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A Sears Catalogue of Turnaround Strategies : THE BIG STORE: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears by Donald R. Katz (Viking: $22.95; 616 pp.)

October 04, 1987|Alexandra R. Lajoux | The reviewer is an editor with the National Assn. of Corporate Directors and with the law firm of Lane & Edson. and

"At this, the room went black, and a tiny circle of light appeared at Ingraham's feet. . . .

" 'Do you believe that Sears is unique?'

"A single voice way in the back of the auditorium called back, 'I believe.'

" 'Do you think--do you believe that Sears is unique?' he asked again.

"A small group answered, 'I believe.'

" 'How many of us really believe Sears is unique?'

"Finally he asked, 'Do you believe in Sears?'

"As the crowd yelled back its answer, a giant 'S-E-A-R-S' appeared stretched out across the huge screen in front of the room."

Just as Gar Ingraham, the "heavy-eyed old Field soldier . . . who looked more and more like a crocodile as the years went by," knew how to work a crowd--even the competition-broken Searsmen gathered in August, 1980, to hear about the tautological "Challenge Year" ahead--so Donald Katz, the former Rolling Stone reporter who would gain board-level access to chronicle that challenge, knows how to work a reader--even you.

However disappointed you may have been in quickie business success or scandal stories that cross into your turf without the insider rap and signals you know to look for, whatever you hope to encounter reading about the famous Sears turnaround, "The Big Store," two years in the writing, probably has something you want to read about: the conversion of profit-eating hard-sellers to profit-making relationship retailers (talk about corporate culture, chaos and renewal!); the crash of America's first major venture into world trading during the rejuvenation of Americana itself; the necessary evil of company politics coexisting with the ultimate good of corporate leadership; a brave entrance into an external financial services revolution just after a close encounter with internal financial ruin; the life story of a behemoth (Sears sales generally equal 1% of the United States' GNP), and a week in the life of the Sears store in Hicksville, N.Y.--it's all here, ingeniously procured and carefully arranged.

Katz, who understudied this book by working at the featured Hicksville Sears, knows the retail displayer's trick of putting the cheapest item at the upper left and the big-ticket one at the lower right. But more important, Katz's stuff is good.

This first book may lack the shelf-emptying slickness of its genre, but its cumulative emotional impact ensures few buyer regrets. Like most authors of business sagas coming out today, Katz, now of Esquire and Fortune, is a hot-shot journalist. But he got properly humble when he asked Ed Telling, then chairman of a Sears in recovery, if he could tell the Sears story from within. Telling, who sensed that this man would neither jump in his pockets nor plot to slit them, said yes, and an outsider's inside book was born.

Katz, a prodigious cataloguer and conceptualizer, gets off to a slow start by strewing endless Glory Years titles and patronymics in among ambitious sentence structures, risking a dropout rate akin to Tolstoy's. He also commits the first-timer's pardonable error of spending $2 words like sartorial more than once.

But the tolerant reader is soon rewarded: Enter the refreshingly British Ian Sym-Smith, a human resources consultant (Hay Associates) who picks as Sears' next chairman the dark horse Telling, inexplicably successful head of the Eastern Territory.

For two years and 200 pages, the private and unpredictable Telling does everything bass-ackwards, letting key men go from the territorial fiefdoms of Sears' once enviably decentralized power base while adding misfit atop misfit in an increasingly resented headquarters Tower; all the while communicating these changes through the wild prose of a Jesuitical Irishman, Jumpin' Joe Moran.

If Telling's new president of merchandising, Ed Brennan, has begun to muse that Sears is "nothing but a big store," and if a young Phillip Purcell, the McKinsey consultant who stayed on to administrate, is starting to compare retailing to other industries, these hints of a brighter future are obscured by the gloom of increasing losses: Sears stock, once selling in the 60s, threatens to hit one-digit levels at mid-story. By August, 1980, Telling is a laughing stock and nobody's laughing.

So why did Ingraham's "Tinkerbell speech" work? The same reason Katz's rendering of it will give "Big Store" readers the chills: The years and pages that led to the Challenge Year plea foreshadow specific, dramatic changes in management creed and cash flow that from that day on would occur at the speed and brightness of light. The reader who moves his eyes across these pages to their end gets to the best part: a Katz-scan of the soul of Telling, the man who rebuilt a buyable miracle: S-E-A-R-S.

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