Lester Gribetz, a former Bloomingdale’s vice chairman and for decades a highly respected and talented retail executive immersed in the home furnishings and cosmetics industries, died Thursday morning at his home in Manhattan with his husband by his side. He was 93.
“Lester was a special and rare human being,” said his husband, Andy Peters, who confirmed Gribetz’s passing. “His open heart and kind, caring nature captured everyone he came into contact with. He was also a skilled, once-in-a-generation merchant, which guided him from folding towels at Bloomingdale’s just out of the army to becoming vice chairman of the store.”
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“He was a master merchant with a great eye,” said Jack Hruska, the former executive vice president of store design and creative services at Bloomingdale’s. “He loved merchandise and could search and discover great product.”
Gribetz was born in the Washington Heights section of New York City and spent most of his life in Manhattan on the Upper West Side. He had several homes over the years in Sagaponack, Shelter Island, and Amagansett, New York as well as in Greensboro, Vermont. His final six months were spent in his apartment of 45 years in The San Remo on Central Park West.
Gribetz joined Bloomingdale’s in 1953 in the executive training program and he spent most of his career in the company’s home furnishings department. He became senior vice president of home in 1977, general merchandise manager of home and cosmetics in 1979 and executive vice president and gmm of home, cosmetics and restaurants in 1980.
In 1989, he was named Bloomingdale’s vice chairman with added responsibilities for special merchandising projects including private label marketing and the men’s division.
During his years at Bloomingdale’s he worked closely with, among others, two legendary figures there, the late Marvin Traub, who for many years served as chairman and chief executive officer, and Barbara D’Arcy, the late Bloomingdale’s fashion director for home. They formed a strong partnership shopping the world for unique goods and elevating Bloomingdale’s image and assortments.
Gribetz left Bloomingdale’s in 1992 and joined the retailer’s former chief, Traub, who formed Marvin Traub Associates, which served as a consultant to American Express, Giorgio Armani, Men’s Health, Burberry, HSN, Adrienne Vittadini and other clients.
In 2001, Gribetz returned to Bloomingdale’s as vice president of home furnishings fashion direction, reporting to Joe Laneve, senior vice president and gmm of home. Gribetz subsequently worked for several years as president of Lenox Corp., the tableware brand, president of Dansk, and president of Hartmann, the luggage company.
During the AIDS pandemic, Gribetz worked with God’s Love We Deliver to cook Thanksgiving Turkeys in the Bloomingdale’s restaurant oven which would be delivered to the home bound and sick while living with AIDS.
“A lot of people are interesting but very few people are interested in people. Lester was one of those rare people who was,” said Michael Gould, former CEO of Bloomingdale’s. “He was creative and a terrific merchant. He understood fashion as well as how to barrel out the goods. He had enormous impact on the home store. But he was also a great selector of people, and would identify people with great talent who he thought could expand and grow. That’s the real legacy.”
Gould recalled an episode when Gribetz wanted to promote a then-young Tony Spring, who was working as an area manager at Bloomingdale’s in White Plains, New York, to divisional merchandise manager in housewares. Traub said no, thinking Spring was too young to handle the role. Gould, at the time Bloomingdale’s CEO-in-waiting, went into Traub’s office with Gribetz to lobby for Spring’s promotion, and Traub changed his mind, saying, “Tony is young, but if Lester thinks he has that kind of potential, it’s your call Mike.” Spring got the promotion and over the years was promoted several times, rising to CEO of Bloomingdale’s. Last March, Spring was named president and future CEO of Macy’s Inc.
“The Tony story is an example of a person Lester saw having the talent to achieve,” said Gould. “Lester was a dear friend.”
“He was constantly at work, building partnerships. He had more energy than most people I know. Only in the last year he just barely started to slow down,” said Hruska. “He had this incredible energy that made you feel more energetic. We had a close friendship way beyond our working relationship. He was just so well liked on both sides on the industry, retail and wholesale. Everyone appreciated his zest for life.”
At the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Bloomingdale’s, Gribetz told WWD: “What I think the customer told us is they wanted things that were exclusive and well-designed. Price was not the differentiator, it was more the uniqueness of the merchandise. That’s why we traveled all over the world to bring back things that were exclusive to the stores. From my interaction with customers, it was the fact that they could find things that weren’t distributed everywhere in every department store. That’s what I think was our challenge, to bring back the unique. That’s why we were so successful with the shows, whether that be China or India or Israel. That’s when the store was mobbed for customers looking for the unique and the differentials. During the show days, it was truly the most exciting period of my life to bring back the craft and the uniqueness and the design of most of the countries that most of our customers hadn’t traveled to.”
Gribetz said he experienced “so many unique moments and exciting times” at Bloomingdale’s. “It was the most joyous period of my life working in the store because of the day-to-day challenges and the wonderful talent of the people I worked with. If I were to say what gave me the most pleasure was to work with the people who worked for me, who became remarkably successful, whether it be Sue Kronick or Norman Axelrod or Tony Spring, which shows at least I had the talent of choosing good people. They were all just wonderfully talented people who knew the mission and went after it with a vengeance. I think the joy of success was apparent in everybody’s mind and was a great experience. It certainly was the highlight of my life.”
“I met Lester when he was a gmm at Bloomingdale’s and I was a department manager in White Plains,” said Spring. “I was immediately struck by his imagination, his ability to inspire people. His knowledge of the business. His curiosity. He had such a great way with people in addition to being a very creative person. He had an infectious enthusiasm for ideas.
“Whether it was bringing back a piece of the Berlin Wall, our model rooms on the home floor, or the country promotions, he was in the thick of it all, partnering with Barbara D’Arcy and Marvin. He lived a phenomenal life, connected with so many people, and made a difference to many generations of retail leaders. He challenged you to think beyond the product. I am lucky enough to have counted him as a mentor and a friend,” Spring added.
In addition to his husband, Gribetz is survived by his sister Harriet of Quincy, Florida and many nieces and nephews.
A private graveside service will be held on Monday. A memorial service for a later date will soon be announced. Donations in Lester’s name can be made to God’s Love We Deliver in New York City.
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