By David Moin
with contributions from Lisa Lockwood
 on July 17, 2016

Mark S. Handler, a former Macy’s president and one of the nation’s leading merchants in the Seventies and Eighties, died Saturday at his home in East Hampton, N.Y., friends and former colleagues said Sunday. He was 83.

The exact cause of death will be determined by an autopsy.

“This was so sudden. I never had a chance to say goodbye,” said Handler’s daughter Jody. “I spoke to him everyday. It’s hard to sum up my feelings now.”

“He was a warm and compassionate man,” said his wife Barbara. “He was a gentleman’s gentleman. So many people said he never ruled by fear. Mark ruled by love.”

“Mark has been a good friend for at least 30 years,” Ellin Saltzman, former fashion director of Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, told WWD. “He was a great merchant and also a very decent guy. He had a great sense of humor. He loved to golf. He loved East Hampton and his homes in Florida and New York City.”

“It was a total shock. I just saw Mark in the Hamptons two weeks ago and he had just walked off the golf course,”  said Gilbert Harrison, chairman of investment banking firm Financo Inc. “Mark was a great merchant. I loved the way he built up Macy’s. He was a serious guy but he always had a smile on his face.”

Handler joined Macy’s in 1958 as a member of the executive training program and rose up the buying ranks at the retailer and the former Bamberger’s division.

After the training squad, he was named a junior assistant for fabrics and was promoted to buyer in 1961. He later became misses’ sportswear buyer. In 1962, he joined Macy’s Bamberger’s division as a merchandise administrator. He was named vice president in 1965, senior vice president in 1967, president in 1971 and division chairman in 1979.

Handler became president and chief operating officer of Macy’s in 1980, and chief merchandising officer in February 1992. After the company filed for bankruptcy in January 1992, Handler became co-chairman and co-chief executive officer. He resigned from that position on Aug. 1, 1993, making Myron “Mike” Ullman 3rd the company’s sole chairman and ceo. Handler continued as a merchandising executive and an executive director at Macy’s until his contract ended in 1995.

Macy’s was lifted out of bankruptcy through the acquisition by Federated Department Stores in 1994.

Handler worked closely for many years with the late and legendary Edward Finkelstein, former chairman and ceo.  The two merchants amounted to a formidable partnership that proved innovative and transformative for Macy’s. “It was a long run together,” Saltzman said. “They upgraded the level of merchandise and brought Macy’s from a bargain store to a fashion store.”

“In an era of merchant princes, Mark looked like he could have been picked for the president’s role by central casting,” said Don Eugene, a former Macy’s chief financial officer, now partner in the Callydus Group.

Finkelstein and Handler were often seen side by side at Macy’s events and other industry happenings, and would travel together both for work and pleasure, Saltzman noted.

The two brought panache to the business, and such innovations as the Cellar, a bustling format in the store for dinnerware, kitchen gadgets and food, first at Macy’s San Francisco flagship and subsequently at the Herald Square flagship in Manhattan. They also backed the development of a stable of private brands such as INC International Concepts and Charter Club that became industry models. And they lured uptown socialites down to Herald Square with black-tie dinners that supported charities, spotlighted new departments or launched in-store happenings such as Macy’s annual flower show.

The friendship appeared to end after Macy’s fell into bankruptcy and Finkelstein was removed as chairman and ceo, while Handler continued for a while running the company.

“I knew him very well,” said Arnold Aronson, partner and managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon. “Mark was the consummate gentleman, a very bright merchant, and an excellent leader. Finkelstein and Handler were the engineers of Macy’s growth of the Seventies and Eighties. Mark was the facilitator, the partner closest to the people and had great interpersonal relationships. He was very respected in the marketplace. Finkelstein liked the center stage while Mark was also there to support him. They were pioneers of private label, and there were questions about that at the time since Macy’s was a strong platform for major brands, like Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Levi Strauss and Nautica — the power brands of that day.”

While Handler had a confident, formal demeanor, he often exuded a lighter side. “He always carried himself like a real gentleman and was able to diffuse the toughest situations with his quick wit and warm humor,” Eugene said.

A funeral service will be held at the Yardley & Pino Funeral Home, 94 Pantigo Road in East Hampton, N.Y, at 11 a.m., on Wednesday.

In addition to his wife Barbara and daughter Jody, Handler is survived by his son Johnny and four granddaughters.