Former Bergdorf CEO Ira Neimark
Ira Neimark started out as a Fifth Avenue doorman and eventually became CEO of Bergdorf Goodman—through hard work, smarts, and being in the right place at the right time. When he took over the venerable fashion store, it was doing $38 million in sales. When he left, $500 million. “It is a gold mine on Fifth Avenue,” he said in his book, Crossing Fifth Avenue. We asked him about some tricks of the trade.
Could you talk a little bit about that Bergdorf transformation?
Well, Bergdorf’s was old, dull, and for the blue-haired set. Not exciting. So we brought the haute couture and the press got interested, the customers got interested, and the business took off. We began adding important fashion designers from France, Italy, and the U.S. and the rest is history.
Who were those designers?
Well, I would say that Fendi, from Italy, was most important because they were very influential, and then Giorgio Armani. Then we convinced Yves Saint Laurent to sell Rive Gauche to us, which was limited.
You also had some great parties.
If you brought a designer in, like Fendi, you announced it to the world—in the Post, Times, Women’s Wear Daily. Whenever we had a fashion show, we wanted movie actors and people like Pavarotti in the audience. That got a lot of press and customers who wanted to come.
How else do you spread the word?
You’ve got to advertise. Repetition is the key. Tiffany’s runs in the same position in the Times, and it works. You’ve got to advertise and you’ve got it do regularly.
Tell me about meeting Princess Diana.
The British Fashion Council held a major ball every six months. Princess Diana was the hostess. I was invited to meet her, so I called Turnbull and Asser and ordered a tie in her favorite color. When we were introduced, instead of saying, “I am glad to meet you,” as most people do, I said, “Your Royal Highness, I went to Turnbull and had this tie made in your honor.” And she said, “Mr. Neimark, the blue tie matches your eyes.”
And then you met her again?
A year later Diana was the hostess at another reception, so I wore the same tie. And she said, “Good evening, Mr. Neimark, you’re wearing our tie.”
Where do companies get it wrong—why did you succeed?
Managing inventory. I think it applies to anything—automobiles, pots and pans, or couture, there has to be a strategy and a tactic as to how much inventory to have at any given time. Most people just hope their old inventory will go away, but it won’t.
How do you price things in a recession?
You can’t just cut prices—people will expect those prices once things turnaround. Instead, find ways to add value. If you’re a gas station, wash cars that fill up. A clothing store should bring in designers no one else has. Offer something that no one else does.
How about customer service?
Treat the customer as if she is entering your home. I go into stores now, and it’s appalling. A customer holding a full-page ad goes to the store and can’t find a salesperson. It’s beyond my comprehension. This is a major failing.