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CAREERS THE TOUGHEST JOB IN RETAIL……and the man who’s got it.

Neiman Marcus NorthPark may be the most profitable store in the nation. Malcolm Reuben’s mission is to keep it that way.
By Kimberly Goad |

IT IS THE FIRST DAY OF FlRST CALL-AMONG THE BIGGEST shopping days of the year at Neiman Marcus-and Malcolm Reuben is working his way out of a tangle of what he likes to call “opportunities waiting to be improved upon.” That’s retail-speak for the kinds of crises that can take today’s projected earnings at Neiman Marcus NorthPark-$1 million plus-and render them meaningless.

Other retailers kick off that holiest of shopping seasons known as Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving. Not Neiman Marcus. At Neiman’s, the season begins the Friday before Thanksgiving. First Call and Last Call have been semi-annual traditions at Neiman Marcus ever since Stanley Marcus, the second-generation Marcus who had a decided flair for blending caprice and commerce, came up with the idea as a clever means of clearing the inventory.

Hourly goals are set and tracked throughout the day as if someone’s life depended on the success of each reading. At Neiman Marcus NorthPark, that someone is Reuben, the Omar Sharif look-alike in the designer suit speed-walking the 221,000-square-foot store, clutching the day’s first-hour goals in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

Barely two months on the job as store manager of the most profitable Neiman’s in the company’s 30-store chain, Reuben is thinking big: an increase of 26 percent over last year. He’s met with his three merchandise managers, who have met with (he 19 selling department managers, who’ve talked with the 309 sales associates, who are Windexing glass countertops and dusting displays and making sure clothes hangers hook in the same direction.

Less than an hour before the glass doors part-a crowd in the mall is actually peering in from the other side-Reuben cuts short his morning ritual of walking the store as three “opportunities waiting to be improved upon” suddenly present themselves. He is first told that the credit-authorization lines are overloaded. Not only will the store be unable to process transactions when it opens for business, it also won’t be able to ring up the $224,000 worth of prevale transactions expected to help him meet his first-hour goal.

But that’s not all.

The air conditioner at Neiman Marcus Holiday Express-a temporary gift shop down the mall-has been out of Freon the past two days. Several shelves of $21 chocolate-covered apples, $11 :ans of white-, dark- and milk-chocolate-dipped potato chips and $20 tins of designer popcorn are certain to go bad if the problem isn’t corrected. Soon. Not to mention the more obvious consideration; Who wants to shop for Christmas gifts in a store that feels like summer? He is looking for the maintenance man when one of his merchandise managers tracks him down to alert him to a crisis in Cosmetics. What starts out sounding like a routine personnel issue takes on another tone entirely as the merchandise manager invokes the name of Burt Tansky, the chairman and CEO of Neiman Marcus.

A salesman in Cosmetics, three days on the job, is insisting on transferring from his assigned counter to one that sells a small but exclusive line of all-natural beauty products. Reuben has refused the transfer on principle (“It could send out the wrong message to the other 150 salespeople”), and now executives with the small but exclusive company have called Tansky threatening to pull the line out of Neiman Marcus nationwide.

The company is not exactly Estee Lauder. The Lauder-owned Prescriptives, Clinique, Aramis, Origins, Bobbi Brown and Estee Lauder lines occupy prime real estate in that political hotbed known as Neiman Marcus Cosmetics; the small line is tucked away on the far fringes near The Man’s Store. But Estee Lauder you can get all over the mall. 1 he Neiman s culture thrives on providing the odd, the unusual, the one-of-a-kind- the bottle of body scrub made of apricot kernel oil and corn-cob meal. Just what would happen if Neiman’s customers nationwide could no longer get their body scrub because of a decision made by the store manager of a Neiman Marcus in Dallas,Texas, minutes before the first hour of the first day or First Lan is, wen, beyond comprehension. Reuben’s mind, clearly, is racing. On and off- and on and off-his cell phone, he negotiates the crisis with the parties involved, clearly an “opportunity waiting to be improved upon” if ever there were one.

“Cosmetics is the most political,” says the normally unflappable Reuben, now standing in the middle of the department, punching the numbers on his cell phone and straining to be heard over the roar of vacuum cleaners. “These vendor relationships are very sensitive.”

Mascara and face cream are big business at department and specialty stores, which is why they are typically situated at a store’s No. 1 entrance. Cosmetics at Neiman Marcus NorthPark does more than $20 million in business each year. Only five other stores- Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Macy’s in San Francisco and Nordstrom in Costa Mesa-generate more volume from cosmetics than Neiman’s NorthPark.

Reuben glances at the face of his shiny Rolex. Time is passing. Within minutes, Neiman’s will open for business on one of its biggest shopping days of the year, and the store will be selling $32.50 bottles of all-natural body scrub made of apricot kernel oil and corn-cob meal-or not. He is working to redraw lines in the worst kind of turf war. “We’ve got some damn line telling us what we’re going to do. Who the hell’s running the store-them orme?”

A native of pakistan, reuben spent 23 years toiling on that uniquely American playground known as department stores before he joined the world of specialty stores in 1994 as manager of the flagship Neiman’s in downtown Dallas. Right away, he learned that he was no longer doing his job if he merely moved the merchandise. At Neiman Marcus, he discovered a highly elusive concept known as “relationship marketing.” That’s retail-speak for the not-insignificant amounts of time and money that go toward assuaging potentially damaged relationships that can translate negatively to the bottom line when, for instance:

An animal-rights protester Uirows a pie in the face of Oscar de la Renta during a personal appearance at Neiman Marcus NorthPark. Reuben, only three dayson the job, whisked the designer out of Ladies Shoes on 2, where the reception was being held, and into the kitchen of the Zodiac Room, outfitted de la Renta in a Giorgio Armani jacket and had him back at the reception in 12 minutes. Afterward, Reuben promptly notified Tansky who, in turn, called the designer who, in turn, offered assurances that there were no hard feelings and, yes, he’d be happy to one day return to Neiman Marcus NorthPark.

Or: Neiman Marcus NorthPark builds an in-store boutique to showcase the highly anticipated secondary line of a cutting-edge designer who-in the name of relationship marketing-will remain nameless. In this volume-driven business in which space is treated like pieces of prime real estate, the designer boutique does $158 per square foot in an area that averages more than $800 per square foot. The collection is a spectacular flop, and Reuben agrees to cut the boutique’s space in half-rather than pull the designer’s entire line.

Or: Neiman Marcus NorthPark continues to devote precious space to the secondary line of arguably the most famous American fashion designer despite the fact that Neiman’s feels the collection is geared more to, say, Kate Moss than its own customer. In the name of relationship marketing, Reuben agrees to simply downsize its inventory from 1,000 units to 500, rather than drop the collection entirely.

Or: A small but exclusive line of all-natural beauty products with a cult following threatens to walk because it disapproves of the _ way Neiman Marcus NorthPark wants to staff its counter. In the * interest of relationship marketing, Reuben approves the sales- ° man’s transfer to that counter.

As store managerof that blue-haired matriarch known as the flag-ship Neiman’s on Main and Ervay, Reuben’s job-infuse life into the old girl-was 8-to-5 easy. Now, as manager of the most prof- itable store in the Neiman’s family-the NorthPark store generates two and a half times the volume of the downtown store-he’s charged with minding that fortress of a store, Neiman Marcus NorthPark. The job requires a string of vocational attributes-politician, social mover, numbers cruncher, real estate broker, crisis manager-peculiar to maybe one other position: the mayor of Dallas.

“There are three (Neiman’s) stores that do over $100 million worth of business,” says Reuben. “NorthPark, Beverly Hills and Houston. From a competitive standpoint, the first thing I’ll look at is those two stores to see how I performed against them. But when you have a store that is growing in double-digit increases month after month, people look to NorthPark to find out how it’s doing as well as it’s doing.”

For Neiman Marcus NorthPark, the competition isn’t (necessarily) up the Tollway. Like any big, prominent family, Neiman’s prefers to compete against its own. Reuben’s aesthetic may have been more suited to the slow traffic and easy pace of the downtown store, where it’s actually possible to keep clothes hangers two fingers’-width apart. But in temperament, he’s suited to the controlled chaos that is Neiman Marcus NorthPark.

The job is an exercise in detail tolerance. Over the course of a regular workday, Reuben consumes and digests pages and pages of numbers in an attempt to see how, say, his Intimate Apparel department is performing against Beverly Hills’ and Houston’s- yesterday, last week, last year, five years ago. Sales are up 25 percent for the season, despite the fact that the store underestimated the importance of brown as a fashion statement and understocked its assortment of brown “foundations.” That’s retail-speak for women’s underwear.

Reuben will emerge from his office and venture back onto the sales floor to see how well the Laura Mercier makeovers are going in Cosmetics, to make sure copies of Forbes magazine are on display in The Man’s Store for a reception and personal appearance by Steve Forbes, to check sales in Fashion Jewelry, where designer Steven Lagos is meeting and greeting customers.

He ’ 11 walk up to the Zodiac Room to say hello to Mrs. Gotbucks, who is celebrating her birthday with a friend, Mrs. Gotbuckstoo. Then he’ll leave the store for lunch at, say, the Wyndham Anatole, where Neiman’s is hosting a fashion show for aconvention of plastic surgeons’ wives. When he returns to the store, he’ll pause in Couture to mention to the St. John sales associate that he sat next to Deborah Gunter-wife of prominent plastic surgeon Jack Gunter-and noticed she “was writing fast and furious1’ as the St. John pieces went down the runway and suggest the sales associate give Mrs. Gunter a call. Then he’ll head back to his office, but not before asking a sales associate in Furs what happened to her name tag.

It’s a job in which no detail is too small.

Reuben took the job last fall, virtually on the eve of the biggest retail season of the year. Some 30 percent of the year’s overall volume is generated during November and December. “You can work as hard as you want the other 10 months of the year and it does not make any difference,” says Reuben. “The volume and the bottom-line profit is those two months.”

At the end of the first hour of the first day of First Call, he is back in his office when he learns that the Freon crisis is resolved, as is the credit-authorization crisis. Pat Atchley, his secretary, hands him first-hour figures.

“The numbers are even with last year and I need to be ahead,” Reuben says, shaking his head. “It’s so hard when you don’t come out of the gate fast”

Atchley interrupts with what appears to be another “opportunity waiting to be improved upon”: Burt Tansky’s secretary has faxed Reuben a letter of complaint from a customer who attended the most recent InCircle event. Members of the so-appropriate I y named InCircle program earn points (one for every dollar spent) whenever they make a purchase with a Neiman Marcus card. InCircle is to Neiman’s what Platinum Advantage is to American Airlines. Three times a year some 3,000 of Neiman’s best customers attend InCircle parties and, as an added incentive, are awarded double InCircle points for purchases made during the evening.

This particular customer felt that the most recent party was not up to Neiman’s standards. The food had been downscaled. the presentation was messy, “there were tomatoes on the floor.” But that *s not why she’s writing. This is why she shot off a letter to Burt Tansky: She wanted to purchase a peppered ham and hogwash that night, and both items were seemingly unavailable.

“What is hogwash?” Reuben asks his secretary.

“I don’t know,” Atchley answers, “but I can tind out.”

“I think it’s the relish that goes on a ham,” Reuben guesses. He pulls up the woman’s account on his computer screen “to see what kind of customer she is.” Depending on what he finds, he’ll send her a gift. The computer search reveals that she’s been an InCircle customer for two years and spends a minimum of $3,500 at Neiman Marcus a year. “A good customer,” decides Reuben. “Not a very good customer, but good.”

He picks up the phone and calls Tansky’s secretary to report on the status of the situation. “I don’t know what the hell a hogwash is.” he tells her, “but if I can find a jar of it, I’ll send some.”

Alter Reuben, 42, got his start in retailing, he eventually learned that a store manager has a very simple job to do: Put out the merchandise, and after the customer buys the merchandise, put out some more. Now here he sits at the helm of what is quite possibly the most profitable store in the nation trying to figure out what hog-wash is so he can respond to a customer’s complaint about the ham and hogwash inventory at Neiman Marcus.

And he’s acting as if it’s a normal part of his workday. (Because it is.)

REUBEN WAS SIX MONTHS INTO HIS JOB AS MANAGER OF THE downtown Neiman’s when he got The Call.

Stanley Marcus, who was president of the family business from 1935 to 1950 and chairman and CEO from 1950 to 1975, was on the line. He had heard about Reuben, liked what he heard and wanted to meet him.

’’I want to spend some time with you,” Neiman’s chairman emeritus said. “1 want to talk with you about the history of Neiman Marcus.”

The history of Neiman Marcus? Only a newcomer to Dallas would need a session on the history of Neiman’s, the 90-year-old institution founded by Herbert Marcus Sr., his sister Carrie Marcus Neiman and her husband, Al Neiman. In the years since Neiman’s began offering “exclusive lines of high-class garments., .in greater quantities than has been customary in Dallas,” as the opening-day ad in The Dallas Morning News promised, Neiman’s has become better known for its sales promotions-the Christmas Book with his-and-hers gifts, the once-annual Fortnights.

Marcus and Reuben agreed to meet at the employee entrance on Commerce early one morning before the store opened. They entered the store and came to two sets of stairs, one going up onto the sales floor and the other going down into the basement and the stockrooms. “Lo and behold, Malcolm went up,” Reuben recalls, “and Stanley went down. He said, ’I want to go downstairs and tell you what I believe are the most important issues in running a store. It’s those disciplines you create in back of the house that will translate to what you do on the selling floor.’ “

Reuben got his start in retailing on the loading docks of Bullocks in Los Angeles-retail’s version of the mail room. He worked his way up to director of stores, overseeing eight in the Bullocks {now Macy’s) chain. By 1993, the department store business in Reuben’s corner of the retail world had changed dramatically through a series of mergers, bankruptcies and reacquisitions. He sat down and wrote a letter to an old friend, Terry Lundgren, then chairman and CEO of Neiman Marcus. Six months later, Reuben was hired to manage the company’s flagship store.

“If you want to understand how a business operates, you go to the core of the business, which is where everyone exists-the merchants, the buyers, the president, the chairman,” he says. “People ask me, ’Why did you go downtown when you could’ve held out for another store?’ It really was the best place to be from a standpoint of understanding the culture of this company. It’s very different.”

Indeed, when Reuben interviewed for the job, he was told all about the relationship between community and customer base. Still, it wasn’t until he and his wife, Vinnie, attended their first Crystal Charity Ball underwriters party-an evening-long toast to the deeply pocketed patrons of Dallas’ premiere society gala-that he understood the importance of Dallas Society to the well-being of Neiman Marcus. The Crystal Charity Ball underwriters party, of course, is as pure a sampling of Dallas Society as there is; purer even than Sunday afternoon at the Dallas Country Club.

That night, the Reubens made their way through the receiving line, found their way to the bartender, discovered a spot in the corner, then looked at each other and said, “Now what do we do?” Jane Dunne, a socially prominent woman active in charity circles, recognized Reuben and promptly offered to introduce him and his wife to a few of her friends. By the end of the evening, Malcolm Reuben had made contact with his audience.

From that night on, he and Dunne quickly fell into a routine. Whenever their paths crossed on the social circuit, she introduced him to the event’s key people and Reuben began keeping notes. Eventually, he got the OK to hire Dunne as a consultant. Every Thursday, she arrived in Reuben’s office armed with an agenda of items for review: events he should attend that week, customers who’d been promoted and ought to receive a handwritten note of congratulations from Reuben, ways to increase traffic at the downtown Neiman’s.

“Jane had the insight and understanding of every organization I needed to know about and which ones I should be more involved with,” Reuben says. “I now have the top 1 or 2 percent of the customer base recognizing me at community events, which is important-that they know Neiman Marcus and Malcolm Reuben and that one is clearly tied with the other.”

His approach worked. At the end of Reuben’s first year downtown, the store posted a 10 percent increase in volume-its first increase in four years.

Stanley Marcus, meanwhile, had become a mentor. When the two met for lunch at the Crescent Club last fall, Marcus told him how pleased he was with Reuben’s success and that he believed Reuben had a bright future with the company. During that period Reuben was rumored to succeed Karen Katz as manager of Neiman Marcus NorthPark. Over lunch, he sought Marcus’ advice, ’The first thing out of his mouth.” Reuben recalls, “was ’Who’s going to replace you downtown?’”

At Neiman’s, the clearest roads to the top pass through Neiman Marcus NorthPark. Reuben would be foolish not to accept the job. “I can’t turn down NorthPark,” he told Marcus, ’it’s the biggest store in the company.”

ONE WEEK AFTER THE FIRST DAY OF FIRST CALL-A DAY MORE commonly known as The Day After Thanksgiving-and a different Malcolm Reuben is walking the floor before the NorthPark Neiman’s opens for business. Within the Neiman’s culture, particularly at NorthPark, there is a decided Them-and-Us attitude. On The Day After Thanksgiving, the attitude suggests that this day is for Them. Let them eat cake! For Neiman’s, today is little more than a symbolic gesture. Sure, Reuben has goals (10 percent over last year) and, yes, he’ll track sales (at noon. 3 and 6. rather than hourly). But this is a day geared to and observed by the masses, and Neiman’s has rarely tried to deliver mass appeal. Reuben estimates the store will do about two-thirds the business of a week ago.

“This day is built up as a make-or-break day, but it isn’t,” says Reuben, ’it’s just a good indicator of what business will be.”

Neiman’s competes with its neighbors down the mall in only one respect: The much-coveted coverage on the evening news. Every store, even Neiman’s, wants to be the backdrop for Day After Thanksgiving stories. Reuben has been told by his PR people that he’s better in print than he is on television, So, early this morning, he and Jennifer Lassiter. the PR manager of the NorthPark store, reviewed their game plan should the broadcast media wander into Neiman Marcus with a video camera. Reuben jotted down his comments (“’I ’m ready,” he says, pulling out a tiny piece of paper from his coat pocket), and Lassiter picked Neiman’s-like backdrops: Cosmetics (“because it’s animated and there are lots of transactions”) and Accessories, near the display of $4,140 Judith Leiber egg-shaped minaudieres (“because it’s luxury and it’s whimsical”).

Reuben, in the meantime, walks the store. Checks to see if Gift Wrap has “Red” back in stock. Swings through Epicure to congratulate the department manager on getting a last-minute Thanksgiving turkey to a customer two days before. Wanders down the mall to see if the arrival of Santa Claus has affected traffic at the Holiday Express (it has). Christmas music is playing. The store is hung with garland. All is well at Neiman Marcus NorthPark.

Reuben pulls out his cell phone to call Karen Katz-his predecessor and now, as director of stores, his immediate boss-and tell her so. Within minutes, he’ll find out if his hunch is right, if these are more than just window shoppers.

“The 12 o’clock reading will tell me if traffic is translating to business,” says Reuben, feeling quite optimistic. He is expecting the figures to exceed last year’s because business going into the season was up 10 percent. “All indicators suggest it will be a good season.” he predicts. “The only unknown is the effect of five fewer shopping days.”

Back in his office minutes past noon, Atchley delivers the first set of figures. Reuben’s brow wrinkles as he studies the sheet: He’s behind. The first two hours of business on The Day After Thanksgiving 1996 are SI 3,000 behind the first two hours of business on The Day After Thanksgiving 1995.

“No reason to panic,” Reuben says. “Goods are on the floor, the place is staffed, traffic is good.” He picks up his cell phone and heads back to the selling floor. The escalators deliver him to the front lines, to that Neiman’s gateway known as Cosmetics. The familiar fog of the noxiously fragrant blends with the buzz of women in hot pursuit of beauty. By all appearances, business is brisk. But wait. Over there, on one side of the Prescriptives bay, not 5 feet from the store’s main entrance, Reuben spots an aberration, an assault, frankly, on his senses.

“What the hell is this?” he says, grabbing the bottle of window cleaner and pile of used paper towels that some unfortunate soul left on the Prescriptives countertop. The sales associate, deeply sorry, quickly dispenses with the offending material and starts to offer her regrets, but Reuben’s already moved on-to the next department, the next detail, the next “opportunity waiting to be improved upon.”