Hall of Fame: Ron Frasch

Hall of Fame: Ron Frasch
Ron Frasch, photographed for FN on the Saks shoe floor in New York

For someone who fell into the retail business unexpectedly, Ron Frasch’s success is no accident. Instead, hard work, passion and forward thinking have made him one of the top merchants in the industry — and one of the most beloved.

As the president and chief merchandising officer of Saks Inc. tells it, his first job as temporary seasonal help at Bloomingdale’s came about out of desperation. “I needed a job, and I couldn’t find one after college,” recalled Frasch, 63. So at the suggestion of his aunt, a department supervisor, he took a thankless position accepting returns in the men’s department. He ended up working at Bloomingdale’s for the next six years.

But Frasch, who has a degree in business from the University at Albany, languished in operations, while merchandising called out to him. Eventually he talked his way into a job as associate buyer for designer shoes.

That was the beginning of his affinity for footwear, a quality many designers in the industry have come to cherish. “Most chief merchandising officers and presidents, they are generally not shoe people,” said Stuart Weitzman. “Well, Ron has been at every presentation of the new collection that I make. And I know he is with everyone else, too.”

One of the most notable examples of his interest is Saks Fifth Avenue’s 10022-SHOE floor, which arguably kicked off the New York department store shoe wars in 2007 and further challenged the industry with a recent expansion.

But Frasch’s career also has been marked by an intense personal drive. In the early 1980s, in his first stint at Saks, he served as a store manager. While he loved the job, Frasch said he again saw his career moving away from merchandising.

So he took a chance, using a store visit from then-Saks CEO Arnold Aronson to make his plea. “I was driving him to the airport and said, ‘I want to come in as a merchant,'” Frash recalled. “And I kept saying, ‘I can do this job, you’ve got to give me a chance.’ As I was driving, I kept talking and he missed his plane, which he was not very happy about. But he said, ‘OK. We’ll give it a shot.'”

Over the next couple of years, Frasch began building his amazing reputation while working in designer merchandising at Saks, and as a GMM at Neiman Marcus, where he stayed for 10 years, absorbing key lessons from retail icon and mentor Stanley Marcus. “[I learned] a great merchant is great because of what they don’t buy,” Frasch said. “I’m enormously passionate about being a great editor for our customers, so they can trust us.”

After a decade at Neiman Marcus, Frasch in 1994 left retail to become president and CEO of Escada USA. And two years later, he was named president of GFT USA, an Italian firm that at the time was the largest licensing group for designer brands such as Armani, Calvin Klein and Valentino.

His time in wholesale, Frasch said, helped cement a true appreciation for design. When he speaks of the recent runway shows in Europe, for instance, his enthusiasm is palpable. And he continues to champion creative talent today at Saks. “We’ve got to do this. If we don’t have the talent, we don’t have a job,” Frasch said.

As chairman and CEO of Bergdorf Goodman from 2000 to 2004, Frasch again promoted footwear. During his tenure, the store underwent a round of renovations, including making the second-floor shoe department a more prominent fixture. The man who recruited him to that job, former Neiman Marcus Group CEO and President Burt Tansky, noted, “Ron was aggressive and dedicated to getting the job done. He’s very focused and a good leader.”

And in the past eight years at Saks, that hasn’t changed. “Ron has an extremely good feel for the business and best-in-class vendor relationships,” said Saks Chairman and CEO Steve Sadove. “And as it relates to footwear, he is a real shoe dog. He has an extreme passion for the business.”

As far as Frasch is concerned, his ultimate mission has been to create a clear point of view at Saks. And this year, for the first time, he said, they have achieved it. But true to form, he’s already looking ahead: “Now we’re at a level where we can make it even better.”