WWD.com/retail-news/retail-features/ann-taylor-taps-bergdorf-s-gonzalez-583270/

NEW YORK — Muriel Gonzalez, a senior executive at Bergdorf Goodman responsible for all merchandise categories except women’s ready-to-wear and men’s wear, is joining Ann Taylor Stores Corp. as executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

“It’s a new job,” said Kay Krill, president of Ann Taylor Stores Corp. “She will oversee all marketing aspects of the brand,” meaning the Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft divisions.

The hiring of Gonzalez, a seasoned merchant, heightened speculation about more executive changes at Ann Taylor and succession scenarios. Krill oversees all the divisions — Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor Loft and Ann Taylor Factory Stores, and is a member of the board. All product and design functions, planning and allocation, and stores report to her.

J. Patrick Spainhour, the corporation’s chairman and chief executive officer, is Krill’s immediate boss. But Spainhour has been under pressure because of the poor performance of the company last year and a rash of executive turnover.

While Ann Taylor Loft has been strong over the long haul, the Ann Taylor division has been a drag on profitability for years. Krill is credited with building Ann Taylor Loft into a specialty powerhouse that is anticipated to pass $1 billion in sales in 2005. She was bumped up to president of the corporation last November from president of the Ann Taylor Loft division.

Ann Taylor Stores last week forecast a fourth-quarter loss of 14 cents to 18 cents a diluted share compared with previous guidance of breakeven to a loss of 4 cents. For the year, the company projected earnings per share to fall between 89 cents and 93 cents on a diluted basis, compared with previous estimates of $1.04 to $1.08.

Spainhour acknowledged fall merchandise was not well received at the Ann Taylor division and price promotions were heavy during the Christmas season. Same-store sales for the quarter fell by 7.2 percent. At Ann Taylor Loft, comps grew by 3.2 percent. Margin pressures, specifically in the Ann Taylor division, are expected through the first quarter.

Krill might be stacking the team as a prelude to organizational changes. Gonzalez could also be elevated to run a division or become a head merchant, people familiar with the company said.

This story first appeared in the February 17, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Gonzalez will first be learning about the brand and helping to differentiate the Ann Taylor Loft client from the Ann Taylor client, Krill said.

“We have spent a lot of time offsite as a team developing the target profile for Ann,’’ Krill said. “I’m about finished, but it’s not nipped and tucked yet. We’re well on our way.

Krill declined to comment on possible executive changes.

There also has been speculation that Ann Taylor Stores is a takeover target — with Liz Claiborne eyeing the chain. Its stock was priced at $22.22 at the end of trading Wednesday, compared with a 52-week high of $31.43.

The move by Gonzalez is surprising, considering how different Bergdorf’s, a high-style luxury store, is from Ann Taylor Stores, a more moderately priced chain with classic appeal. Gonzalez will be responsible for direct marketing, public relations, media buying, marketing operations, visual merchandising, AnnTaylor.com and AnnTaylorLoft.com, and report to Krill.

“Muriel has the ideal combination of marketing and merchandising experience,” Krill said.

At Bergdorf’s, Gonzalez was instrumental in re-creating several of the most productive departments, including handbags and jewelry, as the store underwent renovations. She was one of two general merchandise managers. Bergdorf’s continues to operate without a ready-to wear gmm, but does have one for men’s wear, Margaret Spaniola.

Jim Gold, Bergdorf’s chairman and chief executive, has been acting as women’s gmm and will fill in for Gonzalez, who will work through next week. She handled accessories, handbags, jewelry, shoes, lingerie, coats, home and cosmetics. Gonzalez was with the company for five years.

She is a “well-rounded executive” with both a merchant’s eye for quality goods and strong analytical skills in assessing a business, a retail expert said. Previously, Gonzalez spent eight years as a senior vice president at Estée Lauder USA, and five years at Saks Fifth Avenue in divisional vice president roles.

“She made an important contribution to Bergdorf Goodman,” Gold said. “We will begin a search for her successor. Anytime you lose someone, you think about whether there are opportunities to improve the structure, but the structure has been extremely successful the way it has been.”