NEW YORK — Hilda Kirschbaum Gerstein, former vice chairman and president of popular-priced women’s apparel retailer Petrie Stores Corp., died Sunday at age 92.
Gerstein died at Mt. Sinai Hospital here of pneumonia following a long illness, said her daughter, Nancy Novogrod, editor in chief of Travel + Leisure.
Considered Milton Petrie’s number-one lieutenant, Gerstein spent her entire career with Petrie Stores. Starting as a stock clerk, she went on to become one of the highest-ranking women in retailing, becoming president of Petrie Stores when the chain went public in the late Sixties. She later served as vice chairman, retiring from the business in 1995 at the age of 84.
“She was a strong woman in business even before women achieved that kind of success,” said Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo, the investment banking firm. “She loved merchandising, she loved retailing and she was a power in her time because Petrie’s was the largest and most profitable specialty retailer, and generated nothing but cash.”
Petrie’s agreed to sell its $1.4 billion retail operation to an investor group led by Verna Gibson and E.M. Warburg Pincus and Co. for $190 million in August 1994, two months before Milton Petrie died. Petrie filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995, and over the next few years sold many of its divisions.
Born in Tarnapol, Austria, Gerstein came to the U.S. at age 3 and settled with her family in New York. They later moved to Cleveland, where Gerstein graduated from high school. A bright student, she won a scholarship to Western Reserve. The summer before she was to matriculate, she went looking for a job at Petrie’s and got in a long line. She went around another way, got in at the front of the line and was hired as a stock girl .
In a WWD interview with Milton Petrie in 1986, he said, “Hilda was 16-years old when she walked into my store looking for a job. I hired her as a bookkeeper and stock girl for $10 a week. She’s been president, then vice chairman for the past 25 years and earns $350,000 a year. You can look it up in our proxy.” Petrie’s own salary at the time was only $150,000, although he was worth $940 million.
“She would work around the clock. She’d fly all the time, and also got involved in Milton’s philanthropic endeavors,” said Novogrod.
Her husband, Max Gerstein, died 20 years ago. In addition to her daughter, Gerstein is survived by two grandchildren.