Robin L. Farkas, chairman and chief executive officer of Alexander’s Department Stores from 1984 until 1993, died of natural causes at home in Los Angeles on July 10. He was 84.
Services will be held on Monday at 9:30 a.m. at Central Synagogue, 652 Lexington Avenue at 55th Street in Manhattan.
Farkas was the son of the late George Farkas, who founded Alexander’s in 1928, naming it after his father. The two Farkas generations built the store into a retail force with a major presence in the New York-New Jersey metro area. Before the rise of the national off-pricers and inexpensive fast fashion, Alexander’s developed a reputation for catering to immigrants, blue-collar workers and the middle class by offering fashion at sharp values in a no-frills environment. Alexander’s expansion followed the migration of many of its customers to the suburbs.
“Everything about him was special. He was extraordinarily loving, kind, enthusiastic and curious about everything,” said his daughter Judi Farkas. “He loved to travel the whole world. He particularly loved India, where he had dear friends.”
Unlike most retailers of his generation, Farkas approached the business with a broader perspective. “He always had a larger vision beyond the merchandise, whether it was realizing the value of the real estate or starting the car rental aspect of the business,” said Judi. “What he loved was the entirety of the business and the synergies that could be created among the pieces.”
Before joining Alexander’s, Farkas worked at Bain & Co. as a consultant. Once joining Alexander’s, he gained expertise on the merchandising and operations sides of the business and spent more than three decades with the company.
“Robin contributed an awful lot to the retail scene, having been trained tremendously by his father, one of the great department store/real estate people of his time,” observed Gilbert Harrison, head of the Harrison Group, and chairman emeritus of investment bank Financo, which he founded. “The real estate they put together would be hard to match in today’s world.”
Ultimately, Robin presided over the chain during a mostly challenging period for the business, when it began feeling the impact of mounting price promoting by competitors and expanding discounters. However, after the company went bankrupt and liquidated stores in 1992, three years later it was transformed into a real estate investment trust. It remains publicly listed and has seven properties.
Alexander’s property portfolio has included some very valuable pieces in the metro area, including Lexington Avenue between 59th and 58th Streets, which is still owned by the Alexander’s REIT. The company over the years drew investments from prominent real estate players including Interstate Properties in New Jersey, Robert Bass from Texas, Donald Trump and Steven Roth of Vornado Realty Trust, which has a significant stake in and manages the business.
“My father always said it’s not just the merchandise — it’s the real estate underneath. You have to own that and maximize the value. He and my grandfather understood that,” recalled Judi.
The first Alexander’s store opened in the Bronx in 1928. Its Manhattan flagship opened in 1965 across the street from Bloomingdale’s. Alexander’s peaked with 16 stores in the metropolitan area. When it went bankrupt in 1992, there were 11 stores. The 59th Street property was purchased by Vornado in the Nineties and Roth allowed the site to sit vacant for years while entertaining many offers until striking a deal with Bloomberg, which built its headquarters on the site in 2003.
Robin Farkas transcended his role as a prominent East Coast retailer and became part of the cultural and political fabric of New York City, becoming a patron of the arts and active in civic and charitable activities, including serving as chairman of the New York City Police Foundation, chairman of the New York State Dormitory Authority, and as a member of the executive committee of the New York Metropolitan Merchants Association.
He was a graduate of the Harvard Business School and served on several boards. The performing arts center at Harvard University, called Farkas Hall, was dedicated by his family in his honor. He also served in the army, was a licensed pilot and had a fascination with military history.
In addition to his daughter Judi, Farkas is survived by his children Andrea Farkas Krupen, Andrew Farkas, Bradford Farkas and Charles Farkas Garner; brothers Jonathan and Bruce, and eight grandchildren.