Saks Fifth Avenue’s Marigay McKee, never one to mince words, seemed almost stymied by the query: “Why all the buzz about you?”

“I can’t say for sure,” she began. “I do think Americans are always fascinated by all things British.” It could also be “the fact that I’m a British girl in her 40s, a woman at the helm of a great company, an iconic brand with an amazing heritage. Saks has been around for 90 years, with lots of caretakers. It’s all of it, together in a pile.”

This story first appeared in the December 19, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Add to it the McKee aura — luminous, fierce, unfiltered. She’s got the media seduced by her rapid-fire, up-front and often refreshing observations about anything and everything from the Azzedine Alaïa shoes in her closet, to the costs of massively upgrading the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship. She’s been candid and by her own admission, “usually too honest for my own good.”

Driven is an understatement. As Harrods’ chief merchant, she transformed the emporium into an international, au courant attraction. And though the demands and fatigue factor at Saks, a national chain, are higher, she’s maintained the jet-set lifestyle that takes her to Harvard Business School as a keynoter, 10 Downing Street to be recognized by the Prime Minister as one of Great Britain’s cultural ambassadors, and Vail for a ski holiday. She’s also been visiting Saks stores around the country and meeting with 10 to 20 top customers over lunch once a week, to see what they need, what designers and services they prefer, and learn the local nuances — what a Beverly Hills stylist wants versus a Boston philanthropist.

She’s considered a tough businesswoman and has to be in the male dominated business world, though she started her career as a secondary school teacher. Five years later, she was recruited to Estée Lauder’s training program in Spain. After Lauder, she became a buyer at Fenwick, a British department store, before joining Harrods to head up its beauty division and eventually ascend to chief merchant.

Between the cap and gloved doormen she stationed at the Saks flagship, and the Champagne bar she’s installed on the fifth floor, she quickly brought an elevated showmanship to the retail theater. The Christmas window unveiling was a splashy mix of 36 Rockettes high-kicking on the avenue, then fireworks from the top of the flagship.

She’s also brought controversy, shaking up the Saks team with a rash of executive changes, and rattling the vendor community with major surgery on the merchandise matrix and an editing approach that favors the pricier, most luxurious pieces in the collections. How’s that working out? “I still think it’s too soon,” for a verdict, said McKee. “We will see bigger changes in 2015.” She did cite some positive selling performances already at the top end, in designer, jewelry, handbags, fur and lingerie. In swimwear, there’s a new shop where she cut the number of labels in half and has been getting double-digit increases. “There has been very big acceptance in higher prices, that higher luxury positioning. I am very pleasantly surprised by that.”

“Initially, the first changes were clearly visual, adding canopies, doormen, the look and feel of the catalogue,” McKee mentioned. The shopping bag “clearly the biggest piece of advertising that we have” got a chic makeover. “We’ve been changing the visual merchandising guidelines, starting with New York and going out to the rest of the stores. We have really elevated the experience through the mannequins and through the windows.”

She also cited “making lots of promotions within the team and looking at cross selling as one of biggest opportunities.” The mission: “bringing the store to life, adding to the theater.”

Saks’ owner, the Hudson’s Bay Co., plans to spend $250 million for a thorough renovation of the Saks flagship, though some people familiar with previous renovations at the site believe it will cost more. The grand scheme is one subject McKee won’t discuss, for now, though she indicated there will be a new restaurant and at the two Saks openings in Canada, food halls will be created.

The food-hall concept she’s importing from Harrod’s, where storage areas were moved off site to create greater selling space. That’s a possibility at the Saks flagship, albeit an expensive one. The lower-level storage area could be converted. “Yes, there are some ideas coming over from my previous alma mater, but lots of things are not necessarily for Saks,” McKee said. That’s in large part because the customer makeup is different, with Harrods drawing far more people from the Middle East, China and Kazakhstan, among other places.

After 12 months on the job, McKee gives a progress report. Asked what’s been the biggest surprise, McKee replied, “That’s funny, Kate [Middleton] asked me the same question. It came up at a luncheon,” with about a dozen other Brits. “It’s interesting to me. It hasn’t been the long hours — New York never sleeps. I get that. It wasn’t that the work is hard. It wasn’t the size of the pie. I definitely thought getting new brands would be among the toughest things, the brand matrix. But as a Brit coming to America, it’s the culture. Fitting into the culture. Having people understand you. Not second guessing. Trying to understand. How to best fit in. We speak the same language but we are separated by an ocean and a different sense of humor.”

Americans sometimes don’t get the sharp sarcasm.

“The first year was not as much fun,” McKee said. “Now I understand the culture, the American sense of humor. I understand the demands. I see the desire for everyone to be successful, to see us evolve, to see us as the brand of the future. We also have to set realistic expectations. I think I am trying very hard.”

After that whirlwind start, McKee seems to have settled in. It’s even begun to be fun. “I do feel like I see the goals so much clearer and what the challenges are going to be. At first, I was not even sure myself that this was really achievable. Now it’s actually achievable. It’s definitely doable. You have to be patient. It takes time to turn around the customer and the opportunity. I’m hoping that my gut feeling on the company is the right one. Life is never about one person, one strategy. It’s a great journey. It has to be done as a team. We have a big opportunity to do it. We have a lot of initiatives. We have a lot of new projects. It’s going to be fantastic.”

Her toughest day occurred 12 weeks into the job, when there was a closed-door meeting at the office for a review and it was conveyed that she was moving too fast. “Doing too much too soon,” as she said. She left the meeting thinking, “Oh my God, am I really going to be able to do this? Am I going to fit into American corporate life?” That night, McKee called upon her mentor Leonard Lauder for support. They met for cocktails in his penthouse. He was reassuring, telling her to stay focused, that things won’t happen overnight, “that you just can’t snap your figure and the magic happens,” McKee recalled. “You’ve got to understand people’s feelings. If you make too many changes too quickly, you can alienate people.” Lauder helped her realize that a company that had just been sold and had a completely new executive team can be intimidating to insiders as well as outsiders.

McKee said her fondest day at Saks was the Christmas window unveiling, with the Rockettes, the fireworks and the fairy-tale windows. “It has got to be the best moment.…I had an immense sense of pride and joy, being in New York and that it was all coming to fruition. A year ago, I sat very quietly alongside Richard Baker,” the governor and executive chairman of Hudson’s Bay Co. “This year, it was kind of our baby, my baby. Hats off to our creative team.”

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