Arnold Aronson, Who Revitalized Saks in the ’80s, Dies at 85


Arnold Aronson, a retailing executive best known for reviving the financial fortunes of Saks Fifth Avenue in the early 1980s, in part by appealing to a younger clientele, died on Tuesday in New York. He was 85.

The death was confirmed by a family spokeswoman, who did not provide further details.

Mr. Aronson, who never retired, spent more than three decades operating an array of national stores and chains, including Saks, before becoming a consultant. He had been the principal director of retail strategies at the consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates since 1997.

“Arnold was one of the top department store merchants of his era,” said the designer Ralph Lauren, a supplier to Saks. At his death, Mr. Aronson had sat on the Lauren corporate board for 19 years.

As chairman and chief executive of Saks from 1979 to 1983, Mr. Aronson sought to erase what he called its “traditional dowager image” and focus instead on a younger customer base, mainly baby boomers at the time.

This transformation involved a complete remodeling of Saks’s flagship store, built in 1924, on Fifth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in Manhattan, including the installation of escalators; an expansion of its national store count to 40 from 27; and a major marketing and public relations effort highlighting European fashion designers as well as American ones.

These initiatives led to a 50 percent increase in revenue and an almost doubling of operating profits during Mr. Aronson’s four-year tenure.

“His strength was in leadership,” said Terrence J. Lundgren, a former chairman and chief executive of the rival Macy’s. Mr. Aronson, he said, was known to get up from his desk and mingle with sales-floor employees to “rally the troops” and to see whether customers were carrying shopping bags out the door or just browsing.

“He never thought you could learn everything about the customer by reading reports,” Mr. Lundgren said.

Arnold Harvey Aronson was born in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston on Jan. 14, 1935. His father, an immigrant from Poland, was an accountant, and his mother, an immigrant from Russia, was a lawyer.

Arnold attended the Boston Latin School and, beginning at 13, did odd jobs, including working as a soda jerk, or what he came to refer to as a carbonic engineer.

After high school — and before enrolling at Harvard College — he spent the first of six summers working at the Berkshire Country Club in Wingdale, N.Y., near the Connecticut border.

Male employees there were expected to spend time in the club’s social hall, dancing with the female guests, who far outnumbered the male guests. But the employees were forbidden to cut in on a couple who were dancing. Young Mr. Aronson, however, couldn’t resist, and that was how he met his future wife, Sheila Roth, who survives him.

“It was love at first sight,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2018.

At Harvard, where he majored in political science, he had the coveted job of managing the 130-member university band, in which he played trumpet. He said the experience was the most valuable preparation he got for his retail career.

“It was a fantastic influence on my life,” he said, noting that he had been responsible for recruitment, travel, appointing assistants, holding auditions and raising money for the organization.

“It was my first experience in managing a profit-and-loss statement,” he said. “It was like running a business.”

Mr. Aronson and Ms. Roth, who had a career as an interior designer, were married in 1957, while he was obtaining an M.B.A. at Columbia Business School. In addition to his wife, his survivors include their two sons, Steven and David.

With his formal education completed, Mr. Aronson joined a Bloomingdale’s trainee program in 1959 as an assistant buyer of women’s coats. He was paid $100 a week. But his budding career was interrupted when his Army reserve quartermaster unit was called to active duty during the Berlin crisis of 1961 — although the unit spent its nearly yearlong call-up period at Fort Lee in Virginia.

After his service, he returned to Bloomingdales as a vice president in home furnishings; he then became a division merchandise manager. In 1969, he moved to California as executive vice president of the department store concern the May Company.

Three years later he joined the Los Angeles-based Bullock’s department store chain, which became Macy’s West, first as president and then, at 41, chief executive.

Mr. Aronson’s revival of Saks, which he called the high point of his career, was next. With its acquisition by the Batus Retail Group, he had the task of integrating Saks with Marshall Field’s, Kohl’s, Gimbels and other chains.

Then came a dizzying fall. In 1986, Batus, created by British American Tobacco, decided to shed its retail empire.

“I had to preside over the dismantling,” Mr. Aronson said. “And I was out of a job. I was a beached whale.”

(Saks was acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 2013.)

Mr. Aronson soon formed an investment firm specializing in leveraged buyouts of retailers. In one deal, in 1989, he became chief executive of the Woodward & Lothrop and John Wanamaker department stores.

Outside the business world, Mr. Aronson was a trustee or a board member of the New School for more than 30 years and chairman of the university’s Parsons School of Design for 13 years.

After five years at Woodward & Lothrop, Mr. Aronson shifted to consulting, initially at Levy-Kerson-Aronson & Associates, which subsequently merged with Kurt Salmon Associates, where he worked until his death.

In this role reversal, a long-held suspicion was confirmed, he said: “It’s more fun to give advice to boards of directors than to take advice from them.”

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.

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