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When Ira Neimark lines up a speaking engagement at a college, he makes a serious request to the instructor that irks the students.
Have them come to class properly attired — shirt, tie and a jacket — and no jeans or T-shirts. Girls, too, should be appropriately dressed, preferably sportswear or business attire.
“I am explaining to them the facts of life,” said Neimark, who makes it plain why he wants students to look sharp for him. “If you are a genius, you can wear anything. But I haven’t met many geniuses lately,” he said. “Students have to learn that when they go into the business world, the first impression is what you look like. It might be better to learn that right now, from me, rather than when they’re out there hunting for a job. It’s important that standards be set on how young people behave and present themselves.”
Dressing for success, and getting a foot in the door, are lessons number one and two in Neimark’s college lectures, and in his recently published book titled “A Retailer’s Lifetime of Lessons Learned.” That’s because in his life, clothes really mattered. As a teenager, fitting perfectly into a Philip Morris-style bellhop uniform landed him a Christmas job as a page boy at Bonwit Teller in 1938. It was his first job at retail. Decades later, as chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman in the Seventies and Eighties, Neimark was determined to get European designers to sell the store to build its reputation. “That Christmas job turned out to be the beginning of a career, which I wouldn’t be talking about if I didn’t fit into that uniform,” Neimark recalled.
Today, the 91-year-old Neimark is in Aretsky’s Patroon restaurant, looking dapper as always, in a Turnbull & Asser suit, Charvet shirt and Hermès tie. Neimark has been retired since 1992, but not really. He’s been on the Hermès board for 20 years; has advised companies including Mitsukoshi, the Japanese department store, and has written three books, chronicling his rise in retailing, those who nurtured him and recounting what he learned on his road to success. He’s not likely to tackle a fourth. “I’ve said everything I’ve had to say,” Neimark said. “Now I am in a wonderful position, looking back and being able to advise young people on the steps to success. It’s very gratifying.”
His latest book contains about 250 “lessons learned” based on experiences and advice from those who became mentors. He said the book is modeled after Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” Each lesson is preceded by a short anecdote about a job experience or encounter with a mentor that made a lasting impression. “There are many words of wisdom in this book from people that moved me ahead, step by step,” Neimark said.
On starting a career, he typically encourages students to just get a foot in the door. “Pick out five companies that you would like to work for and tell them you will do anything to get in,” he said. And once inside, put yourself in the company of influential people, and network in a careful way, respecting the layers of management above you. “Don’t jump over anyone’s head,” Neimark advises. “Be mindful of seniority and hierarchy.”
One time at G. Fox, a former department store in Connecticut, the store’s president and his mentor, Beatrice Auerbach, wanted to expand a branch location. Neimark, a divisional merchandise manager at the time, came up with a plan covering a new layout and productivity goals that he wisely distributed to the senior executives. They liked it, and Neimark was promoted to general merchandise manager. “You have to get through different layers of management,” Neimark said. “In so many cases, management is more concerned about their own jobs than you.”
IRA NEIMARK ON HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS
• “When one of the highest executives in the company asks you for ideas or suggestions, it is important to keep the key executives in the loop. They will not like being upstaged but will appreciate that they were not kept in the dark. This also gives them the ability to comment negatively or positively on your presentation instead of just sitting there with eggs on their faces.”
• “A new position offers new opportunities. It is important to integrate slowly into a company so people come to feel they know you and what you stand for. Acceptance cannot be achieved overnight. As difficult as it may be, patience will always win out.”
• “You have to convince everybody along the line that you are dedicated to achieving success and have to make sure management knows how you feel.”
• “You have to know what the ceo’s objectives are. If it’s a family business, it’s important to know the culture and what they have achieved.”
• “Customers are what make money for stores. People don’t understand that. So when business turns bad, what do they do? They pull out the salespeople. It’s like pulling out the spark plugs from your car.”