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The next time you find just the right outfit at Macy’s or JCPenney or Neiman Marcus or Barneys, you can thank Allen Questrom—if it weren’t for him, many of America’s best-known shopping meccas would be consigned to history.

In a 40-year career, Questrom (Questrom’64) earned a reputation as the master of retail turnaround—among the accolades bestowed on him by the press are “merchant prince” and “retail legend,” even, he says, the “Mother Teresa of retail.”

That renown was cemented during a close to two-decade period when Questrom saved four venerable names in close succession. From 1988 to 1990, he was the president and CEO who restored Neiman’s profitability and reputation for stellar customer service. From 1990 to 1997, he was the chairman and CEO who led Federated Department Stores out of bankruptcy, acquired rivals Broadway Stores and Macy’s, Inc., and repositioned Federated to become a bigger and better Macy’s. In 1998, he was the chairman, president, and CEO who led Barneys New York out of bankruptcy and renewed its high luxe luster, and finally, between 2000 to 2005, he was the chairman and CEO who turned around the failing JCPenney Company and made its clothes cool again.

With his wife, Kelli, a natural fashionista and fashion promoter, he helped set trends from fashion for the home to the latest in menswear.

He did it, in part, by asking questions—lots of questions.

In the video above, Kenneth Freeman, Allen Questrom Professor and Dean of the Questrom School of Business, talks with Allen Questrom (Questrom’64) about his journey from BU student to retail guru. This video originally ran on April, 8, 2014. Video courtesy of Questrom School of Business MarCom

“I’d talk to the elevator operators, I’d talk to the greeter at the front door, I’d talk to the people in the distribution center. I’d ask them, ‘What’s going on, how do we do this better?’ They all had useful ideas. There’s not one person in a company who can’t make a contribution.”

He also made sure to lay down the law in the boardroom.

“The reason businesses get into trouble is not the people who work there, but generally the boss’ lack of focus or understanding of the company culture,” says Questrom, who says he rarely fired anyone. Most top brass didn’t have a sharp strategy and he’d tell them, “We’re going to identify five objectives to focus on—memorize them. When we talk, let’s make sure it’s about those five issues, because they’re going to be the key to getting our business to the next level.”

The strategy, he says, “starts with walking around our stores and our competitors’ stores, talking to people.” Sales assistants would figure the guy in the suit and tie asking all the questions was probably just a mid-level boss—they rarely saw them—and would show Questrom everything, good and bad. The strategy worked equally well in competitors’ stores, where sales associates enjoyed the attention and assumed he was a colleague.

His goal was to get his employees believing in the business again and in their role in the renewal process. “You want to share the strategy with everyone in the company. They have to see it as their company or they’re not going give the effort their all.”

Taking advantage of luck

Questrom may have inherited the conviction that he could fix just about anything from his father, a self-employed machinist in Waltham, Mass., who never failed to make broken things work again. Clocks, toys, even airplanes—if it broke, he could fix it. His son didn’t plan on following his father into the machine business, and apart from an early dream of becoming a pilot (his eyesight didn’t make the grade), never had a burning career goal. Questrom says his primary motivation for going to college was to please his doting grandmother, who pestered him into making the commitment: “Got to make grandma happy.” Early on, he says, he saw the importance of family values and a strong work ethic.

At Boston University—chosen because he could commute to campus by train—Questrom paid his own way with money earned from evening and weekend jobs, including one that required him to drive trucks filled with hazardous waste down to New York City. Kelli Questrom would also earn her way through school, although with a bit more glamour: she supplemented her full scholarship by playing guitar and singing in clubs. (In between, she was waiting tables and becoming a pretty good cook by watching the chefs—after all, she says, “the first appeal of food is its presentation.”)

As graduation neared, Questrom still didn’t have a “specific mission,” he says, and landed in retail because of a forward-looking professor and a healthy dose of luck. Questrom wanted to become a ski instructor after graduation, but Alan Beckwith, his retail elective professor at BU, suggested the renowned executive training program at Abraham & Straus, the Brooklyn–based division of Federated Department Stores. Beckwith landed him an interview, and when the winter of 1964 failed to deliver a big punch of powder, Questrom’s fate was sealed.

He rose quickly through the ranks at Federated, and by 1980, he was head of the newly acquired Rich’s division in Atlanta. He took over the Bullock’s, Bullock’s Wilshire, and I. Magnin divisions in Los Angeles four years later. Even in those early years, he was earning a reputation for turning flagging divisions around. When he joined the family-run Rich’s, it was performing at the bottom of the Federated pile; it soon had profits outstripping all the other stores. “A lot of the time,” Questrom says, “the problem is that people who have grown up in a company haven’t looked outside the company to see if there are better ways to do it.”

Years later, he’d encounter another faltering retailer with a long history of family ownership: Barneys New York. Questrom helped the luxury department store chain, which was in bankruptcy protection between 1996 and 1999, establish a firmer foundation. During his tenure, Barneys also launched its COOP stores, a bridal shop, and a maternity line. He was the first outsider to run JCPenney in its nearly 100-year history. In the year before he took over as chairman and CEO, the chain’s stock had dropped 75 percent; Bloomberg Business said its “fashions are tired, its prices unreasonable.” After four years of Questrom’s leadership, JCPenney was leaner—periphery businesses were sold—and more centralized and efficient. It was also trendier, gaining customers and meeting its financial goals.

“When you’re willing to take on the tough problems and confidently stick with it,” he says, “people take notice, and with each small success, you and your employees gain confidence and a reputation for innovation.”

The making of a CEO

There was another dose of good fortune in 1964’s snowless weather. It was at Abraham & Straus that Questrom would later meet his future wife.

Kelli Questrom says that as a child she “was a quick study of fashion and design.” Her family didn’t shop at the upscale Montaldo’s specialty store in her hometown of Denver, Colo., but she enjoyed browsing its aisles. Just as Questrom was guided into retail by a farsighted educator, so too was Kelli. Her retail professor recommended her for Abraham & Straus’ coveted junior executive training squad, which exposed college students to the world of retailing during the summer between junior and senior year. Kelli finished her stint with a job offer. Just 10 months later, a day after graduation, she started as director of youth marketing. She and Questrom met in the employee cafeteria, says Kelli, and soon built a “very strong peer-supported friendship.” He taught her about operating statements and flash sheets; she taught him about advertising and sales promotion.

The partnership later became an enduring romance, but a pattern of professional cross-pollination had been set. Kelli’s interest in architecture and design helped inform Questrom’s approach to store design, wardrobe fashion, and fashion for the home; her natural fashion sense helped him anticipate a nation’s changing tastes. One story claims her as an early inspiration for Ralph Lauren’s now-famous menswear-as-womenswear look. Kelli says she “had purloined and altered to fit me” some of her husband’s Ralph Lauren Polo clothing. At the time, she was an editor at Mademoiselle magazine and wore the transformed clothing when covering one of the Ralph Lauren fashion shows. The designer spotted her (her Borsalino hat adding to the innovative look), discovering the Annie Hall look before the eponymous lead in Woody Allen’s 1977 romantic comedy gave it its enduring name. Lauren later offered Kelli a job marketing his new womenswear line (she took the job) and wearing it as if it had been made on her—which it had been.

Kelli says her husband’s leadership style informed her own: “He’s definitely a corporate mind—very much a team player. He’s always embraced the ideas that there’s no end to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit and that unbounded success is a result of surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you are—or who at least fill your voids. That takes confidence in yourself and in others and opens up endless opportunities for all players’ earned success.”

“We’ve been a team since the moment we met,” says Questrom. “Any successful partnership is about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We’re still teaching and teasing each other and having a great time doing it.”

Which is lucky, because Questrom has always been totally focused on his career: he was famous for getting to work early to deal with administrative tasks, then spending much of every day walking the stores and markets. On weekends, he and Kelli would hit the main streets and malls, sizing up rivals. “It was really a seven-day-a-week job, but it didn’t feel like work,” he says, “because if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. We work not so much for the material benefits as for the joy of doing what we really like to do, and for the energizing pride that comes of doing something well.”

But none of it was done with the aim of one day running the whole show.

“My focus was always doing each job and doing it well, and getting on to the excitement of the next one,” says Questrom. “I eventually became a CEO because I was always focused on making the company I was working for the most improved and admired company in the industry.

“What gets you ready for the job of CEO is your handling of many different challenges. You need a vast array of work experiences in order to build a wardrobe of skills that are applicable to problem-solving. If I graduated from college or graduate school and suddenly found myself a CEO, I wouldn’t expect to be truly qualified, because I’d have missed all those essential learning steps. I may have the title, but the title’s nothing—call me anything you want, but it’s what is supporting the title that counts.”

The ski slopes win at last

During Allen Questrom’s retail career, he and his wife Kelli would spend weekends walking main streets and malls, checking out the competition. He says it didn’t feel like work: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Questrom’s reputation as the retail rescue king required a lot of relocation: seven cross-country moves during his career. Kelli says the disruption gave her an opportunity to make a contribution to the pair’s success—and to burnish their turnaround reputation. At every move, she led the profitable renovation, restoration, or construction—and prompt sale when it was time to move again—of 10 architectural gems they’ve called home. A Bauhaus home filled with red shag carpet by previous owner Motown impresario Berry Gordy was restored to its modernist elegance; a Hollywood Hills flat the Questroms built was later snapped up by pop star Madonna.

Since retiring in 1986 after a “blessedly early” diagnosis of breast cancer, Kelli has dedicated much of her time to civic and philanthropic pursuits, serving institutions as diverse as the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless and the national board of the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. She’s also been a trustee of the Aspen Art Museum for 7 years and the Dallas Museum of Art for 12 years, and is a member of the board of trustees of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The Allen & Kelli Questrom Foundation has endowed educational programming at both the Aspen and the Dallas museums, as well as a free docented tours program for public and charter school students at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, an institution Questrom formerly served as a trustee; the couple are currently members of its National Committee. Kelli is also an advocate for preventive medicine, speaking by invitation on Capitol Hill.

When he completed the JCPenney undertaking, Questrom officially retired, too, although he stays busy as senior advisor of Lee Equity Partners, counseling entrepreneurial start-ups, and sitting on a handful of corporate boards. This retirement, he says, is final. He stepped down a couple of times before, between turnaround assignments, to hit the ski slopes and travel with Kelli, but was enticed back by the thrill—and peril—of rescuing a famous retail name. Once he even turned down an opportunity to run Columbia Pictures. “I thought about it for about 24 hours and decided, I’m going skiing.”

Retail had made it into his heart—skiing had never left it—and taking on a smooth sailing ship was never an option. “When he was mid-career,” says Kelli, “there was going to be a change of leadership at Bloomingdales—and it had been very well run—and I offered, ‘Maybe you want to be chairman of Bloomingdales.’ He said, ‘Why? There’s nothing wrong at Bloomingdales.’ Allen always likes a challenge, and turning it into an opportunity that raises all boats for everyone with an oar in the water.”

Andrew Thurston can be reached at thurston@bu.edu.
 

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