NEW YORK — As dapper as ever, the 82-year-old Ira Neimark enters the “teppan” grill room at the Japanese restaurant Otabe on East 56th Street in a Turnbull & Asser suit, Charvet shirt and Hermès tie. It’s hard to imagine the former chairman and chief executive of Bergdorf Goodman was once a uniformed doorboy with a mischievous side.
This story first appeared in the November 24, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I wasn’t even the doorman. I assisted the doorman,” recalls Neimark over lunch, talking about his early days at Bonwit Teller on 56th Street. But he became ambitious at an early age. “When I saw Bill Holmes [Bonwit’s president] pull up in a chauffeured limo, and very well dressed, I said to myself, ‘I want to be like that.’ I was a 17-year-old doorboy at the time.”
His recollections of growing up in retailing and the personalities he encountered as he ascended the corporate ladder are documented in the autobiography he has been writing for two years. It’s tentatively titled “Crossing Fifth Avenue: From Bonwit Teller to Bergdorf Goodman, A Retailer’s Memoir.” It could just as easily be called “Floating to the Top,” for in the turbulent world of retailing, few have enjoyed such a charmed career. Neimark’s 53 years in retail were marked by nurturing mentors who challenged him, then elevated him. “The advice Bill Holmes gave to me was that if you have both sales people and the manufacturers on your side, you will be a successful merchant. I never forgot it,” Neimark writes in the book. It’s a précis, among the many with which Neimark concludes his chapters to convey what he calls “lessons learned” from his experiences.
He had landed at Bonwit in 1938 as a page boy, checking coats and mixing cocktails at the 721 Club, an in-store shopping service offering a sampling of the store’s best items. Then, as doorboy, he assumed some duties not in the job description. “The Whitneys, the Vanderbilts and others who owned racing stables on Long Island came to the beauty salon before shopping. All the beauticians wanted to know what horses they should place money on, and I placed their money with George, the bookie across the street. For every dollar I got a nickel. George said to me, ‘Instead of just covering Bonwit Teller, why don’t you cover the whole neighborhood.’”
Perhaps thinking he had a big break, Neimark mentioned George’s proposal to his mother. “She said, ‘I didn’t raise you to be a bookie.’” After his mother’s chidings, Neimark’s ambitions were redirected to activities inside the store, and he became a stock boy, moving into merchandise control, then blouse buyer and divisional merchandise manager.
He writes of how another of his mentors, Beatrice Auerbach, the president of retailer G. Fox in Hartford, Conn., insisted that he fly first-class to Europe and Japan and stay at the best hotels on buying trips to understand the types of customers she wanted G. Fox to sell to. She was incredibly demanding of his time and had a driver bring him to her home certain nights to review sales data and stale merchandise. She also had the company mail opened, including letters addressed to Neimark, and sent to her office.
Yet Neimark paints a picture of a woman who imparted a sense of style and attention to detail. “She had the ability to inspire anyone who came in contact with her,” Neimark writes. While working for Auerbach, Neimark discovered what he considers the most enjoyable and constructive aspect of his profession. “It was the ability to meet with each buyer, one by one, to review their weekly performance and to be able to consult with them about what steps we would take to reorder their bestsellers and to get rid of their slow movers.”
Neimark depicts an era in retailing when merchants could be merchants, when running a retail operation strictly by the numbers was unheard of, and when department stores were havens of glamour. But it’s not all romantic. There’s much detail on how, in the Fifties, he developed what would become a widely used system of merchandise control where the rate of sales determined the inventory level. He called it “weeks of supply.”
Then he portrays the impact of mergers on department stores and on his life. “After May Co. bought G. Fox, I never enjoyed my three years there,” he said during lunch. “It was my first experience in the big corporate world. The concern became more for the bottom line than for the personality of the store. All stores began to be cloned, they lost their appeal and eventually they all [the G. Fox stores] got closed.
“There’s no reason why you can’t have a balance — between a personality and maintaining a good bottom line, as we did at Bergdorf Goodman.”
In 1975, Neimark became chairman and chief executive of Bergdorf’s. He introduced couture, created designer shops and founded the men’s store across Fifth Avenue. Working with Dawn Mello, president, and Steve Elkin, the chief financial officer, Neimark established BG as the city’s foremost luxury emporium and one of the most fashionable stores in the world. He also solidified his own reputation as one of the nation’s top merchants — decisive, paternalistic, hands-on, and a fanatic about the details. He retired in February 1992. “I had worked in every phase of retailing from a stock boy to a ceo,” Neimark said.
Currently, he’s an adviser to Oscar de la Renta as well as to Mitsukoshi, the Japanese retailer, and serves as a director of Hermès. He has two daughters and five grandchildren.
Neimark maintains pointed views on what’s wrong with many retail nameplates nowadays. “Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Marshall Field’s, Filene’s — they all came about by individual merchants recognizing what they were in business for, to satisfy individual customers’ needs. They stood for something in every major city. What they didn’t see coming was the discounting.”
Years ago, when the major department stores were part of the Frederick Atkins consulting and buying office, “I told them all at an Atkins meeting about the threat of discounting and they said, ‘Ira, you worry too much.’ What should they have done? They should have opened their own discount stores and category killers. I used to run bargain basements for G. Fox and Brown Thompson. I’m familiar with lowest end. But retail stores were like the railroads of the 19th century. Railroads didn’t adapt to the advent of the airlines. They didn’t realize their job was to move people and thought their job was only operating trains. The airline people are getting smart. They are setting up discount airlines and trying to adapt.
“For stores to maintain volume, it’s promotion after promotion. When do customers have an opportunity to buy at regular price? For decades the stores were privately owned, but now they have to worry about each quarter and the price of the stock. That’s the big problem.”
Expansion can also hurt a retailer, Neimark suggests. In the book, he details how even before he started working at Bergdorf’s, he influenced the business. “When Phil Hawley invited me to the opening of Bergdorf Goodman in White Plains in 1974, I realized it was a major mistake opening there, compared to the opportunity Bergdorf’s still had on 58th Street. Phil said, “What do you think?’ and I said, ‘What do you need all this space for? Forget White Plains, build up 58th Street.’” The 140,000-square-foot White Plains store closed in 1979.
“You can’t build a store in Chicago or Beverly Hills and replicate 58th Street. If you did, people would go to the stores and say, ‘This isn’t like 58th Street.’ And when you go out to the suburbs, the merchandise has to be lower [in price]. They [Carter Hawley Hale, which owned the store at the time] were thinking of opening Bergdorf Goodman branches and I talked them out of it.”
Neimark never thought of himself as a writer until two years ago, when his granddaughter Hallie — who was 12 at the time — asked him why 721 was his lucky number. He uses it for phone numbers and other purposes. To answer her, Neimark wrote a letter explaining that 721 was the address of the old Bonwit Teller building. “In 1978, when Bonwit Teller was demolished to make way for the Trump Tower, I asked Donald Trump if I could have the doorknob, and the 721 sign over the Fifth Avenue entrance,” he said. Trump complied.
The letter covered other experiences and triggered the book idea. Neimark said it was a coincidence that his wife, Jackie, had collected clips about him from WWD, The New York Times, The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. “There were hundreds of articles beginning in 1969, since I became a general merchandise manager at B. Altman. I went through all the articles and picked out what stories I wanted to write about, but everything about my career up to Altman’s was total recall,” he said. “My wife was very interested in this. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
The book, which is being edited, is ready to be shown to a publisher. “I found it was quite easy to do,” Neimark said. “It just flowed. It was very easy to recollect. References to articles made it work. I enjoyed reliving a very successful career. And I learned how to burn a disk.”
And he’s still fascinated by retailing. About a month ago, Bergdorf’s current chairman, Ron Frasch, gave Neimark the grand tour of the recently renovated store. “I think it’s on the right track. I’m a big fan of Ron Frasch. He reported to me when I became vice president of the Neiman Marcus Group.”
One senses that Neimark holds back on offering other opinions on the store and that there’s a part of him wishing he were still in the driver’s seat. “Yeah, it appeals to me,” he acknowledged. “When you see mistakes that shouldn’t be, you have the desire to call somebody on the phone and explain the basic principles of retailing. However, I feel I had my turn at bat, and now I just like to be an umpire.”