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.
  • Joseph Cicio: As chairman and ceo of I. Magnin, he has strengthened its designer position, attracted new customers to the store, and so far, has been successful in Magnin's turnaround bid. He is widely admired for his visual merchandising and store design talents, demonstrated when he was a Macy's senior executive, but his experience running a chain is simply not as extensive as some other candidates. Some see Cicio as a strong candidate, if teamed with a financially oriented partner.

  • Bernie Feiwus: As chief executive of NM Direct, Neiman's mail order operation, he's considered innovative, having made the catalogs a year-round business rather than heavily focused on Christmas. In the process, he sparked some impressive sales and profits.

    However, Feiwus told WWD, "I have not had any conversations, nor would I be interested."

  • Michael Gould: This energetic executive and highly regarded marketer seems entrenched as chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale's, where he has cut costs, improved service and given the store a more open, customer-friendly environment. Former ceo of Giorgio and J.W. Robinson's, he has been on the Bloomingdale's job for only two years.

    Worth noting is the promotion of Lundgren to president of Federated Merchandising. Some see that move as a stepping stone for Lundgren to eventually replace Gould's boss at Federated, Allen Questrom, a scenario that could make Gould amenable to outside offers.

  • Marshall Hilsberg: The Lord & Taylor ceo is considered a strong merchant and one of the best at May Department Stores. His name frequently appears on hit lists whenever there is a major retail vacancy, but he is a 20-year veteran of May Co. Some tout him as a possible successor to David Farrell, May Co.'s chairman and ceo.

  • Philip Miller: Industry sources describe the chairman and ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue as personable, with a high fashion profile. Miller is viewed as a hard worker and well thought of by vendors, but he's had mixed success with his innovations at Saks.

    He has an equity stake in Saks and seems committed to taking the company public. If this occurs, he could really cash in, but first must improve the chain's performance. He's said to be under a lot of pressure from parent Investcorp to get Saks' balance sheet in shape.Miller knows something about Neiman's, having served as president for eight years there, before becoming chairman and ceo of Marshall Field's in the mid-Eighties.

  • Arie Kopelman: A dark horse, Chanel's president and chief operating officer understands the beauty and fashion markets. He's comfortable running a luxury business and has rebuilt Chanel's retailing in the U.S. He has a strong marketing background, as a former Proctor & Gamble brand management executive and, later, as general manager of Doyle Dane Bernbach's New York office. Kopelman, however, is quick to point out that retailing is merchandising driven and his strength is in marketing. He said he's not interested in the Neiman's job and would not leave New York.

  • Burton Tansky: He may have an advantage as an insider. He's also run both upscale and multi-store operations. The chairman and ceo of Bergdorf Goodman, a division of Neiman Marcus Group, and former president of Saks has so far steered Bergdorf's well. He is said to have become more authoritative since joining BG, but is faced with the challenge of getting the BG Men's store in the black. Officially, it's making progress, but reportedly is not yet profitable.
Other executives that retail observers see as long shots include: Stephen Watson, president of Dayton Hudson Corp.; Roger Farah, who just signed a contract with R.H Macy to become president and chief operating officer, but whose future might be uncertain if Macy's is taken over by his former employer, Federated, and Heywood Wilansky, president and ceo of Foley's, a longtime May Co. executive.

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