Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK — Lord & Taylor’s number-two merchant, Jane T. Elfers, has risen to the top of May Co.’s flagship division here.
In a changing of the guard announced Tuesday, Elfers was named president and chief executive officer, succeeding Marshall Hilsberg, who served as the chief merchant and has the distinction of currently being the longest standing ceo of a major New York retailer. He ran Lord & Taylor for 13 years.
Now Elfers, who is just 39, has the distinction of becoming one of nation’s youngest major retail ceos, and being among the few females to run a national chain.
Her rise at Lord & Taylor has been impressive — and rapid. Just last year she became executive vice president for dresses, suits, sportswear, coats and accessories. She joined the chain 11 years ago as a buyer, rose to divisional merchandise manager for petites, young attitude sportswear and better blouses, then divisional vice president for better collections in 1992, and then senior vice president and general merchandise manager for sportswear from 1995 to 1999. Elfers started her career in 1984 in the training program at the former Bamberger’s chain in New Jersey and after it was consolidated into Macy’s, she became a buyer of Liz Claiborne Petites in 1989.
As Lord & Taylor’s ceo, she will oversee merchandising and sales promotion, and report to Gene Kahn, president and ceo of the St. Louis-based May Department Stores Co.
Other top female retailers include Christina Johnson, ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue; Grace Nichols, ceo of Victoria’s Secret Stores; Susan Kronick, ceo of Burdines; Beth Pritchard, ceo of Bath & Body Works; and Vanessa Castagna, chief operating officer and executive vice president of JC Penney.
Also at Lord & Taylor, Clarence O. Reynolds, known as “Bud” in the industry, was promoted to chairman from president. Reynolds, 57, will report to Elfers and continue to oversee the chain’s operations.
The changes are effective June 1.
In an interview Tuesday, Hilsberg praised Elfers as “a motivational leader with great merchandising instincts.”
The two worked closely together. For that reason, and because Lord & Taylor has reportedly been among the top three or four profit-producing divisions of May Co. for some time — sometimes surpassed by Hecht’s, based in Washington, and Foley’s, based in Houston — little change in Lord & Taylor’s direction is expected. It’s been marked by steady expansion, heavy-duty promoting and discounting, prices falling at the top end of department stores and bottom end of better specialty chains, and dominant presentations of American brands. The corporation does not break out the profitability of its divisions. Asked about plans for the store, Elfers replied, “There will always be more growth. We’ll continue on the tradition.
“I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity to run the flagship division. I know the people. I know the culture, and we’ll build upon what has been started here.” Elfers declined to be more specific about what’s ahead.
Lord & Taylor has maintained a higher fashion quotient than other divisions of May Co., which are more ruled by the strict matrix merchandising system pioneered by May Co. through the Eighties and Nineties. Lord & Taylor tends to carry somewhat higher prices compared to its more moderate and basic sister divisions.The other May Co. divisions are Robinsons-May, based in Los Angeles, Filene’s in Boston, Kaufmann’s in Pittsburgh, L.S. Ayres in Indianapolis, The Jones Store in Kansas City, Meier & Frank in Portland, Ore., Strawbridge’s in Philadelphia, and ZCMI in Salt Lake City.
It’s possible that the new leadership at May Co., notably Kahn, considered a talented merchant who became May Co. ceo two years ago, as well as Elfers, could inject more creativity into the product mix at L&T. Kahn previously stated his intent to appeal to younger customers and add to the fashion mix, corporate-wide. Both Kahn’s and Elfers’s early years in retailing were spent at the former R.H. Macy & Co, where a spirit of innovative merchandising was ingrained.
Hilsberg, who is 55, served at the helm of L&T for 13 years and orchestrated its successful national expansion, growing the business from 45 to 78 stores and from $700 million to $2.2 billion in annual volume last year. He also closed about 30 stores during his tenure as ceo, and has been criticized in some industry circles for allowing May Co. to water down its fashion content in order to give the business a broad and transportable middle American mass appeal. Hilsberg rejected that notion, stating, “That was never the mission.” He declined to elaborate.
Asked about his plans, Hilsberg said, “I am going to take it easy. I’m looking forward to relaxing.” Hilsberg owns homes in Palm Beach, Fla., and Connecticut and an apartment in Manhattan.
Before running Lord & Taylor, Hilsberg ran G. Fox for five years. G. Fox was merged into Filene’s. He spent 26 years with May Co. and a total of 35 years in retailing. He began his career in the training program at the former Abraham & Straus in 1966.
“I think it’s enough,” Hilsberg said. “I’ve been running department stores for a long time. It takes a lot of dedication and determination to run a department store. I want to take it easy and reassess my life.”
Hilsberg, long rated as among the most competent retail managers in the industry, was once a contender for the May Co. corporate ceo slot, to succeed the legendary and now retired David Farrell. Hilsberg and Kahn were among Farrell’s favorites. But Hilsberg said he took himself out of the running. “I made a decision I didn’t want to to do that,” he said Tuesday. “I decided I didn’t want to commit myself to what’s involved in taking on that role.” He also said he had no desire to live in St. Louis.
Asked if he might ever return to retailing, he said, “It’s too early to know.”