On a mid-August day in Dallas, Burton M. Tansky Drives his Corvette down a spiral ramp in the parking lot next to Neiman Marcus' downtown flagship, like he's Steve McQueen in "Bullitt."
"I pay attention to the walls — not the speed," Tansky says, rounding the turns. Then he guns the vehicle onto the open highway. "It's my toy," he says about the Corvette. "I've had it five years and put just 5,000 miles on it. It's made for action. It's got very wide tires, 400 horsepower, and it's fiberglass. When I drive it on the highway and get it up to 100, it's as smooth as can be."
He also drives a Lexis 430, owns a 1960 Jaguar antique and three other cars.
You wouldn't necessarily expect a NASCAR experience from Tansky, the president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Group, who's known more for being a grandfatherly figure with a sardonic New York sense of humor and no real temper other than occasional gruffness. At Neiman's grand 90th anniversary celebration in Dallas, where he had his team create a Texas rodeo, he refused to ride out on a horse. He did appear ceremoniously in a horse-drawn wagon, creating a dust storm through the crowd and dressed in cowboy boots and a Stetson.
"He was in fancy western dress but he's a nice man, so unlike the image of a cowboy," recalls Marshall Kline, who runs a buying service that works with Neiman's Last Call outlets.
That was when Tansky got tagged the "Yiddisher Cowboy." "It was an affectionate term," says Kline.
Arriving at Neiman's $150 million, 291,000-square-foot NorthPark store, the second- largest volume unit in the chain next to the one in Beverly Hills, Tansky embarks on a routine that he loves — touring the store and checking the merchandise. This is one of his last official store visits before he retires Oct. 6 and he's taking it with less intensity than usual and exuding more of his characteristic levity.
"I'm a shoe dog," he jokes as he picks up and admires a $2,300 Christian Louboutin above-theknee boot with a zipper. "It's amazing. It zips down all the way to the heel. I bet you we will sell all the Louboutin."
Of any article of clothing, Tansky is apt to notice the footwear first, on a display or on a woman. His associates say he just loves shoes and always comments on them. "No woman has enough shoes. That's why I like the business," Tansky explains. "Day in and day out, it does gyrate, like anything else. But it's a steadier business. New shoes just make you feel good...I can talk shoes, I can talk underwear. I can talk hats. I love to talk about the merchandise. I'm clearly handson. I get excited by the results, by hot items. Are you kidding? I love to talk merchandising. I love to talk finance, too. I can talk warehouses. I can talk stores. It all intertwines."
Then it's on to handbags, where individual designers have large shops just for their bags. "That's what luxury stores have to do — give the merchandise plenty of space to display it properly," says Tansky. "This is not a department store."
The home area, he notes, is skewed to traditional china and crystal, but starting to display more trend product and accent pieces like those from MacKenzie-Childs. In cosmetics, he boasts the floor is among the largest in volume in the country, in the top 10, and in men's wear, points to the vast assortment of suits ranging from $1,400 to $6,000.
As the walk-through progresses, Tansky gets diverted by the store manager, Malcolm Reuben, away from the off-price racks. "He gets a rash when he sees sales goods," Reuben says. But when Reuben notes that only 5 percent of the store's inventory is on sale, Tansky adds, "We have turned the corner. Fall goods are selling very well."
It's clear Tansky sees Neiman's in a better place than last year or the year before. "We came out [of the recession] probably better than we went in," he says. "We came out leaner, more focused, inventories in line, and well prepared to face the current situation. Fall is now an opportunity. Last fall was not great. We are not in recovery yet, but we are out of recession. The recession created some really unusual moves, almost nerve-shattering moves. Most all of us knew what had to be done, and we did it. The most difficult part was we had to say goodbye to a lot of very good people. We had no choice. We had to think of all of the people who would remain here and the health and welfare of the company. It's been forcing us to think about how to do business, how to be more available to the consumer. But you know when times are good, business is tough in other ways. You've got to get the reorders."
He's also in a better place, less tormented by Wall Street, though it's left a bad taste in his mouth. In the height of the recession, checking the stock market became a routine for Tansky. It was something he learned to loathe.
"He would look at the stock market every 10 or 15 minutes, slam his hand on his desk, and say, "Now what?'" recalls a close associate. "He was just so frustrated. The business was not getting better. The business had been on such a high for so long." "The stock market is an enemy now," Tansky says. "It's no longer a friend, because it's vacillating — up down, up down. The thing that worries me the most is external forces. External forces make people crazy."
Those very forces appear to have derailed Neiman's intended initial public offering, reportedly the exit strategy that would enable Neiman's private equity owners, Texas Pacific Group and Warburg Pincus, to cash out. However, Tansky says, "No, no. We never considered the exit strategy. It has not been fully developed. The environment has to be right. The media are the ones who started that. It never emanated from us."
Tansky also rejects industry speculation that with no IPO materializing, and the luxury sector and Neiman's possibly forever transformed by the recession, the owners felt the time was right for new blood at the helm. Asked if he was nudged out, Tansky responds: "No, absolutely not. I'm going to be non-executive chairman of the board. I would have had to sign up for another three to five years. People retire. That's it.
"I'm looking forward to the next phase, whatever that may be."
Others demur, however. "This is really hard for him," says a designer executive who has known Tansky for more than three decades. "He is not a man with hobbies. His career defined him. Of course, he adores his family, but this man lived, ate, drank and breathed retail."
Tansky is retiring at a time when Neiman Marcus Group is still recovering from the devastation of the recession, which was bad for all retailers, but particularly the luxury players dragged down by Wall Street. The Neiman Marcus Group lost $1 billion in volume, plunging to $3.6 billion for the fiscal year ended Aug. 1, 2009, from a peak of $4.6 billion the year before, and Tansky's strategy to cater to the most affluent people in the country with dominant designer presentations and the highest price points was being undermined. So was his long-held belief in the resiliency of the affluent shopper.
Tansky had experienced other downturns throughout his long career and got through each of them by the staying the course, sticking to the strategy, even through the 9/11-induced downturn. Until fall 2008, it had been a glorious luxury run. He cut his teeth in luxury at I. Magnin as a senior merchant in the mid-Seventies, and shifted to Saks Fifth Avenue, where he rose to president in 1980 and stayed in the job for a decade, operating in the shadows of the three ceo's he reported to at different times.
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