May Co.'s CEO Search: Strong Vision Needed To Mount A Turnaround

With its chief executive, Gene Kahn, forced out last week, a much different future is on tap for The May Department Stores Co.

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 Another is William P. McNamara, May’s vice chairman and the link between corporate and stores, with experience in merchandising and operations and running divisions. All the store principals report to him, with the exception of Lord & Taylor, which has been reporting to Kahn. McNamara began his retail career in 1972 as an executive trainee for Filene’s, rose to senior vice president and general merchandise manager there and in 1995, shifted to May Merchandising. Two years later, he was named president and ceo of Famous-Barr, and in 1998 took the same titles at May Merchandising. He was named to his present position in 2000.

Marshall Hilsberg, the former Lord & Taylor ceo currently living in Florida, is also a potential candidate, according to the source.

Other executives that would be checked out are Jane Elfers, the current ceo of Lord & Taylor, who could team with a strong operations executive such as Christina Johnson, former Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises chairman and ceo, regarded as a tough executive who could clean up a lot of the mess, and Rose Marie Bravo, ceo of Burberry, who has already brought in a potential successor there, Brian Blake, worldwide president, chief operating officer and executive director. Bravo is considered a strong leader with brand-building skills.  There’s also Gregg W. Steinhafel, president of Target.

John L. Dunham, current president of May, was named acting chairman and ceo, along with his duties as president. “He’s very reliable, and smart and primarily in operations. He’s not going to fix the place,” said one search executive.

A hunt is under way, but no search firm was designated. Spencer Stuart has the inside track, since it has done board searches for May. Internal and external candidates will be considered. James M. Kilts, also a director and the ceo of Gillette, will chair the search committee, raising speculation that executives from consumer products companies would be considered. There are other people on the board with interests in industries besides retailing.

“The candidate pool for this would be very narrow,” said Kerson, the search consultant. “Maybe it’s time for May to start thinking out of the box,” examining executives at category killers such as Best Buy, or brand portfolio managers, since May is a retailer with several store brands. But Kerson believes that most of all, May could use a merchant prince. “It’s a merchandising and a positioning problem. The best solution may be to merge with a strategic partner right now. For example, Federated has the management talent to oversee May and really perform well with some of the major holdings, such as Marshall Field’s.”
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