BOSTON — Former Bon Ton chief executive Heywood Wilansky has taken the top job at Filene’s Basement, planning to rejuvenate the 22-store off-price chain and possibly spin it off as publicly traded company within three to five years.
Wilansky replaces ceo Alan R. Schlesinger, who resigned Jan. 8 after a two-year stint amid reports his brand vision wasn’t aggressive enough for parent company Value City Department Stores. Wilansky reports to John Rossler, Value City president and ceo.
An industry veteran with extensive department store experience, Wilansky has kept a low profile teaching at the University of Maryland since resigning from The Bon Ton Stores Inc. two years ago. His name has been bandied around for top jobs at Saks Inc. and other posts, but he said he wouldn’t have returned to the retail fray for a traditional department store position.
“I’ve done that and I don’t think that’s where the future is,” he said. “I do think there is a future for off-price.”
The company will open a Filene’s Basement in Atlanta in May, Wilansky said, marking its first unit in that market and initiating a period of renewed growth.
“We’ll be looking aggressively at other sites,” he said. “We need to better deliver the promise of the brand and expand it.”
Part of rejuvenating the brand will be adding more prestigious labels to the mix, partly to differentiate itself from local rival TJX Cos., the country’s largest off-price retailer.
“We would probably start inside of TJX’s box, but go higher than they go,” he said. “Their top and our bottom would overlap.”
He estimated the chain would need at least three years of strong performance and double its current store base to be taken public.
Once literally the basement space used to clear Filene’s old inventory, Federated Department Stores spun off Filene’s Basement and took it public in 1991. But the chain stumbled trying to expand and filed for bankruptcy in 1999. Value City purchased the chain out of bankruptcy in 2000 for $89 million.
“If [Wilansky] has decided to come out of an inactive stage, this is not a bad way to start,” noted Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies for Kurt Salmon Associates. “Filene’s Basement is small enough to get your arms around and has potential to get bigger.”
Wilansky, he said, “knows the industry and he knows his stuff.”