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NEW YORK — Elizabeth Schweitzer is the type of young person the retail industry wants to recruit and nurture.

A senior at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, she will graduate in May with a bachelor of science degree in economics. She has focused on retailing through the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative, a curriculum established in 2003 through a $10 million gift from the former president of Kohl’s, who graduated from Wharton in 1956.

Schweitzer, who has dreamed of a retailing career since she was a 13-year-old salesgirl at a Larchmont, N.Y., children’s boutique, took courses on supply chain management, merchandising, buying and store design. Her senior thesis was a comparative analysis of Target, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney.

“I have a lot of mentors who are in the upper echelons of retail management,” Schweitzer said. “I’ve learned from them that’s it’s really important to be a great merchant, so I’m starting the executive training program at Bloomingdale’s in June. Eventually, I’d like to run a department store or specialty chain.”

Contrast Schweitzer’s experience with that of another Wharton alum, Brendan Hoffman, class of ’97. Hoffman, the president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Direct, didn’t know what he wanted to do when he graduated and fell into retailing after a friend suggested he join the May Co. training program.

“When I went to Penn people probably didn’t think of retail as a career,” Hoffman said. “They saw it as more of an occupation. There was no curriculum for retail then. I graduated and went to May Co. with no preparation in terms of a retail background. As I made this my career I started looking to see where there might be a curriculum to prepare someone. I was thrilled when Jay Baker and his wife, Patty, donated the money to Wharton.”

The gift, which endows a faculty chair, expanded the curriculum and research in retailing and promotes interaction among students, faculty and industry experts. It is intended to create “the epicenter of retailing at Wharton and Penn,” Jay Baker said.

For an industry that laments the dearth of talent rising through the ranks and the difficulty of recruiting the best and the brightest young graduates, the Baker Retailing Initiative came not a moment too soon during a period of intensifying economic pressures and consolidation.

This story first appeared in the May 1, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Hiring continues to be a challenge because retail is not viewed by many college graduates as a robust opportunity,” said Burt Tansky, president and ceo of the Neiman Marcus Group and a member of the Baker Retailing Initiative advisory committee. “Retailers haven’t marketed themselves very well over a long period of time and allowed other industries to take the lead, like banking and financial services. But it’s never too late. The Jay Baker program resounds well for the many years ahead.”

Tansky’s view is shared by others.

“It’s a phenomenal program,” said Sharen Jester Turney, president and ceo of Victoria’s Secret Direct. “When you think of the retailing industry and how big it is, it’s amazing that we have never been proactive as a group to engage undergraduate and graduate students. We used to have robust training programs but things have changed. The retail business is much more complex and challenging. The people who are successful are the ones who have an entrepreneurial spirit and can predict what customers will want.”

As a member of the advisory board, Turney visits Wharton regularly to speak to classes. She recently conducted a case study of VS marketing with one class, posing the question, “How do you stay on the right side of sexy?”

“We’re very provocative,” she recalled telling students. “We know at our core we’re sexy. I showed them different commercials and we debated them. It was a very interactive classroom.”

Baker said part of the job of the 40-member advisory board, which includes Federated’s Terry Lundgren, VF’s Mackey McDonald, Gary Muto of the Gap, Urban Outfitters’ Richard Hayne and Polo Ralph Lauren’s Roger Farah, is rehabilitating the industry’s image and spreading the word that retailing can be exciting and lucrative.

“People on our board are champions of new sources of leadership,” he said. “You see so much poaching of talent in the industry. This is looking at it from a longer horizon.”

The perception that retailing involves long hours for little pay is changing, Baker said.

“There’s a tremendous number of successful people in retailing,” he said. “There isn’t an overabundance of young talent out there so you can move up very quickly. If you have passion you can have a lot of responsibility at a young age.”

Wharton is not the only school with a growing interest in retail. The University of Arizona’s program in retailing and consumer sciences is bolstered by the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing, which brings industry leaders to campus and organizes internships. Columbia University’s retailing program at the Graduate School of Business was founded by Alan Kane, dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s School of Business and Technology. The David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the University of Florida sponsors executive visits and workshops.

“Part of my dream was that there would be other schools getting interested,” Baker said. “I’m hearing that now. I spoke about this at Harvard and there was huge interest.”

Wharton has begun a partnership with the Fashion Institute of Technology to expose the school’s traditionally business-minded students to the more creative aspects of fashion and retailing.

“Wharton students are extremely quantitative,” said William Cody, managing director of the Baker program. “They have to have an appreciation for aesthetics. General merchandise managers and divisional merchandise managers need a different skill set. They need to be great merchants and great business people.”

A main goal of the Baker Retailing Initiative is fostering close interaction between students and industry leaders. “We have interns at Neiman’s throughout the summer,” said Hoffman, adding that as a result of the program, the company has been more actively recruiting on the Wharton campus.

“Some department stores have a better infrastructure for young students,” said Cody, citing Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s Merchandising Group on the product development side, and Neiman Marcus for store design and merchandising.

David Bruno, a 2004 Wharton graduate who is a brand analyst for the INC men’s collection at Macy’s Merchandising Group, goes back to the campus to share his experiences.

“It’s amazing to see the excitement about retail,” he said. “It used to be cocktail hour with McKinsey. Now Macy’s is coming and discussing product development.”

“The skills I learned in school were very holistic,” he said. “I interface with customs, logistics and operations in my job. Department store retailing is tough. It’s not sexy to be a buyer anymore. That’s why I wanted to go into the product development side. I want to create a brand and manage a brand.”

When Amanda Brown left a lucrative job on Wall Street to apply to business schools, the Baker program helped sway her decision in favor of Wharton.

“I’ve always had a passion for the creative and have been searching for a career that would allow me to combine my left and right brains,” said Brown, who is starting a job as a marketing manager at Clinique in July. “I’d like to run some sort of beauty or retail firm. The retail industry will never pay the way people are paid on Wall Street. I want to do something I love every day. To me, that was worth taking a substantial [monetary] hit.”