By  on April 24, 2007

It was a chance encounter on a tennis court at the Fountainebleau in Miami 30 years ago that gave the late Jack Lindner, at that time age 69, a second career in retailing.

"Jack was playing tennis and out of the blue Ben Cammarata comes onto the court to play tennis. They see each other and fall into each other's arms," recalled Lindner's wife of 55 years, Betty. Lindner died of kidney difficulties April 5 at Doctors Hospital in Century City, Calif. He was 100. Along with his wife, Lindner is survived by his son, Ken, and his sister, Sylvia.

Lindner and Cammarata hadn't seen each other for 12 years since they worked together at the former J.W. Mays department store in New York. Lindner was vice president and general merchandise manager of sportswear when he hired Cammarata at $70 a week and trained him to become a buyer.

"He took me under his wing and truly taught me the business, especially the off-price aspect of retail," said Cammarata, who is currently chairman of The TJX Cos., the off-price giant that operates T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and other chains in the U.S. and abroad.

Instead of playing a set at the Fountainebleau, the duo talked shop. Cammarata said he was in the throes of building up T.J. Maxx, which at the time had just 10 stores, and was looking for executives. Lindner, who swam and walked every day, played racquet sports and was in great shape, said he wanted to work again. So then the ball was in Cammarata's court to do the hiring.

Lindner initially took what was expected to be a temporary job training and building staff at TJX, but he ended up staying for 28 years. He retired for good at age 98, and in the course of his unusual career, earned a reputation as a mentor to an army of buyers.

"He was probably one of the greatest trainers in our industry," said Eli Lomita, co-owner of E/LO Larry Levine Sportswear, who knew Lindner since 1954.

Lindner is remembered by family, friends and colleagues as one of a rare breed in retailing — someone with extraordinary buying skills, who worked more by gut instinct than computer, and could drum up business on the selling floor with unorthodox hawking techniques. He was also an artful negotiator in the maniacally cost-conscious off-price retail sector, and even more significantly, he shared his know-how with those just starting to come up in the ranks.Mentoring, while generally disappearing in retailing, is nonetheless critical at TJX. Buyers joining TJX from other retailers might understand fashion and have great relationships with vendors, but they don't initially understand the nature of off-price. As Cammarata noted, "When you are in the off-price business, you are negotiating practically every deal you make. It's not only merchandise. It's the real estate, the wax on the floors in the store, or the shopping bags you put the merchandise in. You negotiate everything, and Jack was absolutely the best at it."

The essence of what Lindner taught TJX buyers was how to negotiate the best price possible and yet ensure good relationships with vendors, rather than driving them out of business. "He took young buyers and taught them the ropes," Cammarata said. "He would meet them at the plane when they arrived in New York and show them where manufacturers were located, how to establish a schedule, when to go to warehouses or showrooms. Every step of the way, Jack taught many buyers, even some experienced buyers who weren't experienced in the world of off-price. He would literally spend five days a week in the market with them. One important thing we did was develop a training film 12 years ago with Jack discussing his ideas about negotiating. We still use that as a training tool for the development of our buyers."

Lindner was born Feb. 7, 1907, in Krakow, Poland. As a boy, he worked for a dry goods store, where he learned about fabrics, colors and garments. In 1920, he and his mother, Taube, and his sister immigrated to the U.S. His father died from a war wound, according to his wife.

He worked at the former Ohrbach's, and later got a job at Mays at the Fulton Street branch in Brooklyn as a stock boy. He negotiated his way into the job by telling the president, Joseph Weinstein, that if he didn't make it to buyer in six months, he would quit. Weinstein gave him the job because he liked his spirit.

Lindner served in the Army for 37 months during World War II, in Europe and Africa, and returned to Mays, a moderate-priced business that was prone to discounting, not much unlike today's off-pricers, where he retired as executive vice president. At the store, Lindner pioneered fledgling apparel markets, shopping in Florida, California, Europe and Hong Kong, and found unique merchandise other retailers didn't have. In the Fifties, he hooked up with a manufacturer from India and made a major splash with madras long before the competition bought into it. He often brought back samples for local manufacturers to knock off.His mentoring approach could be formal and strict. Buyers traveling with him would all eat together, three meals a day, and had to go to sleep at the same time. He was also a stickler for buyers looking professional in terms of their attire and grooming, and his conversation focused on business. He was not one to discuss the weekend sports.

On Saturdays and Sundays in the store, Jack would stand by the register and make notes of what was selling. That was his unit control. If an area of the selling floor lacked traffic, he would clear the goods off the racks, hide them in the stockroom for a half hour or so, and get the staff to break it out again and start shouting to customers about great values — like $3.99 skirts. The same goods that weren't selling before started to move, and at the same price.

"Jack would stay behind the register and knew everything that was selling. That was his main position," said Lomita.

"They used to work six or seven days a week, and I kept telling him I wanted him home," said his wife. But when he retired from Mays in 1966, "he was not happy being unemployed," said his wife. "He loved his job. He loved to work. This guy enjoyed every second of his life."

The TJX/Jack Lindner Scholarship has been established at the Educational Foundation for the Fashion Industries at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Students who are financially challenged and majoring in retail or fashion are eligible. They must maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher.

Donations to the scholarship fund can be sent to: Vicki Guranowski, director of special events at FIT; 227 West 27th Street; Building C, Room 204; New York, N.Y. 10001. For information, call 212-217-7811.

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