Liz Rodbell

Liz Rodbell, after 32 years at Lord & Taylor where she rose from dress buyer to president, is leaving the department store at the end of this month, WWD has learned.

Rodbell has served as Lord & Taylor’s president since 2014 and is one of only three women to have led the retailer since it was founded 190 years ago as the nation’s first department store. The other two were Dorothy Shaver, from 1945 to 1959, and Jane Elfers, 2000 to 2008.

“It’s really been an incredible run,” Rodbell told WWD on Monday.

A search is under way for Rodbell’s successor.

A highly respected merchant, Rodbell presided over Lord & Taylor during downtrends, management integrations and streamlinings. She is credited with growing L&T’s e-commerce business and being instrumental in transforming the store into an all-channel experience by adding such services and operations as virtual personal shoppers; buy online, pick up orders in stores, and staging special events tied to social media and the Millennial crowd to encourage new audiences and help offset L&T’s reputation as being “grandma’s” store. Her voice promoting Lord & Taylor was for several seasons heard on taxi cab videos.

To drive the business, Rodbell strengthened categories where Lord & Taylor historically did best, such as dresses and footwear. L&T long marketed itself as “The Dress Address” and a couple of years ago, Rodbell opened a huge dress floor at the Fifth Avenue flagship. She also formed some exclusive partnerships with Karl Lagerfeld, Lala Anthony, Miss Selfridge and Bobbi Brown, among other designers and brands.

From 2014 to June 2017, Rodbell was simultaneously president of L&T and Hudson’s Bay in Canada, after earlier serving as executive vice president and chief merchant of both businesses. She had the unusual task of heading two major chains operating in separate but bordering countries, requiring constant traveling and greater awareness of climates, consumer demographics and product preferences. While in Canada, she oversaw major renovations and introduced brands to the business while seizing opportunities created by the demise of Sears Canada, which was Hudson’s Bay primary competitor.

Last June, she shifted to running just L&T, continuing to oversee merchandising, marketing, creative, stores, e-commerce direction and overall strategy. Alison Coville became president of the Hudson’s Bay chain.

Rodbell began her retail career at A&S in the executive training program and joined Lord & Taylor in 1985 as a buyer for dresses. Two years later she became divisional merchandise manager over dresses. In 1992, she was promoted to senior vice president, general merchandise manager of suits, coats, intimate apparel and children’s, and was later promoted again to executive vice president of merchandising for women’s.

Rodbell is moving on at a time of flux for Lord & Taylor, with its flagship on Fifth Avenue having been sold by its parent company, the Hudson’s Bay Co., to WeWork for $850 million last year. The building next year will be converted into WeWork’s New York headquarters and underneath that, a new retail experience with stores, restaurants and other formats.

When the deal with WeWork was unveiled, HBC said it would retain 150,000 square feet of the 650,000-square-foot flagship for a scaled-down Lord & Taylor store. More recently, there has been speculation that Lord & Taylor would totally abandon the space to avoid paying any rent there.

Asked about the future of Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, Richard Baker, executive chairman and governor of the Toronto-based HBC, said he will reveal further details on its fate at a later date.

Asked about the future of Lord & Taylor overall, Baker replied: “There is a lot of opportunity to grow the business. The Lord & Taylor digital flagship on walmart.com is an example.” He said L&T on walmart.com will launch mid-May.

Rodbell said Lord & Taylor on walmart.com will have “a really segmented look and feel like Lord & Taylor. It will look amazing. It will have a very strong collection of premium brands. It’s not a link; it’s a flagship site.”

The departure of Rodbell is the first big executive change at HBC since February when Helena Foulkes was named chief executive officer with responsibilities for the global strategy and operations of all of HBC’s banners, which include L&T, Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks Off 5th, Gilt, Galeria Kaufhof, Galeria Inno and Hudson’s Bay.

Lord & Taylor is closing four stores over the next year including units in Annapolis, Md., and Skokie, Ill., this month. The Oak Brook, Ill., store will close in January. The fourth store to shutter has not yet been disclosed.

The store in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, among the better branches, will complete a 37,000-square-foot expansion and renovation in September, with new brands and a contemporary, glass-enclosed entrance.

“Liz had an incredible 30-plus years at Lord & Taylor and she did good work for us up in Canada when we needed her to be involved there,” Baker said. “She’s a passionate, inspired and talented leader. We will miss her. This was Liz’s decision to leave.”

“I have been speaking with Richard for some time as to what my next steps would be,” Rodbell told WWD. “When Helena arrived we started working through the right timing to make a change.

“Number one, I’m proud of the team and what we accomplished,” Rodbell said. “What we do everyday here is in my blood.

“l loved the challenges. Everyday I wake up with a positive attitude to address the challenges.” As a fashion merchant, “I really believe that when you look good you feel better,” Rodbell said. “I believe in making people feel good about themselves.”

Growing up in Springfield, Mass., Rodbell was the first girl in her grade school to wear bell-bottoms. She further stood out by packing her lunch sandwiches in a tan handbag, rather than a brown paper bag.

She dreamed of having a fashion store though that never happened. Instead, she started her career as a shoe salesperson at a store in her hometown and loved the business. When she joined Abraham & Straus, and subsequently L&T, she felt her childhood dream had evolved in a good direction.

The first thing on her agenda after she leaves Lord & Taylor is celebrating her daughters’ graduations; one from college, the other from high school. After that, “I’m really looking forward to my next chapter. I would say it will be in the fashion industry.”

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