Robert Campeau, the eccentric and flamboyant Canadian developer whose grand vision to reshape American retailing in the Eighties by buying up department stores failed under the weight of heavy debt, died June 12 at the age of 93.
Already established as a major developer in Canada of office buildings, homes and malls, Campeau caught the retail bug while visiting the Bloomingdale’s store in Boca Raton, Fla. He toured Bloomingdale’s locations with the store’s then chairman and chief executive officer, the late Marvin Traub, and it was the brand that fueled his hunger for acquisitions.
Other chief executive officers in retailing cozied up to him ultimately, and Campeau swiftly emerged on the U.S. retail scene by first purchasing the former Allied Stores retail conglomerate which operated Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor, Stern’s, Jordan Marsh, Mass Brothers and other chains for $3.6 billion. Not long after, in a bidding war with Macy’s, Campeau swooped up Federated Department Stores, the operator of Bloomingdale’s, Abraham & Straus, Rich’s and Burdines, among other retail divisions, for $6.6 billion. However, Macy’s backed off only after Campeau agreed to sell Federated’s Bullocks, Bullocks Wilshire and I. Magnin chains for $1.1 billion.
He financed the deals through junk bonds and had hired the highly regarded operations executive Robert Morosky who had been at Limited working closely with Leslie Wexner.
Campeau’s idea was to build malls in the U.S. and fill them with new stores operating under the nameplates he had just bought, even as the country was already overstored and overmalled. With market downturns, Campeau couldn’t service the debt behind the acquisitions and had no choice but to drag the two retail conglomerates, operating a total of 260 stores, into bankruptcy in January 1990, a fate unimaginable only a year or two before. It was considered the largest retail bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Aside from devastating the retail industry, there was enormous financial loss and anxiety created on Seventh Avenue. It ultimately took the bankruptcy upheaval to put the merchants back in charge, though thousands of jobs and countless dollars would be lost. Ultimately, they supported Federated and Allied through the bankruptcy by shipping and keeping the retailers in business. The fallout from the Campeau era has been enduring.
Campeau became a symbol of the industry’s concerns and skepticisms about real estate moguls and financial executives seizing control over retail businesses and relegating merchants. Comparisons to Campeau have dogged such individuals as Brad Martin, originally a politician and businessman, who took over Saks Fifth Avenue, Parisian and Proffitts creating a retail conglomerate that ultimately collapsed and was sold off in pieces. George Herscu, an Australian developer, attempted to revive two venerable but teetering retail nameplates, Bonwit Teller and B. Altman, but his efforts failed as well. Richard Baker, another real estate executive, has methodically built a retail empire over the past decade, leading the acquisitions of Lord & Taylor, Hudson’s Bay, Saks Fifth Avenue, Kaufhof and Gilt Group, which all operate under the parent Hudson’s Bay Co. And Edward S. Lampert has failed to improve business at Sears or Kmart.
Campeau was born August 3, 1923. He started in real estate by building a house in Ottawa, Canada, which lead to him developing office complexes, residential buildings and malls. Even after the Federated-Allied bankruptcy, Campeau continued to lead a flamboyant lifestyle living for a while in a castle in Austria. He was married three times, and secretly managed to have had two wives and two separate families simultaneously and became entangled in complicated family squabbles. He also grappled with bouts of depression and mental illness.