By  on April 1, 2005

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — John Martens watched intently as artist Richard Deutsch applied the patina to a bronze sculpture being installed at the Neiman Marcus store here.

The piece, “Five Elements,’’ comprises quarter-moon shaped pieces balancing each other. It seemed a fitting symbol to conclude Martens’ 25-year run as vice president and general manager, overseeing the intricate mix of 400 employees, 180,000 square feet of retail space and discerning customers. He must have been doing something right. As Martens retired Thursday, the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus was the luxury chain’s best in terms of sales.

“His contribution has been almost legendary,’’ Burt Tansky, president and chief executive officer of the Neiman Marcus Group, said in an interview. “He’s built the business and provided a high level of customer service, and exceeded expectations in what customers have come to know and expect from Neiman Marcus.’’

During his tenure, the store has introduced designer shops, expanded the reach of smaller, specialty luxury brands such as Loro Piana and Malo and made a name as a must-shop destination for high-end intimate apparel and its vast collection of designer shoes.

“The ladies shoe salon to me is a real gem,” said Martens, who handpicks shoes from designers such as Manolo Blahnik to bring home to his wife, Bridget (size seven). “I’ve always been particularly proud of it.

“I also think we have raised our standards by eliminating the sale of bridge designers,” he said. “We’re in a very competitive market with formidable competition and well-traveled clients who fly to Paris and Milan at the drop of a hat.”

Martens, a South African native, began his career with Neiman Marcus 30 years ago when merchant king Stanley Marcus poached him from his position as general manager of Stuattaford & Co., a South African department store. After a three-year stint in Texas, Martens became the vice president and general manager at the St. Louis store, and transferred to Beverly Hills in 1980.

He still addresses customers formally as he greets them in his standard uniform of a dark suit.

Donnie Smith, a Beverly Hills resident and socialite who has been both a customer and vendor at the store, described Martens as “charming, debonair and always elegant.”Martens has “taken what is a big corporate store and made it feel like it’s your neighborhood place to shop,” Smith said. “He is a real gentleman and sets the standard for everyone.”

And he takes matters such as housekeeping seriously.

“I like a beautifully presented, clean store,” said Martens. But it’s the the interaction with the staff, which begins as he starts his morning tour through the kitchen, and customers that he said he will miss most.

“I’m what you call a floor person…because the floor is where our business is done,” Martens said.

Despite his formality, Martens, who is being replaced by Kelly Cole, has an affinity for denim, something that would likely surprise customers. Although Martens admits that at his age — ever discreet, he won’t reveal it — he can’t get away with wearing denim in quite the way the younger set does.

Earlier this week, the staff surprised Martens by toasting him with a bottle of Cristal and leading him to new window displays facing Wilshire Boulevard that are dedicated to him. They feature a poster-size black-and-white photo of Martens along with crisp, black-and-white fashions from designers such as Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, Jean Paul Gaultier and others Martens has been instrumental in bringing to the store.

So, could there be a book in Martens’ future?

“It’s a possibility after I thaw out a bit,’’ he said. “Although I have a few stories that people would definitely not like if I told.”

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