It's Personal: Academic push boosts careers in retail

Jay H. Baker, former president of Kohl's Department Stores, at the Wharton Baker Center dinner.
Jay H. Baker, former president of Kohl's Department Stores, at the Wharton Baker Center dinner. (Shira Yudkoff)
Posted: November 22, 2013

They were next to each other for only a few moments in the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts before retired Kohl's department store maestro Jay H. Baker ribbed Macy's chairman and chief executive, Terry Lundgren.

"Will you stop killing everybody?" Baker asked Lundgren, whose command of Macy's through the rough economy has turned him into a retail rock star as competitors vie to keep pace with his profitably growing $28 billion corporation. "Give everybody a break!"

Lundgren smiled widely as he and the former Kohl's president, kindred spirits in trying to boost student interest in retail careers, warmed up for a night of schmoozing and celebration.

The pair were headliners in University City on Tuesday night for the 10-year anniversary of a $25 million gift from Baker to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His money and mission have given academic courses and research in retailing a long-overdue spot within one of the world's premier business schools.

The Jay H. Baker Retailing Center funds faculty and brings industry experts to campus so undergraduates can pursue a minor in retailing. A goal is to persuade bright business minds to consider an industry that, as Baker explained to me, had long been overlooked by ambitious graduates.

The center also offers graduate courses, another component absent before Baker acted on a conviction in 2003 and wrote a big check to fill the void.

Lundgren, one of 40 high-profile members of the Baker board, has since started a western version at his alma mater, the University of Arizona.

In 10 years, Baker said, enrollment figures are so high and student feedback so strong that it's clear the Wharton program is working.

One of the biggest early challenges was dealing with a perception that retailing was a low-payoff life, especially compared with fast-money finance.

"We had an impression of being hard work, extra hours, and low pay," Baker said.

For years, few universities did much to dispel that. Anyone with a management, accounting, or finance degree could learn the merchant's world, conventional wisdom went. Few retail courses were available anywhere.

Baker became president of Kohl's Department Stores during a period of astounding growth, helping the retailer balloon from a $280 million, 40-store operation largely in Wisconsin and Illinois to a $6 billion, 350-store national chain before his 2000 retirement.

But Baker was unsettled as he stepped away from the work. Retail companies were recruiting top talent from other sectors to run their shops.

"It's the biggest industry, it employs the most people, it's what makes the country go," he said.

Lundgren, though still at the helm of a thriving company, is preaching a similar gospel on the other side of the country, at the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing in Tucson.

I asked Lundgren how these academic centers jibe with a strong feeling within retailing that goes like this: Many successful retailers pride themselves on being good because they received little formal training. Merchants are, if anything, entrepreneurs.

Lundgren's reply: "We should have access to the best and brightest young people who haven't considered a career in retail because they don't fully understand the career opportunities that are available. I think that's the large majority of students in America today."

215-854-2431 @Panaritism

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