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As we do every year, WWD­ExecTech scoured the retail landscape to find five executives who have distinguished themselves as exceptional leaders in information technology. This year’s selection process was challenging because these executives share a common attribute: They favor a low profile and their style is to champion their people and let their teams’ successes do the talking. We highlight their accomplishments here and each will be honored at the WWDExecTech CIO/IT Leadership & Innovation Awards ceremony next week during the annual Retail Systems conference in Chicago.

Guess’ retail and global brand expansion puts great pressure on infrastructure to support an increasingly complex business model. Michael Relich, senior vice president of information technology and chief information officer, is the guy performing heroics in the back room, at distribution centers, stores and online, in the U.S. and overseas.

No Superman theatrics, here, though. Relich is all Clark Kent.

He and his team swapped a wholesale-centric systems infrastructure with one that meets the demands of a growing retail business. Relich crafted a “split inventory” system that enhanced accountability, a key win as the Los Angeles company’s revenues approach $1 billion.

“When Mike came here, [wholesale and retail] were sharing on the same styles, so it was difficult for the retail team to know exactly what they owned, what exposure they had,” said Carlos Alberini, president and chief operating officer. “Now, there is complete transparency.”

Alberini listed Relich’s achievements: upgraded store systems for greater speed and lower cost; standardized technology in the distribution centers; consolidated servers in the U.S. and integration of the Hong Kong sourcing office; developed a data warehouse that tracks daily sales at international accessories stores; added search features to increase conversion on the Web site, and building an Internet portal for licensees.

The information technology department is smaller than when Relich arrived in 2004, but the team is so versatile that Guess has reduced its reliance on outside consultants.

Best known for his ability to translate business needs into technical solutions, chief information officer and executive vice president Stephen Raish helped engineer a turnaround at J.C. Penney that is still going strong. Last month, he took early retirement after working for the retailer for more than 30 years.

This story first appeared in the May 17, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A newly centralized merchandising process has been key to the retailer’s recent good showing, and during Raish’s tenure, the technology department developed and deployed a variety of systems to support it. (Earlier this month, the company reported a 22.1 percent increase in first-quarter earnings and same-store sales gains for the 12th consecutive quarter.) Raish also enhanced and expanded the company’s online store, which reached $1 billion in sales last year. And he oversaw the development and rollout of a new point-of-sale system with more than 34,000 terminals.

Raish came up through the merchandising side, and was president of the home division. Before becoming cio, he headed the task force that led to the restructuring of the company’s merchandising processes.

Edward Wong is not a tech head. Colleagues and competitors alike say Charlotte Russe’s senior vice president of supply chain and information systems is business-savvy and grasps the financial ramifications of technology in ways many executives do not.

“Ed is precise,” said Phil Wilkerson, enterprise architect at Coca-Cola, who years ago worked with Wong at Gap. “He is surgical in nature and thoughtful in how he approaches problems.”

Last year, Wong completed a massive overhaul of systems for inventory management, merchandising and planning in both the Rampage and Charlotte Russe divisions. Existing systems could not support the drive for faster product flow or planned growth. The San Diego company opened 51 stores in the last year, and 40 more are due to open this year and at least 50 more in 2007.

Mark Hoffman, Charlotte Russe president and chief executive officer, said Wong’s diverse background serves him well as a leader. “He’s was not raised and steeped in the technology side [only], and not the pure merchandise side. He is one who can bridge both.”

In his 13 years at Wilsons The Leather Experts, Jeffrey Orton, chief information officer and vice president, logistics, has seen some ups and downs. Cost-cutting mandates and the no-win scenarios that result in a down period buffet executives like him and often send them packing.

However, Orton’s staying power — unusual for technology executives in retail — has as much to do with his ability to align information technology resources to business needs as it does his genuine optimism, often punctuated by a giggle. It’s his ability to get people — staff and vendor partners — to rally around a problem that sets him apart.

Last year, Orton was handed a challenge: Swap stores’ manual receiving processes with a fully integrated, automated system. What made the task unusual is that Orton got word of it the same day as Wall Street, a move that put the $1 million project under greater public scrutiny — and put Orton in the hot seat. Orton’s team met the prescribed deadlines and store-receiving productivity at the Brooklyn Park, Minn., chain surged 70 percent, according to an independent auditor.

“Technical knowledge, experience and superior intellect are the cost of entry to remain an effective cio in today’s retail world,” said Michael Searles, Wilsons’ chairman and ceo. “Jeff is a superb communicator and an enthusiastic leader. He is as humble as he is talented.”

John Sullivan of Liz Claiborne has one of the longest titles in the industry, which reflects the broad responsibilities and challenges he’s taken on since joining the company in 1996. When he arrived, his mandate was to reengineer the company’s business processes, and ultimately he rebuilt Claiborne’s technology infrastructure to prepare for global expansion. Since he came on board, Claiborne has automated its distribution centers and in the last five years has transformed its stores with new POS systems, customer relationship management software, better inventory management tools and price-optimization software.

Sullivan recently was appointed senior vice president of sourcing, service and systems, in addition to his existing title of chief information officer. Over the next few years, the company plans to cut its time to market by 40 to 50 percent with new systems and processes, some of which are already in the pilot phase. The goal is to be more responsive to the customer, catch trends more quickly and produce a better product. “The strength of our systems platform and its relevance in a changing environment is testament to John’s vision and foresight,” chairman and ceo Paul Charron wrote in an e-mail.