By  on February 22, 2005

NEW YORK — The eyes of Wall Street and the fashion industry are on the intensely private Richard Smith.

Speculation is building that the most likely scenario for the Neiman Marcus Group is that the Smith family will hold a secondary offering of some or all of its shares, rather than a accept a bid for the luxury retailer. And the man in the driver’s seat is the family’s 81-year-old patriarch, Richard, who is NMG’s chairman.

Smith is also clearly a shrewd investor. He started with a $300 million investment in what was then Carter Hawley Hale, which included Neiman’s, capitalized on trading the shares over the years, and currently has a stake in NMG today worth over $630 million.

While the industry has been swirling with speculation that acquisition-hungry Federated Department Stores might bid for Neiman’s — especially since Federated’s chairman Terry Lundgren once ran the chain — sources said a secondary share offering by the Smiths appears to be the likely outcome of all the intrigue surrounding NMG in recent weeks.

The offering would enable the Smiths to both capitalize on Neiman’s soaring share price and do some estate planning.

Regardless of the outcome, the speculation over the last few weeks is putting the spotlight on Richard Smith, a man who prefers to remain out of it.

As the story goes, when Richard Smith first visited Bergdorf Goodman after gaining control of Bergdorf’s and its sister Neiman Marcus division in 1986, the reception was subdued.

“When he walked in, no one recognized him,” said a retailer.

That’s precisely how Smith would have wanted it. The corporate investor and chairman of the Neiman Marcus Group is intensely private. Despite the showy nature of Neiman’s, with all its trunk shows, fashion galas and over-the-top Christmas catalogues, Smith has always shunned the press and rarely made store appearances.  Meetings with store management are generally in Boston, where he’s based, or by phone.

“There aren’t any bells and whistles. He’s not that kind of guy. He’s soft spoken, easy to deal with, and just very smart,” said Marvin Traub, the former Bloomingdale’s chairman who was Smith’s classmate at Harvard College, Class of 1946. “Underneath it all, he’s very strong-willed.”

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