BEVERLY HILLS — Almost three years after retiring from Neiman Marcus here, John Martens is back where he started 28 years ago.

And all it took was a phone call from corporate headquarters in Dallas.

Martens is again running the 180,000-square-foot store at 9700 Wilshire Boulevard, one of the luxury chain’s highest-profile locations, as vice president and general manager.

“I missed it,” Martens, a native of South Africa, said over lunch at his regular table at Mariposa restaurant. “All the bustle and activity. It’s hard to go from…that to relative quiet.”

Not that Martens had been idle. He consulted for Zegna and accessories designer Mary Norton, who opened a store on Melrose Place last year. Martens also came close to opening his own store on Melrose Avenue across from the new Balenciaga boutique.

“I was eyeing a small space next to Henry Beguelin, and thought it would be a good place to sell Zoran,” he said, referring to the New York label that is unavailable in Los Angeles. But Beguelin leased the space in order to expand. So when Martens was asked if he would return, he didn’t hesitate.

Martens’ replacement, Kelly Cole, left to become president and chief executive officer of Halls department store in Kansas City.

Much of the staff and clientele are unchanged, but the challenges are still formidable.

“First, there is the service,” Martens said. “There was and still is work to be done in that area. Secondly, we need to make our offerings more special. That is what all customers want, to feel as though what they buy here is the most special item.”

During his tenure, Martens introduced designer shops and spent much of his day on the sales floor meeting designers and customers. Now he is looking to add to the mix by cultivating younger designers such as Graeme Black and Chris Benz, while maintaining favorites such as Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Rucci.

“Younger customers are our future, although everyone wants to look and feel young,” he said.

Although retail on the whole is lagging, Martens believes the economic crunch hasn’t hit the core Neiman’s customers. “The rich are still very rich, but they may think a bit more about what they buy,” he said.

This story first appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

However, Martens cautioned the chain’s buying staff against playing it too safe. “They still need to take some risks to get the best items,” he said.