By  on August 9, 2010

Belk Inc. has installed a woman from outside the Belk family in a top executive post.

Kathryn Bufano, who has been president of merchandising and marketing since joining the Charlotte, N.C.-based department store group in January 2008, has been promoted to president and chief merchandising officer.

She succeeds McKay Belk, who has decided to extend his yearlong sabbatical and relinquish the title. He remains with the company founded in 1888 by his grandfather, William Henry Belk, as vice chairman and a director. According to the firm, he “will provide…advice and counsel on merchandising and vendor relations.”

Belk’s decision to leave retailing, at least temporarily, in favor of Christian ministry-related service came in June 2009, and he was uncertain of whether he’d return to full-time work in the family business at that time.

“That remains to be seen,” he said. “That door is open. It will be dependent on what occurs over the next 12 months. I will have the [vice chairman] title regardless of whether I come back.”

Following Belk’s departure, Bufano had reported to Tim Belk, chairman and chief executive officer, and she will continue to do so in her new role. The ceo described her as “an outstanding merchant who understands our Southern lifestyle and is providing excellent strategic leadership to enable Belk to deliver the fashion, style and service that our customers expect and deserve.”

Although Bufano is the first woman and the first person outside the Belk family to hold the title of president and chief merchant of the retailer, she was preceded by a woman, Mary Delk, in her most recent post. Her new title was first assigned in 2004, when it was given to McKay Belk at the same time that Tim Belk became chairman and ceo and John “Johnny” Belk became president and chief operating officer. Those appointments, passing the gavel to a third generation within the Belk family, came upon the retirement of John Belk as chairman and ceo after more than 50 years at the helm of the firm. The three Belk brothers are nephews of the former ceo, who died in 2007, and sons of Thomas Belk, former president, who died in 1997.

Bufano told WWD that Belk’s business “has been good. We’ve had a record-breaking spring and are optimistic about the future. I do believe very much that we are the authority in our 16-state footprint in terms of understanding the Southern lifestyle, and we’ve added a lot of head count to support the business.”

Private label has about a 30 percent penetration at Belk, she said, and the company recently concluded a study with Kantar Retail of 35,000 of its customers showing that awareness of and loyalty to the retailer’s private brands had grown substantially since the last study in 2008.

Meanwhile, she said, the company is enjoying a “very strong” back-to-school business in young men’s, children’s and denim.

“We like being a good-better-best department store,” she said. “We have a very strong moderate business and can flex within our organization to go where the customers want us to be.”

Bufano joined Belk after serving as ceo of Vanity Shops, a junior specialty chain based in Fargo, N.D. Earlier in her career, she held merchandise management roles with Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Dress Barn Inc.; Macy’s Inc., and Lord & Taylor.

With 306 stores in 16 states in the South and Southeast, Belk is the largest privately held department store company in the U.S. In 2009, it reversed a prior-year loss with a $67.1 million net profit and generated revenues of $3.35 billion. First-quarter profits increased fiftyfold to $25.2 million on a 5.7 percent increase in sales to $760.9 million.

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