NEW YORK — By many accounts, Myron E. Ullman has done a good job in a difficult situation, striving to salvage the beleaguered R.H. Macy & Co.
The chairman and chief executive of the $6.6 billion chain has closed stores, cut losses, met cash flow plans in 10 of the last 11 months, brought expenses down to a reasonable ratio of sales and steered a merchandising-driven organization into the age of computers with state-of-the-art systems.
But now, with Federated Department Stores — led by the charismatic Allen I. Questrom — moving to acquire Macy’s, doubts are being raised as to whether Ullman will achieve his ultimate goal: bringing Macy’s out of bankruptcy intact, and with him in control.
“I suspect Macy’s didn’t have a great Christmas, and with Allen Questrom, a white knight with demonstrated abilities to take a company out of Chapter 11, people may be looking over their shoulders,” said retail consultant Walter Levy. “That’s the danger Ullman lives with now. There’s tremendous pressure, and if the numbers aren’t good, it’s going to be tough to resist Questrom. The timing by Federated is exquisite.”
In addition, rumors have spread this week that Dillard Department Stores and May Department Stores want to get into the action, possibly going after Macy’s or other major retailers such as Carter Hawley Hale or Mercantile Stores. “May Co. is sitting with a load of money,” said one source. “David Farrell [May Co.’s chairman] is shrewd. And this is now a game of size. Who can get bigger and who can get what. It does not speak well for people employed by department stores,” the source added, referring to the inevitability of layoffs if companies merge.
Compared to Questrom, a flamboyant merchant who often spends six nights a week on the social scene, Ullman projects a more reserved image as a financial and systems expert with managerial skills far beyond the typical retail bean counter. Sources describe Ullman as intense, a hands-on type in some aspects of the business such as systems and sales promotion, and a man who routinely puts in 12-hour days, including Saturdays.
With his time divided between responding to creditor committees and bankruptcy attorneys, and running the business, “he’s not as totally accessible as one would think,” said one former Macy’s merchant, who suggested that Ullman seems somewhat removed from the merchandising efforts.
Within the staff, Ullman has reportedly been close to Burnett Donoho, vice chairman for operations, and Michael Steinberg, chairman of the Macy’s West division.
The day after Edward Finkelstein, his predecessor, left, Ullman held a meeting with merchants on the 12th-floor executive offices at the flagship to discuss the new management structure.
“It was not a particularly impressive event,” said the former Macy’s merchant. “It lasted about 20 minutes. The big thing was that the company would be more open and that people should be communicating, from the bottom up and not just from the top down. Everyone would have their say. He doesn’t handle things clumsily, but he seemed a mystery to many in the company.” Added another Macy’s executive: “He’s logical, not emotional.”
“He’s squeezed the business back,” said Levy, referring to some streamlining moves, “but unfortunately there hasn’t been a counterpart to move the business on the merchandising side. They waited way too long to get their merchant.” Roger N. Farah — the man regarded as “their merchant,” is scheduled to join the company as president in July, succeeding Mark Handler, former co-chairman and chief merchant.
“Without the merchandising leadership, the company has not been performing, plans keep getting revised,” said a former top Macy’s official. “Questrom took Federated out of bankruptcy and doubled the stock. If I were a creditor, I would want Federated to be a part of it. Don’t underestimate Ullman, but I believe Macy’s will no longer be the same. It will either be swallowed up by Federated or divested to other groups.”
That’s not Ullman’s vision of the future. He has repeatedly said he wants to take the Macy’s out of bankruptcy intact.
“Just about no one at Federated knew anything about this,” said one Federated source, alluding to the overture for Macy’s. “They kept it secret. Allen is very determined in this and has the experience. These two guys [Questrom and Ullman] are in a different league. It may be that the creditors have more confidence in him. This was just his first salvo to get into the race.”
Some think Macy’s Christmas results will a big factor in the Federated situation, but Ullman disagreed, adding, “Frankly, we continue to meet our business obligations, sales were better on a comparable-store basis and we expect to make bottom-line projections.”
Macy’s reports monthly sales 30 days after the end of each month, and makes quarterly reports 45 days after each period. According to Ullman, sportswear and petites were up 4 percent, coats had a double-digit gain, accessories rose 9 percent and shoes were up 10 percent. On the other hand, fine jewelry was down, dresses continue weak, while shoes gained 10 percent and junior sportswear was up 3 percent.
Ullman joined Macy’s in 1988 as executive vice president, rose to co-chairman when Finkelstein left in April 1992, and subsequently became chairman and ceo. “Mike is a great administrator and a very organized manager,” said a former senior Macy official. “He came into a company with no financial control, no systems. He did a brilliant job cutting to the heart of the problem. He made a decision to improve the systems right off the bat, and really tackled shortage and operational problems. He brought balance to a merchandising organization that didn’t understand the operational side of the business.
It was Ullman who first implemented Macy’s buyer-planner-store strategy in 1992, a merchandising approach that differs from the team-buying process at Federated. The Ullman plan has been regarded as more organized method of to stocking stores than the way things were during the earlier days of bloated inventories.
“He’s had a strong sense of what he wanted to get accomplished, very interested in streamlining the organization, but did see the stores a lot. But no one knows him. Clearly, he didn’t look to build relationships with Ed Finkelstein’s people.”
“When a business gets into trouble it’s incumbent on the ceo to get know more of the staff than he would normally,” said Herbert Mines, the executive search consultant. “There are so many issues involved. Ullman doesn’t need to be awfully close to the merchants, he ought to be focusing on getting Macy’s out of Chapter 11.”
However, Mines added that during a bankruptcy, priorities change.
“The real role a ceo plays is cheerleader, having people understand the process, and seeing and feeling that there is leadership,” Mines said. “He must carve out the time for that. Get out to the major stores and be visible. Allen Questrom was very good at being the cheerleader and being visible.
“In the end, it will be who is going to get the creditors a better deal, but Questrom’s age, track record and the fact that he is a merchant who led Federated out of bankruptcy gives him an edge. There is a prejudice on the street that consumer-oriented businesses should be led by merchants.”