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Marvin Traub: Master of Reinvention

Most people would be fortunate to have a single career with as much impact as the former chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale's. But two?

From left: Mortimer Singer; Atlas Advisors’ managing director Julian Steinberg and senior managing director Palden Namgyal; Marvin Traub (seated).

If you’re Marvin Traub, what do you do for Act Two?

You take your experience, contacts and reputation and create a marketing and consulting service, but one that strives to keep a standard and a style distinct from the industry morass.

“Our role as a consulting company is really to become part of the management of the company. So it is not assignment specific as much as to help build businesses,” said Traub, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s and chairman of Marvin Traub Associates.

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Soon after leaving Bloomingdale’s, Traub founded MTA in 1992, originally as part of Financo Inc. Ten years later, MTA moved out and became independent. With its swirl of deals, projects and connections around the world, and network of 20 operating partners, MTA, located at 410 Park Avenue, seems to operate on the scale of a giant octopus.

Its principals, however, prefer to use a wheel as a metaphor for how MTA is structured. There’s a “lean” hub of principals and senior advisers, and a wide circle of operating partners — the “spokes” — creating a span of expertise. The intent is to execute plans and strategies for clients, rather than just come up with the ideas.

“The DNA of Marvin Traub Associates comes from what Marvin has believed in since he worked at Bloomingdale’s,” said Mortimer Singer, MTA’s president. “It’s his notion that retail should be exciting and should be theater. We really try to work with people that we believe have something. We don’t take the cookie-cutter approach of taking on anyone who would throw money at us, which we could.”

With Traub being strongly influenced by the late Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus, “We try to be as much of a merchant organization as possible,” added Singer, who most likely will one day succeed Traub. “While we are all businesspeople, most of us with finance backgrounds, we are trained in and believe in a merchandise philosophy.” 

Massif, based in Ashland, Ore., “is a really good case in point,” Singer said. “It has an amazing heritage. The company dresses our armed services with the highest technical apparel and battle gear. We have translated Massif into a ‘b-to-c’ [business to consumer] contemporary men’s brand, using all the technical specifications developed for the armed services. It’s new, fun and hugely innovative.”

Singer also said MTA has invested in six technology companies involved in social commerce and e-commerce. “That really shows for a guy like Marvin — who is 86 years old — to get his head around this is not normal. It demonstrates a deep commitment to becoming familiar with the latest and greatest things to hit our industry.

“Ten years ago when I met Marvin, I was working in investment banking at J.P. Morgan. I didn’t know anything about him. We hit it off and became very close, very quickly. What I love about Marvin is that he has this overwhelming desire to be around people, product and places. You join Marvin Traub and you see the world. I have been to every continent,” excluding Antarctica. Singer also cited Traub’s “balance of being a businessman, a numbers guy and creative marketing and merchandising genius. It’s very rare that you find someone who has the whole package.”

The MTA team also includes operating partner Geoffrey D. Lurie, who is involved in restructuring services; Helaine Suval, operating partner for e-commerce; Kelsey Scroggins, vice president; associate Jacqueline Loken, and Amy Hafkin, general manager.

Last year, Burt Tansky, former Neiman Marcus chairman and ceo, joined as a senior adviser. Tansky has worked with MTA on projects involving Ungaro and an overseas real estate developer, and is expected to go to South Africa in March to help a luxury client expand.

Stanley Tucker, formerly with Burberry and Saks Inc., has been partnering with MTA as a “chief merchant” and has been shaping the Massif collection.

“Stanley and I looked at it and they had many good products,” Traub said. “To make it work better for the stores, we had to add more khaki. We had to reprice it to make it attractive, and we had them show it as a collection on models. Part of our [job] is teaching and training people on how to run their business. That’s why people approach us to work with them.”

Ken Walker, whose twisty career has taken him from store architect to brand consulting, licensing and lecturing, recently became operating partner, innovation, at MTA. Walker’s activities include branding and the design of retail spaces and malls.

Traub also helped develop Bloomingdale’s first overseas location two years ago, which is in Dubai and is licensed to the Al Tayer Group. Traub said MTA was involved in selecting the architects, hiring the merchants, planning the assortments, and staging a promotion last fall called “Bloomingdale’s Dubai Loves New York.” Traub said it’s possible Bloomingdale’s will open more stores overseas, and there’s interest on the part of its management, though currently there are “no commitments” to his knowledge.

Then there’s the financial side to MTA. “We partner with a firm called Atlas on financial transactions,” Traub explained. “Last year, we sold Scotch & Soda, a major company out of Amsterdam for men’s, women’s and children’s apparel. It’s sort of a hot, growing company. We also sold Rock & Republic last year. We did have for a while an investment arm. We invested in both Rachel Roy and Matthew Williamson. We have curtailed that somewhat. The economy became difficult and we find we are better off working with financial partners than doing it ourselves. When someone comes to us with investments, we will look to see if we can find the proper partners.

“I am very fortunate in having all of these projects around the world that interest me,” Traub said. “We have Value Retail [which operates luxury outlet villages] in seven countries in Europe. I have visited most of them. Value Retail is going to China. We have a luxury handbag company in Korea called MCM. It’s sold in Bloomingdale’s and Saks. We have launched a hugely successful children’s business with Bloomingdale’s called Pearls & Popcorn. This week, we were approached by someone that wants to start a retail group in South America. It’s great to do these things around the world.”

While the track record is good, it’s not perfect. In 2008, Traub helped launch Kira Plastinina, a teenage design prodigy from Russia, in the U.S. Unfortunately, in less than year, the stores closed. “Her father was hugely successful in Russia. He was happy to underwrite the business, but he ran out of money because the Russian economy became difficult,” Traub said. “It wasn’t making money. However, if you are starting a retail chain, you have to have more patience than a year.”

Years before, MTA acquired a home retailer called Habitat “with virtually no investment,” he said. “I discovered that simply putting in all manner of talent in the business wasn’t enough to turn it around. I brought in lots of talented people from Bloomingdale’s. We didn’t turn it around, but when we shut it down, we were able to pay off creditors 100 cents on the dollar, so no one lost on it. We sold off the real estate that we owned, which gave us enough. Habitat still exists in Europe.

“So if you ask me if I had some things that were not a success, of course,” Traub reflected. “If you don’t try things, you don’t get anyplace.”