AGap in Retail Management

It says something about the state of retail management today that few names of proven executives have emerged as front-runners, or even as part of the field, in the race to become the next head of Gap Inc. Or perhaps it says something about the state of that iconic company that few believe the enterprise that in many ways shaped specialty retailing for the last 40 years is salvageable, at least in its present incarnation.

As I write this in mid-February, no name has zoomed to the fore save that of Millard “Mickey” Drexler. It would be a long shot, indeed, if Drexler were to return to his old stomping grounds, not just because it would require the founding Fisher family to swallow its pride, but also because Drexler has done quite well for himself resurrecting J. Crew and through his investments with Texas Pacific Group. The only way Drexler would return to Gap, some say, is as an owner, part of a consortium that buys out the Fishers. But that’s another story. For now, let’s concentrate on what really matters, the seemingly limited pool of talent at the executive level available to run a company the size of Gap.

Having gone through the unfulfilled promise of the Nardelli-Johnson-Pressler era of CEOs from outside the retail industry, few boards of directors would be courageous, or crazy, enough to chance another seemingly incoherent run for the roses with a leader untested in the retail racetrack. Gap needs someone steeped in merchandising skills, someone with a “feel” for the goods.

One problem facing the Gap board is that there are few truly successful specialty apparel chains, even fewer that run multiple concepts as Gap does. Moreover, it’s difficult to believe that successful executives, like Michael Jeffries of Abercrombie & Fitch, would leave them for Gap. In addition, most apparel chains are less than an eighth the size of Gap, a formidable jump of scale most second-tier executives would find hard to hurdle.

Almost a decade ago I suggested Allen Questrom was the person J.C. Penney needed to hire to turn itself around. Two years later Penney’s board came to the same conclusion. Penney is enjoying a rebirth based on Questrom’s vision and his successor, Myron “Mike” Ullman’s quest to keep the momentum going.

Questrom is available again, but his experience is almost totally with largefootprint stores. Vanessa Castagna recently left Mervyn’s, but she, too, is used to running big-box stores. Paul Charron, the retired head of Liz Claiborne, has been mentioned. He has experience marketing multiple brands and specialty stores. So does Roger N. Farah, the president and COO of Polo Ralph Lauren. At 53, Farah might be more appealing than the 64-year-old Charron.

And then there’s Domenico De Sole, the 62-year-old former president and CEO of Gucci Group NV. As one knowledgeable source told me, De Sole has an important attribute lacking in others—he’s intimately familiar with Gap, having been a director since 2004.

Whoever is chosen will have to make tough decisions. Gap will have to pare down its namesake concept. It needs to revitalize its product offering, not just at Gap but also at Old Navy stores. Banana Republic seems to be fine, but Forth & Towne still requires contemplation.

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