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Jay Kent's career at Chatham's Pentagon shopping centre

From odd job man to the top man - that's the remarkable story of manager Jay Kent's 40-year-old career at Chatham's Pentagon shopping centre. In fact, Jay was not even an adult when he first started there as a 16-year-old taken on under a youth training scheme for a paltry weekly wage of £23.50. He told senior reporter Nicola Jordan all about it

Jay left school at 15 with no qualifications and no idea what he wanted to do but he so impressed the operations manager during his six-week trial he was kept on.

After a couple of jobs working in factories, Luton born-and-bred Jay started work at the centre just a mile away from the family home.

Jay Kent started working at the shopping centre aged 16
Jay Kent started working at the shopping centre aged 16

The hard-working employee survived numerous management takeovers and gradually worked his way up the promotion ladder.

When the last manager, Martyn Stone, was appointed he took Jay under his wing for first-hand advice on how the retail outlet worked.

He said: "By then I had 20 years of experience under my belt and the Pentagon was more than a second home to me.

"So he promoted me to operations manager with my own team."

Thirty-nine years after walking through the doors, Jay landed the role of boss.

The dad to two daughters and granddad said: "I never dreamt I would one day be the manager of a shopping centre I saw being built as a lad."

Jay Kent, left, when he was the Pentagon's odd-job man
Jay Kent, left, when he was the Pentagon's odd-job man

As a native of Chatham, I want people to feel the Pentagon is at the heart of their community, not just a place to shop, but somewhere to meet up, be entertained and really feel at home.

"Our customers tend to walk here or catch the bus and come up to three times a week. It's like one big corner shop in the centre of the town.

"I know a lot of the way we live, shop and converse has now been taken over by the digital world, but it could be a while before smartphones can make you a cappuccino or cut your hair."

The 56-year-old grew up with his mum and sister in Victoria Road with Lynda his wife-to-be living a few doors away.

He said: "We have known each other since childhood and Lynda got a job at Stead and Simpson in the Pentagon.

"We would meet up in our break buying fruit in the grocers on the first floor."

Jay Kent, back row, second from left
Jay Kent, back row, second from left

Married for 37 years, the Rainham residents have two daughters, Gemma, 34, and Jade, 30 and a 20 month-old granddaughter called Pearl after his late mother.

Jay went to Luton Infants, Luton Juniors and finished at Fort Luton, now Medway Community College leaving with no qualifications.

He said: "My last report was so bad my headmaster said he would give me an 'A' for courage if I showed it to my mum.

"I did and I think I got a slap."

He was told to get a job straight away and handed over his wages to his strict mother who gave him pocket money.

Jay, who is vice chairman of Chatham centre forum, believes the town has a strong future.

Childhood sweethearts Jay and Lynda Kent
Childhood sweethearts Jay and Lynda Kent

He said: "The opening of Bluewater and the Dockside outlet centre never really saw a massive impact.

"Being a local shopping centre, people continue to come here and go to Bluewater for special occasions.

"There is so much discussion these days about the challenges retail faces and the death of the High Street.

"If you have been in this industry as long as I have, you can recognise there have always been challenges and we have always had to work hard to adapt to changing lifestyles and marketplaces.

"For the Pentagon we have to remember and celebrate what we have and not what we lack.

"We are local, community-focused and can offer an experience in many ways."

Marilyn Monroe lookalike Kay Kent
Marilyn Monroe lookalike Kay Kent

When the old bus station moved to the Waterfront Way outside the Military Road entrance some businesses suffered.

But he has tried to compensate for this by introducing space on the first floor for community groups, such as the Nucleus Arts project HeArt, the single parents' charity, Gingerbread, and a youth group.

A monthly farmers' market has proved popular, demonstrating the way shopping trends can adapt by reverting to traditional roots.

Jay has a 20-strong workforce and a good rapport with traders whom he meets once a week.

He said: "My door is always open. There's no 'them and us'.

"Although I have not travelled far from my birthplace to the centre I now run, it's been a long and interesting journey.

"I come from a deprived area and from humble beginnings.

"It just goes to show with hard work and determination you can achieve what you want."

Tragedy hit the family when Jay's younger sister Kay Kent, who was hailed as the UK's top Marilyn Monroe lookalike, took her own life at the age of 25 in 1989.

Kay shot to fame featuring in TV adverts and was frequently pictured in the national press.

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