By  on October 5, 2006

NEW YORK — Christina Johnson, former president and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue, has joined new Lord & Taylor owner NRDC Equity Partners as a partner and managing director of retail and consumer investments.

The move led to speculation that NRDC eventually might seek to acquire Saks, which is in turnaround mode and isn't for sale. Still, several private equity and real estate firms, including NRDC, have shown interest in the retailer, people close to the situation said.

"We have more than enough to chew on for a while,'' Richard Baker, president of NRDC, said during an interview Wednesday. "We really want to focus on Lord & Taylor and make it into the premium brand it should be." However, Baker acknowledged, "We are looking at other things," and added that the company remains "very price conscious." He did not disclose any targets.

That's where Johnson comes in. "I will work with NRDC to assist on new acquisitions and the due diligence, and help them manage properties we acquire," she said.

Acquisitions could be in the retail, travel and restaurant sectors, Johnson said, adding that wholesale companies were a possibility, though they are not a sector NRDC is actively exploring.

NRDC is looking for companies that have brand recognition, are cash-positive, present growth opportunities and have strong management, Johnson said. She was involved in the Lord & Taylor deal as a temporary consultant for Tri-Artisan Partners, which provides advice on mergers, acquisitions and divestitures and often is involved in private equity transactions.

Johnson, who headed Saks from 2000 to 2003, described her role at NRDC as that of an adviser and a backup for store management in case of a departure. But she stressed, "I am not looking to operate a company," and said Jane Elfers would continue to run L&T, as president and ceo. Johnson will join L&T's board.

"Christina Johnson brings a wealth of knowledge and resources to our company," Baker said. "Her relationships within the retail community and overall expertise in consumer marketing will be a powerful asset for us to grow our acquired businesses as well as building our portfolio."NRDC on Tuesday closed the deal to buy Lord & Taylor from Federated Depart­ment Stores Inc. for $1.083 billion. The private equity firm this year also took a minority stake in Linens-N-Things. The majority investor is Apollo Management. NRDC, based in Purchase, N.Y., has other interests in retail companies, which it does not disclose. It has completed transactions in excess of $50 billion, in the retail, leisure, lodging and commercial real estate sectors.

NRDC is a joint venture between Robert C. Baker and his son, Richard, the principals of National Realty & Development Corp., and William Mack and Lee Neibart, partners of Apollo Real Estate Advisors L.P. Unlike some other private equity firms, NRDC does not have a standing fund and makes personal investments in operating companies. It is also distinguished by its roots in real estate. National Realty & Development owns more than 100 shopping and strip centers, corporate business centers and residential communities.

Typically, private equity firms look to sell their retail properties or take them public in three to five years. However, Richard Baker said that's not the NRDC agenda for Lord & Taylor. "We have no plans to sell it. We want to run it for the next 20 years."

It won't be the same chain. The Fifth Av­enue flagship, between 38th and 39th Streets, eventually will be downsized, and much of the space will be converted to office and/or residential use. The store has been underperforming, considering its size — 650,000 square feet — and relatively small volume of about $140 million annually.

"There is no rush; we are evaluating all different options," Baker said, adding that a plan for the flagship would be set by the end of this year. He said he would consider relocating the flagship to another Manhattan site if it became worthwhile to convert the entire Fifth Avenue store to nonretail space.

The new owners plan to invest $150 million to renovate stores and expand in the suburbs of the Northeast Corridor. The 180-year-old Lord & Taylor chain operates 48 stores and generated $1.4 billion in sales last year. Baker called three New York units outside Manhattan, in Eastchester, Manhasset and Garden City, and the Stamford, Conn., store "little jewels."Johnson is the latest top retailer to be hired by a private equity firm. Last month, Allen Questrom, former J.C. Penney, Feder­ated Department Stores and Barneys New York ceo, joined Lee Equity Partners, a new fund formed by Thomas H. Lee. Philip Miller, who preceded Johnson as chairman and ceo of Saks, is an operating director at Tri-Artisan Capital Partners. Vanessa Castagna, former chairman and ceo of J.C. Penney stores, catalogue and Internet, was recruited by Cerberus Capital Manage­ment and is executive chairman of Mervyns, owned by Cerberus.

Three-and-a-half years ago, Mickey Drexler, the former Gap ceo, was recruited by Texas Pacific Group to revive J. Crew, which he recently took public. Robert DiNicola, a former Zale Corp. chairman and ceo and longtime Federated executive, might have started the trend when Apollo Management tapped him to revive Zale in 1994. He is now running Linen-N-Things for Apollo.

Johnson was the only woman in the history of Saks to hold the ceo post. She began her career at Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago, then joined Marshall Field's, where she became senior vice president and general merchandise manager of the home store and direct response. In 1991, she joined Saks, becoming senior vice president and regional director of stores in the East. She rose to vice chairman and chief operating officer in 1999, and a year later took the top job.

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