By  on January 16, 2009

Robert Mettler, a veteran department store executive who held top roles within the Macy’s Inc., May Department Stores Co. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. organizations and is currently Macy’s president for special projects, will retire on Jan. 31.

The 68-year-old Mettler agreed about a year ago, when he was chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s West, to postpone his planned retirement to take on the special-assignments role, which has involved the strategic development of the chain’s cosmetics business, including strengthening relationships with vendors, enhancing store presentations and introducing organics.

Mettler is best known for growing the Macy’s West business and solidifying its reputation as among the most fashionable of America’s midtier department stores, priced under Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue but marked by an ability to stay on top of trends and offer an array of contemporary and better labels. The Macy’s West flagship, in San Francisco’s Union Square, is considered among the best units in the national Macy’s chain.

Mettler was also instrumental in orchestrating some of the early department store consolidations in the Eighties when he worked for the former Allied Department Stores, and more recently found himself overseeing the conversion of former May Co. doors on the West Coast into the San Francisco-based Macy’s West. Macy’s took over May Co. in 2005. He also blended the former Liberty House chain into Macy’s West.

“I’m retiring from one job, but I will be staying busy,” Mettler said in an exclusive interview Thursday. “Next week, there will be an announcement that I am joining the board of a company. I look forward to that and to getting involved in possibly other boards and helping and advising on other kinds of things. I don’t want another job, but I won’t sit home.”

He will also continue as a trustee of the University of Virginia, his alma mater, and is on the board of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, the Retail Advisory Board at the University of Santa Clara and the board of governors of the San Francisco Symphony. He is married with four children.

“Bob Mettler is a terrific merchant and has been an important factor in Macy’s expansion in the western U.S.” said Terry Lundgren, chairman, ceo and president of Macy’s. “Over the past year, he has helped me to think through ways we can further develop and grow our cosmetics business. Bob is very insightful, understands human nature and can visualize ways to capitalize on potential opportunities with the customer. Bob has been a friend for many years, and I know him well enough to know that he won’t be sitting still in his retirement. I wish him all the best in his life after Macy’s.”

Few executives have endured for so long and successfully in the rough-and-tumble world of department store retailing. Ironically, Mettler never intended to work in the industry. He first started at a branch store of Jordan Marsh Co. in Boston in 1962 in a summer job. He was in graduate school at the time studying law and business at Harvard University. Nevertheless, Mettler found himself quickly taken by the retail environment. “I loved the job,” he recalled. “I loved being able to make a decision about business and seeing the results almost immediately.”

He spent 18 years at Jordan Marsh, rising to senior vice president and general merchandise manager.

His next assignment was in 1980, when he became ceo of the former Joske’s in San Antonio, Tex. “Allied Stores had three divisions of Joske’s in Texas, all run separately,” Mettler said. “I had the job of combining them all.”

In 1986, he left the Allied-owned Joske’s to join the May Co.-owned L.S. Ayres in Indiana, where, Mettler said, “I was the shortest ceo on record — 27 days.” He was reassigned by May Co. ceo and chairman David Farrell to run the much bigger Robinson’s in California, which had bigger problems making money. Mettler spent six years at Robinson’s before joining Sears as president of soft lines and home fashions. Two years later, he took over all of Sears merchandising.

He launched Canyon River Blues, a denim-based private collection still sold at Sears, as well as Circle of Beauty cosmetics, which no longer exists. While Sears’ soft lines have been much maligned over the years, Mettler said there were a lot of accomplishments at the business and noted that, during his tenure, in less than five years the business more than doubled to $9.5 billion in volume from $4.7 billion.

He joined Macy’s West as president and chief operating officer in 1999 and became chairman and ceo in 2002. He remained in that role until assuming the special projects position in early 2008. During his tenure at Macy’s West, the division nearly doubled in size.

“One of the things I’ve always been thrilled about in retailing was my ability to interact with younger people,” Mettler said. “There’s tons of talent out there but maybe where some organizations have slipped is in growing senior talent.”

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