Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ken Macke: A Remembrance

As the only journalist permitted to attend the annual Modes of Creative Retailing conference produced by Jeff Feiner, the retail analyst for Merrill Lynch, in the late ’70s and ’80s, I kept a low profile. Which meant I usually sat in the back of the conference room. I was there on an off-the-record basis, to absorb the details and nuances of the retail industry’s leading executives and their plans for growth.

It was during one of those executive presentations that I first met Ken Macke, at the time the CEO of Target discount stores, the largest but still not overwhelmingly dominant division of Dayton Hudson Corp. Macke was sitting in the last row, gnashing his teeth, mostly muttering to himself as he listened to his predecessor at Target, Stephen Pistner, then president of DHC, explain why the chain was successful. Pistner was trying to woo institutional investors. Macke thought he was spilling corporate secrets. He loathed providing details, such as Target’s unique bag-and-ring checkout system that trained cashiers to look directly at customers and the merchandise on the stand while touch-punching the price into the cash register (editor’s note: yes, there was a time before scanning). The bag-and-ring system made Target a more personal shopping experience.

Target sold many of the same goods as other discounters. Systems, and the discipline to adhere to them, differentiated the Target experience, not just from Kmart, which was 10 times larger at the time, but also from other so-called upscale discounters such as Venture and Gold Circle (Wal-Mart was about the same size and mostly did not compete with Target, as its real estate was in small towns in the South Central states). Product differentiation, such as the Michael Graves collection, would come later, under CEO Robert Ulrich. Under Ulrich, Target became “Tar-zhey.” Under Macke, it was plain, well-run Target.

After Pistner left Dayton Hudson and William Andres retired as corporate chairman and CEO, Macke became, at age 44, the head of the company he first went to work for right out of college when it had just seven department stores. When he took over, the company had revenues of $7 billion. By the time he retired 11 years later in 1994, Dayton Hudson Corp. was the fifth-largest retailer in the country, with 960 stores churning out $21 billion in sales.

Kenneth A. Macke died last Saturday at age 69, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Macke was a bear of a man. Though he always looked to be brooding when talking to the press, that is, if he talked at all to the press, he did occasionally flash a smile that could brighten a room. The thought of him vanquished by this debilitating disease is unsettling.

In June 2005, one of his sons, Jeffrey, wrote a piece for our magazine about his father. Writing about his legacy, he wrote, “He created jobs. He felt more than generously rewarded for doing something he loved, and he never enriched himself at the expense of others’ livelihood.”

I’ve met many retail executives over the last 30-plus years. Macke was not an easy person to know as an outsider. But he was a determined advocate who laid the foundation for what is now one of the most successful and well-respected corporations in the world.

—Murray Forseter

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