when she took 6 months off following the birth of her daughter.   Upon her return to work, Leona now had 3 children under 5 and found meticulous planning was needed to balance both career and family, citing a good routine as how she mastered the latter.   

We chat to Leona today about balancing family, work and why we will never see her on Riverdance!  

 

How would you describe yourself?  Friendly, reliable and down to earth

Looking back over life what’s your favourite funny story about yourself?  Falling flat on my face coming into a room of about 100 people! It doesn’t get much funnier than that!

Tell me something about yourself that people don’t know? I’m a failed Irish dancer, I have cousins that were fantastic dancers and champions unfortunately I was not…

What makes you laugh?  Loads of things, I love a laugh!  I enjoy reminiscing of times gone by with friends and family. Getting together with my parents and brothers and sisters and all our kids is some craic these days!

What is the best compliment you have ever received?  Your children are so grounded.

What makes you angry?  I really try not to get angry and explode these days, I am finally realising it doesn’t help matters but lack of compassion in people annoys me.

High point of your life to date?  Having my children firstly and then my career progression that I do not take for granted, I feel privileged to be doing the job that I am.

What has been your low point? Losing my wee nephew Aiden almost 5 years ago.

How would you like people to remember you?  As a decent enough soul that loved the craic!

What are your treasured possessions? My children are not my possessions but I do treasure them more than anything along with the rest of my family. If we are talking material things then my phone unfortunately, I am literally addicted, everything is on there from work stuff to shopping lists and of course social media apps!

With 3 kids, your husband and such a demanding role, how do you strike a work life balance?  It is not easy at times but I have a very supportive husband that has always picked up the slack when I had to go away on business trips or work long hours! My kids are getting older now which does make things easier as they can make their own food etc.  I have also just recently started switching off emails when I am on holiday which helps.

What’s your favourite way to relax? What does your ‘me’ time look like? I just love meeting up with my friends for wine and food! It is the best tonic for overall wellbeing!

What advice do you have for anyone trying to balance their home life with a career?  or those maybe thinking about taking the first step into retail?  Having a supportive partner and realising that you will have to make sacrifices at times is inevitable. Getting in to a good routine really helps with children and get them involved in making the home life work, they are never too young to help wash dishes or put laundry away.

As someone who has amassed significant experience in the industry, what advice do you have for anyone considering a career in retail?  As far as stepping in to retail as a career, I would say go for it. If you have a good work ethic and common sense it will take you far, there are loads of opportunities to progress if you really want to.