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.
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"It's really hard sometimes. I think I have a reputation for being really tough and aggressive and pushy but I really am a very shy person who wants to be liked, and that's the conflict constantly. There's something that takes hold - I want people to like me, I don't want to be mean - but if I see something that just cries out to be answered, I go for it," says renowned NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell. (📷: @axeldupeux)