In any organization, it’s always about the people, the experiences and the results. But within the retail industry, Bloomingdale’s has had a life and a zest of its own, and in several areas of business, a leg up on its competition.
Historically, Bloomingdale’s attracted many of the most talented buyers, creative, financial and store operations employees, and in many cases, they spent years and years working there. Being New York-based certainly helped with retention. So did the culture of hard work, putting in the hours, innovation, being fashion first, upscale appeal and efforts to make the store theatrical and fun.
Below, some top executives from the past articulate what makes Bloomingdale’s Bloomingdale’s, and recount some of their fondest memories and finest moments working there.
Allen Questrom, former chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penney, Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s parent Federated Department Stores, later named Macy’s:
I started to work at Abraham & Straus in Brooklyn in 1965 and used to go across the river to visit Bloomingdale’s, and from my vantage point in I always considered Bloomingdale’s a very with-it store. And even today, Bloomingdale’s is probably the king of contemporary. If you walk through Bergdorf Goodman, which by the way has every major designer, or Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, you will realize that Bloomingdale’s has the most contemporary assortments of apparel, and a great contemporary feel in home furnishings. They still dominate those areas. They’ve had a great cosmetics business and a big shoe business too.
I’ve been fortunate to know all of the former senior executives. Marvin Traub brought a great panache. He made it theatrical, and Mike Gould did a great job in terms of attracting different people that were missing in the culture and structure, and building up its profitability. Tony Spring continues to do very well there, and the Bloomingdale’s business today is quite good. I think back on people like Lester Gribetz, Carl Levine and Barbara D’Arcy — they all contributed to really creating a theater. Frank Doroff was a terrific apparel guy. People came to the store for great ideas, new, thought-provoking looks. Lester brought in the pet rock. The store attracted a lot of young creative people in that kind of environment. For me, growing up in the business, first at A&S, Bloomingdale’s was a place I learned a lot from.
Michael Gould, former Bloomingdale’s chairman and CEO for 23 years:
The essence of Bloomingdale’s is simple. It’s the people. We had success in profits, creating the best contemporary department store of any big retailer in the country, spearheading the introduction of European brands, building stores, expanding to California, Dubai, opening SoHo, but the lasting thing is about people. You are remembered not because you hit 700 home runs in this business. You are remembered by the people you touch, the people you grew. In my 23 years there, we grew great leaders — we had the same ready-to-wear general merchandise manager, the same two people running fashion accessories, the same two people running the home store. People had a sense of belonging and for the most part, they didn’t leave. It’s what Bloomingdales stands for more than anything else.
July 27, 2010, was the transformational day in my career at Bloomingdale’s. I assembled the entire management committee from around the country, as we did twice annually — all the vice presidents, store managers, general merchandise managers, divisional merchandise managers. We spent a half day with a facilitator, Dr. Tom Brooks, discussing “Mandela’s Way,” by Richard Stengel, which describes Nelson Mandela’s leadership principles rooted in his core values. What were the learnings of Mandela that applied to the business world? Foremost is “courage is not the absence of fear.” Others include ”lead from the back,” which is much more difficult than leading from the front. Coach and direct people and then let them make the decision. And be measured — an important one for me personally. Although passion is one of my strengths, if you become too passionate it can become intimidating. Know your enemy — to me it was know your resources, the vendors. They’re not enemies. They are our partners.
That discussion was my seminal moment at Bloomingdale’s and the beginning of our transformation. Unbeknownst to me, our stores and central organization took the learnings of the Mandela book and created their own workshops. We ended up with more than 3,000 employees owning and reading the book. It was embraced by every division at every store, by sales associates, new associates, summer interns. Every week, for each chapter, we had discussion groups. People said the book was transformative. It changed people, helped us to think differently, to operate differently. For many of us as leaders, it changed what we saw as important. It changed the culture of Bloomingdale’s. When I left Bloomingdale’s, I received more than 1,000 letters, most of them thanking me for exposing them to this book. To this day, I am still receiving notes from people on the way the book has changed their lives, professionally and personally.
Sue Kronick, former vice chairman of Macy’s Inc., and group president of Federated Department Stores:
I essentially grew up at Bloomingdale’s and experienced the entire world traveling for the store — China, South China Seas, India, Israel and beyond. Imagine being in New York and going to Bloomingdale’s to see the robes from The Forbidden City on the cosmetic islands, never seen outside of China before. Now, they are on TikTok.
The thing I loved about Bloomingdale’s in the ‘70s and ‘80s was the store’s self-deprecating sense of humor. You saw it in the advertising copy, the floor — Saturday’s Generation — and the people. I also so appreciated the value we placed on people and growing them — and being kind. In 1978, we took our textile team to Israel in preparation for the 1979 promotion of the country. I was the merchandise manager for textiles and went to Marvin Traub to ask if I could take our table linen buyer, Hy Bayer, (in his 70s at the time) with me. I explained that there was no clear business reason for him to travel but Hy had approached me about visiting Israel as a lifelong dream. Marvin said if it was that important enough for me to ask then we should probably take him. When Hy and I were in the car traveling into Tel Aviv, I looked to my right and saw silent tears streaming down Hy’s face. It was such a quiet, deeply emotional moment. My most meaningful experience was, in fact, his — made possible by making decisions with a level of humanity that makes a difference.
The ability of the store to be agile, resilient and relevant before those were the buzzwords of the day is important — but for me, the moments of kindness and humaneness in the business built a kind of loyalty and devotion to the brand that we are still retelling today.
Terry J. Lundgren, former CEO, Federated Department Stores:
Back in the ‘80s, Bullock’s department store in L.A. and Bloomingdale’s were divisions of Federated Department Stores, which worked closely together on many subjects, especially in the home furnishings area where I was a young buyer (in my 20s) for Bullock’s.
I remember always looking forward to my market visits to New York City to see the unveiling of the “furniture showrooms” at Bloomingdale’s. The 59th Street store would carve out six to eight vignettes and create the most fabulous room settings I had ever seen, and I was able to attend many of the opening-night cocktail parties where the curtains would be pulled back and these incredibly beautiful, tasteful, dramatic rooms where revealed for the first time.
I remember customers being blown away by what they were seeing and a couple of them saying, “I’ll take that room, including the vases, dinner plates, artwork…all of it.”
These installations were not easy or inexpensive to pull off but the lasting, positive impression that it made on customers, retailers, industry leaders and the media is one example of why Bloomingdale’s deserves the tag line, “Like No Other Store in the World!”
Lester Gribetz, former vice chairman of Bloomingdale’s:
It was a true differentiator in merchandising and marketing under Marvin Traub, and then eventually Michael Gould and now Tony Spring. What I think the customer told us is they wanted things that were exclusive and well-designed. Price was not the differentiator, it was more the uniqueness of the merchandise. That’s why we traveled all over the world to bring back things that were exclusive to the stores. From my interaction with customers, it was the fact that they could find things that weren’t distributed everywhere in every department store. That’s what I think was our challenge, to bring back the unique. That’s why we were so successful with the shows, whether that be China or India or Israel. That’s when the store was mobbed for customers looking for the unique and the differentials. During the show days, it was truly the most exciting period of my life to bring back the craft and the uniqueness and the design of most of the countries that most of our customers hadn’t traveled to.
There were so many unique moments and exciting times. It was the most joyous period of my life working in the store because of the day-to-day challenges and the wonderful talent of the people I worked with. If I were to say what gave me the most pleasure was to work with the people who worked for me, who became remarkably successful, whether it be Sue Kronick or Norman Axelrod or Tony Spring, whom I hired, by the way, out of college, which shows at least I had the talent of choosing good people. They were all just wonderfully talented people who knew the mission and went after it with a vengeance. I think the joy of success was apparent in everybody’s mind and was a great experience. It certainly was the highlight of my life.
One moment that stood out that Marvin Traub talked about was when the Queen of England came to Bloomingdale’s. He took great joy and satisfaction to invite she and her husband to tour the store and show her how a department store can exist with very interesting merchandise. I guess there was a lot of British product at the store at the time. That seemed to draw the biggest crowds. They actually changed the traffic pattern of Lexington Avenue which goes South to go North because that’s how she exited her car.
That’s just one of the memories….There were highlights in our experiences in the Forbidden City in China and India, it was a great experience and privilege to work there.
Francine Klein, former vice chairman, Bloomingdale’s:
What makes Bloomingdale’s special is the constant reinvention of the assortments and the stores themselves. Bloomingdale’s is in perpetual fashion motion. Nothing stays still. [This is evident in the] never-ending renovation of 59th Street, particularly in the cosmetics and fragrance areas, where the Bway is like a cosmopolitan world city unto itself. The new women’s shoe floor, the individual brand stores (handbags and shoes) are all part of the Bloomingdale’s experience. There’s also the importance of contemporary fashion, the incessant search for new assortments, particularly for young customers. And of course, the people [as evidenced by] the longevity of the sales and merchandising staff, and the overall feeling of being part of a large and diverse family where people really do care and support each other.
One special memory on a corporate basis [was] the country promotions, which transformed 59th Street, and all the stores, into a new and exotic world. The lead up to those promotions when I traveled the world in search of merchandise, long before travel to remote countries like China and India were even a consideration for merchants, [was remarkable]. And on a personal level [I’ll never forget] as an assistant buyer, selling hosiery to Claudette Colbert and Paul Newman — though not at the same time.
Jack Hruska, former EVP, creative services, 25-year Bloomingdale’s veteran, who designed Bloomingdale’s stores, remodels and templates for outlets and Bloomie’s:
The essence of Bloomingdale’s is the overarching desire of anyone that works there to be best-in-class and to discover unique and interesting product to bring to customers in a fun, sophisticated way.
A most memorable time of incredible growth was when we entered the California market, opening five stores in two weeks. They were originally Broadway and Emporium stores. We had a very small team. We had 16 stores at the time and were adding about a third more in a very compressed time frame — nine months from layout to the finish. The pressure was intense. We had to move so fast. We had a meeting at a hotel in Los Angeles when I produced the plans to Mike Gould and the [general merchandise managers]. They had to say yes that day to go forward. It wasn’t something they could contemplate because we didn’t have the time. Otherwise, the openings would be delayed. There were small variations and changes we made later, but we made it all work.
That was memorable but not my favorite time. One of my favorite moments was when we finished the Santa Monica store; I loved the exterior and the interior design — a blend of SoHo ideas and 59th Street with a beach flavor. It was a cool store but wasn’t very successful and it closed. Another favorite moment for sure was creating the SoHo store. I remember walking in with Mr. Gould the day before it opened and seeing its blend of being very sophisticated in a loft, factory-type building, with the exposed brick walls, the exposed ceilings, the original flooring. It’s a very unique store. It was a big deal for that part of town and it’s still doing well.
I also got to travel around with Mike and Tony to China, walked the Great Wall, talked to developers there, to understand better how Bloomingdale’s could be a more attractive choice for Chinese tourists. We also got to go to Dubai, where we have a store, and on trips to Europe. There was a great bond between Mike Gould, Tony Spring and myself on these creative, informative and inspirational trips.
Frank Doroff, former vice chairman of Bloomingdale’s:
It’s the people. The store has a lot of very nice merchandise and buildings, but it’s the people. My biggest satisfaction and enjoyment and fun was working together with all the people on all these common projects and seeing just how dedicated they were, how hard-working they were and how good they were, and the whole store pulling together, if we had a marketing project like 100 Percent Bloomingdale’s — the marketing department, the stores, the merchants, the store planning guys. Opening new stores, just seeing everybody work together for this common goal, which usually came out pretty darn good. Just seeing everyone’s excitement and dedication to their jobs and doing their jobs well and really wanting to do a good job. I love that and loved working with those groups and all the people.
One of the biggest enjoyments I had at Bloomingdale’s for a tremendous number of years was taking a business manager each year, who was usually a young person out of college, maybe after one assignment at Bloomingdale’s, and they’d work with me for a year, and I got to see the Bloomingdale’s world and the world through their eyes. They were great, and I got so many letters from them thanking me for whatever I did for them. They did a lot for themselves. I got so much enjoyment out of that and watching them grow. I loved that part of the job. I did that for 25 years.
Anne Keating, 29-year Bloomingdale’s veteran and former SVP of public relations, press, events and corporate philanthropy:
Being a caring corporation makes Bloomingdale’s Bloomingdale’s. If I were ever to speak about my time at Bloomingdale’s, I would probably first think of what It was like when I first arrived and what it was like when I left and what I did in my career there.