Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ed Brennan: The Penultimate Sears Man

I was on a busman’s holiday in June 1988, walking through the historic Filene’s Basement in Boston with my wife and two young children, when I heard the distinctive, clipped Midwestern voice of Edward A. Brennan behind me. Ed’s son, an executive with Filene’s, was giving his father, the chairman and CEO of Sears, Roebuck & Co., a tour of the landmark emporium under Filene’s flagship department store (Filene’s Basement had yet to be spun off). Though my informal attire—shorts and a white Polo shirt embarrassingly stained with a small spot of chocolate ice cream from a cone enjoyed just minutes earlier—hardly justified a hello, I stopped my family in our tracks and introduced them to the man who at that time was more powerful than any retailer, including Sam Walton (for the prior fiscal year, Sears boasted sales of $28.1 billion, almost double that of Wal-Mart’s $16 billion).

I first met Ed Brennan, who died at 73 two days after Christmas, in April 1980, just days after his selection by Sears chairman and CEO Ed Telling to head up Sears Merchandising as its president. Ed was just 46 years old, but he already had almost two decades of experience with Sears. Moreover, Sears blood coursed through his veins. His grandfather, father and several uncles were Sears men. So was his brother, Bernard F., who eventually would direct cross-town rival Montgomery Ward. Oh how the press and industry watchers pondered Thanksgiving chatter at the Brennan dinner table. Wonder evolved into wild speculation when word leaked that the two brothers had entertained the idea of merging the two ailing giants in a Quixotic attempt to reverse decades of decline at the hands of discount stores, home centers, and specialty stores, both the soft lines and hard lines types.

Ed had a puckish smile, not the brooding countenance of his brother, Bernie. He exuded confidence. He was a merchant’s merchant, comfortable talking about product yet financially competent enough to have been the executive in charge of launching the Discover Card when it was part of the Sears empire.

He seemed energized when talking about Sears as a “line merchant,” a retailer that provided customers with a full range of choices within a classification and not just a cherry-picked offering of quick sellers. But the business of retailing changed during his tenure. Customers actually preferred the more limited, more price-sensitive merchandise strategies of the competition. By the time Ed retired in 1995, Sears had tumbled to third place among retailers. Revenues in 1994 were $33 billion, just $1 billion behind Kmart but less than half the $77 billion racked up by Wal-Mart.

Ed Brennan was the last merchant to run Sears. His successors—Arthur Martinez, Alan Lacy and Edward S. Lampert—all came from financial backgrounds. The company’s decline, which began before Brennan took office, continues to this day. In 1991, Brennan introduced a “store of the future” for Sears. The future still awaits.

—Murray Forseter

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