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Retailing giant has important economic impact in Mississippi

Sak’s ‘nerve center’ on I-220 unknown by many

JACKSON — Very few people realize that Saks Fifth Avenue is New York City’s third most popular tourist attraction. It ranks only behind the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

Even fewer people realize that the “Nerve Center” (referred to as the Saks Support Group) of Saks Inc., is located in Jackson, just off Exit 1 on I-220. Jack Miller says that the nerve center with its 1,300 employees is the area’s best kept secret.

Miller is Saks’ senior vice president of store planning, construction, maintenance and energy. He’s a native of Perry, Ga., and an architectural graduate from Georgia Tech — and may be among the last of the true Southern gentlemen. Soft-spoken, bespectacled, wiry with a graying mustache, he’s the model of courtesy.

Little did he know

Miller had previously been in Dallas with Federated Department Stores, which was taken over in a disastrous leveraged buy-out and promptly filed for bankruptcy. He went into residential renovation work which as he puts it, “..is a lot of fun if you can get away from the housewives and homeowners, but they don’t mind calling you at 10:30 or 11:30 at night.”

In 1992 McRae’s called. “They wanted me back in the store planning business,” Miller remembered. “They said, ‘We have 27 stores and we do about one new store every two or three years and we try to renovate about one a year. You can do this job in your sleep,’ and I agreed and came to Jackson. Little did I know. Today I have 350 stores under me.”

The complications of Miller’s job came about when Profitt’s Inc., the Alcoa, Tenn.-Birmingham retailer, went on a buying spree. It picked up McRae’s among many others and concluded in 1998 with the purchase of Saks Fifth Avenue. They kept Saks as their national moniker because of its name recognition.

Retiring in January

“Even though McRae’s was bought by Profitt’s, we had all the systems and the back office functions that Profitt’s needed, so McRae’s became the operations group,” Miller said. “That included store planning, credit, accounts payable, logistics and information technology. Another reason they kept it here is because this is a great building and it was already paid for.”

Verification of his position’s complexities came when he took a phone call seeking guidance on three stores. One is in Mission Viejo, Calif., another in Las Vegas and the third in Indianapolis. Small wonder he’s going to retire next January.

He recalled building the 165,000-square-foot distribution center for McRae’s in nearby Byram. Then his office was in charge of construction of the more centrally located replacement building in Steele, Ala. It was the same size, but it handles three times the merchandise that was handled out of Byram.

“We can do that because of a process called cross-docking,” Miller said. “The merchandise comes in one door and within an hour it’s headed for a store. All of our vendors have to put their goods in boxes with a UPS price code on them — there are no more hangers — and that really helps out in processing and transportation. And remember, every tractor-trailer that picks up merchandise from a vendor or delivers it to our store is scheduled by the logistics and transportation department in this building.”

Miller’s office is in charge of every new store and renovation in the Saks family. There are only “about a dozen” employees in his Jackson office and about 75 nationwide. Three vice presidents report directly to him and he reports to James Coggin, the Saks’ president and CAO, who’s also located in the Jackson office.

When asked how many states they are in, Miller confesses he doesn’t really know.

“We had a map up on the wall at one time, but got tired of printing them,” he said chuckling. “When we bought Saks Fifth Avenue, that filled in a lot of states, and when we bought Herberger, we picked up a lot of those Midwest and Great Plains states.”

Using Mississippi contractors and subs

Aside from those 1,300 Jackson employees, there’s this additional impact on the Mississippi economy — Miller estimates that 50%-60% of Saks construction is done by Mississippi contractors and sub-contractors. JESCO, a division of Yates Construction, and F. L. Crane & Sons, both based in Fulton, are the major beneficiaries of that decision.

And they are well versed on the type of construction Saks prefers.

“Just about every commercial building is built out of a synthetic stucco exterior skin system,” Miller said. “The cost on it and brick are basically the same, but the difference is that the stucco system is so much faster. And then when we go to smaller towns to build a store, it’s very difficult to find enough brick masons for a project that large.”

For obvious reasons, Saks uses prototype buildings. The first single level prototype was the McRae’s in Meridian’s Bonita Lakes Mall. Miller said that if you saw the Yonkers store in Coralarville, Iowa, you would recognize it as the Meridian building with a different nameplate.

Miller believes that the U.S. is “overmalled” and that a huge percentage of future stores will be in what he calls neighborhood centers. He cites the store in suburban Flowood’s “Dogwood Festival” as the prime example. “It’s going great guns, so we’re looking at a lot of those right now,” he said.

Like other retailers, Saks has felt the economic slowdown. “We have two merchandising groups — the Saks Department Store Group (SDSG) and Saks Fifth Avenue,” Miller pointed out. “The SDSG represents the hometown store where there’s a lot of customer loyalty and as long as we have the merchandise they want, they’ll give us their business. While the Saks Fifth Avenue group also has a lot of loyal customers, they are very tourist-dependent and that’s where we’ve been hurt.”

Construction of new stores has area demographics as its first premise.

“We look at the trees rather than the forest,” Miller said. “If you put a store in the wrong location even in a high growth area, then you’ve made a big mistake.”

After Jan. 31, that won’t be Jack Miller’s concern.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com.


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