Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK--Stephen C. Elkin, Bergdorf Goodman's systems-minded, data-driven chairman and chief executive officer, is cutting a rounder profile for the store and for himself.
A financial troubleshooter, considered a low-key, buttoned-up administrator, Elkin will be rubbing up close with the fashion elite this fall, attending his first Paris ready-to-wear collections alongside Bergdorf's president and fashion diva Dawn Mello.
"I believe in quality, and in building relationships," Elkin said during his first in-depth interview since assuming Bergdorf's top post in April.
"I'd like to understand what our people work with," though he insists he's not about to dictate the trends to them.
"I wouldn't dream of telling Dawn something she likes is wrong for the store. I don't pick merchandise. I don't think that's my role. That's why we have buyers. They're excellent selectors."
No backseat driver, perhaps. However, from behind the scenes, in the offices above Bergdorf's seven posh selling floors, his impact has been felt.
The 51-year-old Elkin joined the store in 1978 as a senior executive and chief financial officer. He rose to vice chairman and chief operating officer, then president before becoming chairman and ceo in April.
He's got a reputation for running a tight ship, being demanding in an understated way and playing a role beyond that of a typical chief financial officer. He learned merchandise information systems and has been helpful in developing new statistics for buyers and controlling inventories better. He has also merchandised home goods.
"He was always the bad guy around here, handling the money and having to say no," said Ellin Saltzman, Bergdorf's former fashion director, after she left the job in June. "That was before. Now he's more of a people-person, more outgoing, but down-to-earth and decent."
His appointment will signal some shifts in strategy at the store, including a more market-driven approach.
"Bergdorf's has been best at editing lines and doing a lot of modification to lines," he said. "What we haven't done is say, hey look, there is a void and the customer is asking us for other products."
The sixth floor, currently an eclectic area for coats, lingerie, dresses, suits and some sportswear, is a "major strategic opportunity," Elkin said. "There's a customer between bridge and designer not being adequately served." That customer will be addressed with another pricing option for career fashion, with ensembles in the $1,000 range.
In line with this move, Elkin noted, "We are currently in the process of reconstructing 7,500 square feet on the sixth floor, along 58th street and Fifth Avenue, which should be up by spring '95."
The reconstructed floor will put a new spotlight on Armani White Label, Barbara Bui, Apara, Victor Victoria, Gente Gente and Lida Baday. Looks will include suits, soft dressing and separates.
However, Bergdorf Goodman's $219 million in sales last year were paced by its powerful designer collections and designer sportswear businesses on floors two to four, as well as designer accessories, notably Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Galanos, Barry Kieselstein Cord and Manolo Blahnik. Elkin wants more emphasis placed on less-developed departments such as home goods, cashmeres and mail order and sees "significant" growth opportunities for "special and rarefied" products such as hotel silver from The Pierre, crystals, vintage teas, as well as books.
Bergdorf's could also capitalize more on its national reputation. The company distributes 14 catalogs a year, each sent to 300,000 to 400,000 homes, and exceeds $20 million in annual sales. But according to Elkin, it could grow 50 to 60 percent in three years, and almost double in five years with a better balance of accessories and designer sportswear.
The men's store, on the opposite side of Fifth Avenue from the main store, is another challenge. While applauded as handsome with great merchandise, it's hampered by a poor layout, making it difficult to shop. And the facade is split by Morano's jewelry store.
"We underestimated the adverse affects of a split entrance," Elkin said. "It's disrupted the flow to the main floor." He said Bergdorf's will take over the lease in two years and reconfigure the main floor.
Elkin said the unit is not doing as badly as some in the market have speculated. "We've had growth every year in the men's store," he said.
While he may be shaping new strategies, for the man holding Bergdorf's purse strings, the store's priorities remain intact.
"My partner next door speaks volumes about our priorities," he said, referring to Mello. "Her return should assuage any concerns. I'm more of a shepherd of what Ira and Dawn did, and Burt picked up on.
"There's a team attitude here now."
How Elkin grows in his new post and jells with Mello has been the subject of speculation, spurring an old industry debate: Can stores, long the province of merchants, be effectively led by financial executives?
"Having a financial ceo is not an issue as long as Dawn Mello has an edge with designers," said one department store chief executive. "Neimark really blossomed in the job; there's no reason Elkin shouldn't, too, but he must have 'a tamed ego.' If not, he would be disadvantaged. Dawn has been very successful. He should go with her decisions."
Retail consultant Walter Levy described Elkin as "a good counterbalance" to Bergdorf's flashier buyers, who "doesn't think just numbers. He can sell broader strategic issues."
"He's become a very proficient executive, not just a cfo," added Herbert Mines, the executive search consultant.
Bergdorf's has been successfully run by merchant ceos, with more autocratic, high-profile styles, including Burt Tansky, from 1992 to 1994, and Ira Neimark, from 1975 to 1992.
It's typical in retailing for merchants to run the show, but not a requirement. Sources noted that The Sears Merchandise Group is run by Arthur Martinez, another financial executive, who has led sweeping changes in the chain's merchandise.
When the BG ceo post became vacant last spring, many wanted it. It's one of the plum jobs in retailing: There's one location, a great image, no distribution problems and a steady clientele. Most importantly, it does well in good and bad economic times.
Elkin was the only serious candidate. In fact, he was designated ceo six weeks before the public announcement. During the stretch, rumors focused on other executives who were better known in fashion circles at such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin. There was even a rumor that Mello, Bergdorf's president from 1983 to 1989, would return as ceo.
Ironically, Elkin's name was absent from the speculation.

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