NEW YORK — Robert Mettler, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s West, believes America has a lot of learning to do.

“We have yet to learn how to be advocates for security and understanding in our country and, at the same time, advocates for peace and understanding throughout the world. We have yet to learn the difference between conflict and battle,” Mettler said during his speech at the Grand Hyatt Tuesday night.

Mettler and William Lauder, president and ceo of the Estée Lauder Cos., received the American Jewish Committee’s Centennial Leadership Award in an evening of impassioned speeches and praise for the honorees and their social and charitable activism.

Mettler, a 44-year veteran of retailing, said that, unless the country learns, “we will lead the world away from the very values we hold dear: tolerance, liberty and the self-determination to think, speak, worship and love as we chose.”

The American Jewish Committee, he urged, “must be allowed to continue to demonstrate the better way … how to raise one’s voice against violence and hatred and not overwhelm the voices of others.”

In his acceptance speech, Lauder took a different tack. He cited three “great lies: the check is in the mail … I promise to respect you in the morning … and the event will sell itself. The fact is, the event doesn’t sell itself.” He spoke of the work it takes to get out the crowd — about 900 people attended the AJC event, he pointed out — and how much he appreciated his connections in the industry.

His father, Leonard Lauder, presented him with the AJC award, saying: “He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but perhaps with a bottle of fragrance in his hand.” Leonard Lauder went on to say that, long ago, he made a deal with his son. “If you wanted to enter the family business, there were two requirements: that you speak a second language and work for someone else.” William ended up studying French and working for Macy’s for three years before joining Estée Lauder and founding Origins in 1990. He rose to president of Clinique and became ceo of Estée Lauder in 2004. “He’s my new boss,” Leonard Lauder said. “Am I allowed to kiss the honoree?”

This story first appeared in the June 8, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Michael Gould, Bloomingdale’s chairman and ceo, announced that the evening raised $2.2 million for the AJC.

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