By  on August 14, 2013

Kenneth Kolker, former top merchant at May Department Stores Co., and a mentor to many in the retail industry, died Tuesday night after a short illness. He was 89.

As president of the May Merchandising and chairman of the May International divisions, Kolker was the architect of several critical merchandise strategies, and a close associate to the retailer’s formidable, now retired, chairman and chief executive officer David Farrell.

“Everybody who knew Ken was touched by him. He was just a really gentle, smart guy,” said former Liz Claiborne executive Hank Sinkel, who had a summer ritual with Kolker, sipping coffee at the beach in Southampton, N.Y., where they both have houses.

“Ken was truly unique,” said Michael Gould, Bloomingdale’s chairman and ceo. “He wasn’t just a merchant. He was intellectually curious about everything, enormously caring and he made you think not just about the merchandise but about life.”

“He had a keen eye for what matters, not only trends, but for seeing the future of how things could develop, how a business could develop,” said Gilda Block, a former sales promotion executive at A&S and May, and a close friend. “He had big ideas and could push them through.”

“I knew him for 48 years,” said Allen Questrom, a former J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Federated Department Stores and Barneys New York chairman. “If you had a problem and brought it to him, you could trust it would stay between you and him. He really understood that this business is about people, relationships, which is something people say all the time, but he lived it.”

Kolker was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 24, 1923. He attended the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. During World War II, he served as a lieutenant in the Navy on a destroyer in the Pacific. After the war, he joined the training squad program at the now-defunct Abraham & Straus and rose to executive vice president of merchandising, where he mentored many of today’s top retailers.

He later joined May Department Stores Co., where he continued to make his mark as a mentor and merchandise strategist for many years before the company was taken over by Macy’s in 2005. Kolker conceived and orchestrated a broadening of May’s merchandise mix, long weighted toward moderate goods, to opening and better prices. He is also credited with developing key item strategies, aggressive promotions and launching activewear roughly 25 years before the industry began widely adopting the category. He was among the first to seize upon cashmere as a major seller as well as leather furniture, both elevating May’s appeal. “He was instrumental in forging strong brand alliances, and was a master of key promotions at key times on key items. He had a balanced approach to the business,” Sinkel said.

“We worked together almost 25 years at May Company,” recalled Farrell. “Much of May’s success belongs to Ken Kolker. He was May’s secret weapon. He headed up May Merchandising starting in 1975. I originally tried to recruit Questrom, but he was interested in other things, like working for Bullock’s. But he gave me Ken’s name and said, ‘He’s your man.’ Questrom was right.

“Ken was a very gifted merchant. He had a very keen business mind. I think what he did best was being an inspirational leader. He touched more people’s lives than most of us put together. Retail is a tough business. You get a report every day. You need a lot of confidence. But his big contribution was he gave people hope and insight. Ken always had three or four good ideas, for anyone, right down the organization, from store heads to buyers to market reps. He had an open-door policy. He came out of the London School of Economics. You don’t get too many people in retailing with those kind of credentials.”

Kolker became an adviser and sounding board to many people, whether they worked for him or not, including Gould. He met Kolker in the summer of 1967, as a trainee at Abraham & Straus, when Kolker was an executive vice president there.

“It was a special summer squad for MBAs,” Gould recalled. “I was doing a project in the dinette department for the gmm, and I went to see Ken and present him the findings. I still remember sitting in his office and talking. He never imposed his wishes. He was never the didactic leader. He led by example.” The impression was so strong that although Gould never reported or worked with Kolker again, they became friends for life. “He was a mentor by example, to so many of us who came out of A&S,” Gould said, citing Questrom, Millard “Mickey” Drexler, Michael Jeffries and Michael Sternberg.

A big disappointment for Kolker was when May Co. was dismantled and merged into Macy’s in 2005. He was technically retired but served as a consultant to May. He was most concerned about May staffers and became instrumental in getting many of them jobs at Macy’s. “After we acquired the May Company, he was definitely somebody whose brain I picked,” said Terry J. Lundgren, Macy’s chairman, president and ceo. “He had such excellent insights on people. He was a reservoir of knowledge. I don’t know anyone who knew Ken who didn’t admire the guy. I competed with him for most of my life but considered him a dear friend.”

Kolker loved the arts, jazz, sports and the beaches of Fire Island, Ponte Vedra and Southampton. Though wealthy, Kolker never flaunted it. He lived in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, and in Southampton, where he had a modest ranch house. For years, he drove a beat up Volkswagen Beetle but only took it up a notch when he purchased a 1994 Nissan Centra. He had a keen interest in politics and policy, and engaged in spirited discussions with a depth of knowledge.

“We had a great conversation on Monday,” Sinkel said. “The big thing was Hillary Clinton, Benghazi, Anthony Weiner, J.C. Penney and Ken Hicks” of FootLocker, who he also mentored.

Services will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on 81st Street and Madison Avenue. There are no survivors. Donations can be made to the 92nd Street Y Jazz Program.

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