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.”

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