NEW YORK - The seach is officially on for one of retailing's plum jobs: chairman and chief executive of Neiman Marcus.

Robert Tarr, president and ceo of Harcourt General and its Neiman Marcus Group, returned from vacation last Friday, and this week he's expected to jump into the review process and begin screening candidates.

Some of retailing's biggest names are said to be in the running.

The Neiman's post is being vacated next month by Terry Lundgren, who, during his tenure, boosted the chain's performance by significally broadening both the designer and bridge businesses.

Sources said Lundgren earned around $650,000 in salary and $350,000 in bonus last year. He will become chairman and ceo of Federated Merchandising on April 5.

Lundgren, meanwhile, is on vacation, having diplomatically skipped the Milan and Paris collections.

As for the top job, observers say that Neiman's, with $1.45 billion in volume and 27 stores, requires a ceo capable of running a high-end operation, regardless of swings in the economy.

The hottest speculation focuses on top talent from Neiman's competition, although a number of other leading executives are in the rumor mill.

Sources point out that several of top possibilities would command stellar salaries, which could make the reputedly frugal Harcourt General think twice.

While the list of candidates could grow, here, in alphabetical order, is a roundup of those most often mentioned in retail and fashion circles:

  • Arnold Aronson: Known more for smarts than charisma, his record is impressive -- ceo of Bullock's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Saks' former parent, Batus Inc. But he may be hampered by his last stint as ceo of Woodward & Lothrop. He left the company in January, when it went bankrupt. On the plus side of the W&L experience: He's available and may not cost as much as some others.

  • Rose Marie Bravo: Currently president of Saks, her reputation was built when she was the top cosmetics executive at Macy's East, which catapulted her to the top job at I. Magnin when it was acquired by Macy's. Observers note Bravo would love to be her own boss again, but she's believed to have an equity stake in Saks, which could be an incentive to stay.

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