NEW YORK--Milton Petrie, the 92-year-old founder and chairman of Petrie Stores Corp. and a giant in the popular-priced women's clothing business, died Sunday at his home here following a long illness. Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Temple Emanuel, at East 65th Street and Fifth Avenue. "He invented modern specialty retailing," Leslie H. Wexner, chairman and chief executive officer of The Limited Inc., said Monday. "It's the end of an era. Milton Petrie and Sam Walton are truly legends of the 20th century." Through a career spanning 65 years, Petrie became one of the wealthiest men in the country. Asked once how rich he was, he responded, "I have no idea. Look it up in Forbes." This year's Forbes 400 list of the most affluent Americans lists him with an estimated net worth of $940 million. He retired from a daily operational role at the Secaucus, N.J.-based specialty chain in the fall of 1993, but remained chairman. In 1927, when he was 25, Petrie opened his first store, a 400-square-foot hosiery shop in Cleveland. By 1940, he had moved to New York City and expanded the company through a number of acquisitions. Currently, there are 1,680 stores under the names Petrie's, Marianne, M.J. Carroll, Jean Nicole and Winkelman's. Total volume is about $1.5 billion. As Petrie built the business, he developed an international reputation as a shrewd businessman who became involved in numerous philanthropic efforts. He and his wife, Carroll, supported a broad range of institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which named a sculpture garden in the Petries' honor, and Beth Israel Hospital. They also were known to donate to families and individuals struck by tragedy, including the model Marla Hanson, who was scarred in a knife attack. In 1992, he was honored with a Milton Petrie Day in New York. The company's heyday was in the Seventies, when it consistently reported pretax profits of 15 to 20 percent. Its strength came from strong real estate and a growing demand for inexpensive junior fashions. In the Eighties and Nineties, however, faced with new competition such as The Limited, the company's figures began to sag. "He ran into a tremendous amount of competition but still maintained his business," said Laurence Tisch, chairman of CBS, who played bridge regularly with Petrie, and informally advised him on investments. Petrie didn't hire financial advisers. "He was so intelligent, always looked into the future, even into his 90s," Tisch said. "He was first class." In August, Petrie Corp. agreed to sell its retail operations to an investor group led by E.M. Warburg Pincus & Co. for $190 million. Petrie's death is not expected to affect the sale, Petrie Stores said. Wexner, one of Petrie's prime competitors, was also a friend. He met Petrie in 1964, after Wexner opened his second store, a Limited in Columbus, Ohio. Petrie was opening a store in town as well and decided to check out Wexner's unit. He admired it, and invited Wexner to visit him at his office in Secaucus. "We talked from 9 a.m. until noon," Wexner recalled. "It was the first time I ever saw someone smoke a cigar in the morning. "I had no idea how to build stores, lease store real estate, what a distribution center looked like," Wexner said. "I would always go to him for advice. In the first 10 to 15 years that I knew him, hardly a year went by that I didn't visit him." "He had a rough exterior, but my experience was simply that he was wonderful," added Charles Lazarus, chairman of Toys "R" Us. "He had a unique eye for spotting value and an uncanny ability to understand the potential of what he was looking at." Lazarus said that when Petrie was buying up Toy 'R' Us shares, accumulating 25 to 26 percent of the stock, Petrie was getting rich--but Lazarus and some of his associates were getting nervous. "I asked him to stop, told him my people were unhappy, and he said he would stop--and he did," Lazarus said. "He was that kind of guy. There was nothing he wouldn't give you." Robert Adler, chief executive officer of the Halmode division of Kellwood Co., said Petrie "paid enormous attention to the location of his stores." Alder recalled that he played tennis with Petrie about 20 years ago, in a doubles match with Hank Greenberg and Bobby Riggs. "I can tell you Milton was as competitive a tennis player as he was a businessman," Adler said. In addition to his wife, Carroll, Petrie is survived by a son, Bernard; two daughters, Marianne Miller and Patricia Hugenberg, and two grandchildren.
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