NEW YORK — An industry bereft of talent? Not quite, though that is certainly the popular perception.

Despite an influx of executives from outside the industry being recruited to head fashion and retail companies, there is a tier of executives within who are relatively underexposed in the media and are rarely in the rumor mill when the next big search begins. These executives are middle managers, general merchandise managers, executive vice presidents and divisional presidents in their 40s and 50s who may be deliberately kept out of the spotlight by their employers so they don’t get pirated. They’re highly educated with years of experience with five-star retail and apparel brands.

This story first appeared in the November 6, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In today’s environment, however, that may no longer be enough.

“We have to find those talents who understand what the word ‘innovation’ means and how to bring it into an organization,” said Karen Harvey, president of Karen Harvey Consulting Group, an executive search and professional development firm. “Stores need innovation, and that’s why we look to companies like Nike, Apple, Yahoo and Google to find talent.

“Increasingly, boards are looking for candidates who have a strong track record in building and empowering a team. What’s also very important is multichannel experience, candidates that have had a portfolio of brands under their watch, and global experience. The world is getting smaller and smaller and because of the consolidation domestically, international experience is becoming more and more important for brands.”

“I believe there are good, bright, capable people out there. The primary difference is that the pipeline from which they were primarily developed — department store training programs — is a fraction of what it once was,” said Kirk Palmer of the Kirk Palmer Associates search firm. “Some larger non-department store companies now have their own programs, but on an industry-wide basis, you can’t just eliminate over 100 training programs in a decade and not have an adverse effect. So there is still great talent in our industry, there’s simply less of it.”

Palmer added that companies fight to hang onto talent through non-compete provisions and rich, long-term incentive programs, making it harder than ever for executives to jump ship. “For better or worse, we will continue to see nontraditional backgrounds assume important positions in our industry, and we will see more talent from non-merchandising career paths assuming top roles than in prior years.”

According to Palmer, it is a mix of high performers interacting and learning from one another, coupled with strong leadership at the top, that produces talent to a disproportionate degree. “Companies falling into this group include Polo Ralph Lauren, J. Crew and Target.”

So who are the stars of the future? WWD asked headhunters and retailers who they see as worth watching or as potential chief executive officers. Here are their picks:

  • Ron Johnson, senior vice president of Apple retailing, reporting to Steve Jobs. He’s got the right stuff to turn around a big ship, like the Gap, and has vision. “He’s a very strong executive with an incredible pedigree, from Target to Apple,” said one source. “He grew up as a merchant, but clearly he’s also a strategist.” The Apple retail rollout has been fast, furious and highly creative, with its below-ground, 24-hour flagship on Fifth Avenue and sales per square foot of over $2,000.
  • Jones Apparel Group’s Lynne Cote, ceo of wholesale sportswear, suits and dresses, and Mark Mendelson, chief merchandising officer. Mendelson has interpersonal skills and a rounded background, including stints at Ann Taylor and Elie Tahari, and has a relatively high profile in the industry and media, whereas Cote is lower profile but considered a strategic, big-picture thinker.
  • Harlan Bratcher, president of Armani Exchange. He came up through the marketing side of the industry and is described as a compelling leader adept at team building. He’s been senior vice president of global marketing at Calvin Klein, served as Sony’s senior vice president of retail development and started his career on the ground floor at Neiman Marcus.
  • Bridget Ryan Berman, ceo of Giorgio Armani North America. She has a unique blend of operations skills, a high taste level and can articulate a vision. Her background is in retail operations at Polo outlets and Apple’s head of store operations. “She has tremendous presence,” said one source.
  • Wayne Meichner, president of the retail division of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. He’s considered an excellent merchant with a clear business head and people skills who is strategic, with global experience. He spent 23 years at Saks Fifth Avenue, starting in executive training and leaving as executive vice president of merchandising, in charge of about 60 percent of the company’s buying, though his experience was weighted in men’s wear. At Lauren, he could one day succeed Roger Farah, president and chief operating officer.

  • Tony Spring, Blooming­dale’s senior executive vice president in charge of stores, shopping services, visual and store design and planning. He’s close to Michael Gould, chairman and ceo, and apparently is being groomed to run a division of Federated Department Stores by moving from merchandise to marketing and store operations slots. Federated does have more experienced executives who would be considered as potential Bloomingdale’s ceo’s of the future, including Frank Doroff, Bloomingdale’s senior executive vice president of women’s who once headed up Bullock’s, and Julie Greiner, ceo of Macy’s Florida, who previously presided over stores for Bloomingdale’s.
  • Jeff Morgan, president of product licensing at Polo Ralph Lauren. He’s got a diversified, multichannel background including Men’s Health magazine and Ralph Lauren media, and has handled a range of assignments at Polo.
  • Cammie Dunaway, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Yahoo. She has an interesting background, having spent 13 years at Frito Lay, supervising a $3 billion portfolio with such brands as Doritos, Cheetos and Ruffles, and most recently vice president and general manager of kids and teen brands at Pepsico, before joining Yahoo.
  • Gina Boswell, senior vice president and chief operating officer, Avon North America. She worked at Estée Lauder for a few years, joined Ford Motors in 1999 as head of business strategy and then went to Avon as senior vice president, strategy and business development. She’s on headhunters’ radar for running a wholesale company.
  • Michael Tucci, president of North American retail, Coach. He started in the Macy’s training program, spent eight years at Gap Inc., including stints at Old Navy, Gap Kids and Gap Body, ran Aéropostale and can rally people around a vision. He’s considered a strategist with excellent people skills who can drive results.
  • Mark Breitbard, senior vice president and general manager for Ruehl at Abercrombie & Fitch. Previously in merchandising at GapKids, BabyGap and Banana Republic, his background includes running a start-up juice business in Europe called Fresh Europe, demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit. For about a year at Gap, he was Mickey Drexler’s personal assistant, which involved a range of activities for Drexler from organizational and strategic issues to writing speech copy.

  • David McCreight, president at Lands’ End. He started as a Saks Fifth Avenue buyer, worked at the former Thalhimer’s chain, ran women’s tops for Limited Stores, served as president of Smith & Hawkins and as a head merchant at Disney Stores. He’s described as product-oriented and focused on brand image and positioning but balanced in understanding how to drive a business and run the numbers.
  • Others who sources cited as ceo candidates are Eric Wisemen, president and chief operating officer of VF Corp. and heir apparent to ceo Mackey McDonald, and John Goodman, president of Dockers U.S., who executed a quick turnaround of the brand and has multi-channel experience. Some say Eugenia Ulasewicz, president of Burberry USA, who has held top retail and wholesale jobs, could move up. After serving as Saks Fifth Avenue’s Midwest region, she followed ex-Saks president Rose Marie Bravo to Burberry, but with Bravo relinquishing the ceo role to Angela Ahrendts, it could be the moment for Ulasewicz to make a move.

Merchants to watch include:

  • Loretta Soffe, Nordstrom’s executive vice president and general merchandise manager for all women’s, excluding designer. Soffe has been revamping the business to get a better balance in career, which has been less robust than casual and contemporary. She might be tough to recruit since she’s been at Nordstrom for 22 years. “She’s personable, smart, has a strategic mind and is opened-minded,” said one source.
  • Tracy Gardner, executive vice president of merchandising, planning and production at J. Crew, has a strong track record of results and could one day run a division of a large corporation.
  • Robert Aldrich, executive vice president of wholesale, Zegna, and former president of John Varvatos, is strategic, knows product and is a standout in luxury men’s wear.
  • Rob Smith, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Macy’s East, has his fingers on the pulse of the teen market, helping to push Macy’s in a more youthful destination.
  • Jack Boyle, Kohl’s senior vice president and divisional merchandise manager for women’s, has been getting more responsibility and is considered young, energetic and good at executing a strategy.
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