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Saks operations center committed to Jackson

It sits at the busy intersection of a federal highway and interstate, encompasses more than 200,000 square feet and employs hundreds. It supports practically every support function and most internal operations of a corporation that records multi-billion-dollar annual sales.

Yet, Saks Fifth Avenue’s Jackson Operations Center remains a relative unknown in the community it has called home. It not only employs hundreds of workers, many of the staff’s length of service can be measured not in years, but decades. Its list of charitable involvement is extensive. Over its history, the company could have relocated the center, but has chosen to stay in the Capital City, primarily due to the people.

“I wish that more people in the metro area knew that Jackson, Miss., is home to the operations center for Saks Fifth Avenue, the most recognized name in luxury retail,” said Michael Rodgers, executive vice president of IT/operations/credit with Saks who moved to Jackson from Philadelphia, Pa., some 14 years ago and now calls the Jackson area home. “I feel like we have an opportunity to increase community awareness about who we are and the opportunities that exist in our Saks Fifth Avenue Jackson Operations Center.”

From small beginnings

In 1924, Horace Saks and Bernard Gimbel opened a specialty store in the heart of New York City. Not only did Saks Fifth Avenue become an American icon, it eventually grew into a multi-store company stretching from coast to coast.

This success drew investors. In 1973, B.A.T. Industries, PLC, acquired Saks Fifth Avenue, then sold it to Investcorp, S.A., in 1990. In the meantime, a company called Proffitt’s Inc. was doing some growing of its own. Proffitt’s began with a mere five stores in the metro Knoxville, Tenn., market, but quickly expanded. From 1994-1998, Proffitt’s added McRae’s, Younkers, Parisian, Herberger’s and Carson Pirie Scott & Co., which included Bergner’s and Boston Store, as well as 32 stores from Lovemans, Hess, Parks-Belk and Brody’s.

In 1998, Proffitt’s and Saks Holdings Inc. completed a merger that made Saks Fifth Avenue and Off 5th outlet stores part of a division of Proffitt’s, whose corporate name was changed to Saks Incorporated. Growing still, in 2003, Saks Incorporated added Club Libby Lu, a specialty store focusing on “tween” age girls. By 2005, Saks Incorporated was reporting annual sales of nearly $6.5 billion.

Two years later, Saks Incorporated changed course. In an effort to increase shareholder value, the company decided to focus on the luxury end of the industry. In 2005 and 2006, Saks Incorporated sold its Proffitt’s, McRae’s and Parisian businesses to Belk Inc. and its Carson Pirie Scott, Bergner’s, Boston Store, Herberger’s and Younkers stores to The Bon-Ton Stores.

Today, Saks Incorporated includes 54 Saks Fifth Avenue stores, 49 Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th (outlet stores) and Saks Direct (saks.com and catalog) as well as Club Libby Lu. The company generates approximately $3 billion in sales annually.

Heart and soul

Through all of these changes, the Jackson Operations Center has remained the heart and soul of the company’s support operations. The center employs more than 700 workers housed in the 225,000-square-foot complex on U.S. 80 at Interstate 220. The staff handles all accounting, payroll, accounts payable, indirect procurement and business (disaster) recovery.

It also houses the Customer Contact Center. All credit transactions and inquiries are handled here, as well as Saks Direct, the company’s fastest-growing segment that alone keeps approximately 100 workers busy at the Jackson Operations Center.

The center also is home to the company’s information technology functions. The facility’s Information Technology Command Center resembles a scaled-down version of NASA’s Houston Control. Associates man monitors that track every point-of-sale transaction company wide in real time. (The company has more than 4,100 POS registers across the chain.) And if any company employee has a problem with his desktop or other technical problem, when he picks up the phone to report it, that call is answered by someone in Jackson.

The numbers are mind-numbing. The annual IT metrics include more than two billion user transactions, the support of 13-million-plus Internet visits, the reception of more than 103 million e-mails and the handling of 275,000 IT help desk calls.

The center’s effectiveness and efficiency can be measured by its call response time. In 2006, the center answered in excess of 1.2 million calls. The average speed of answer was 10 seconds.

People power

Obviously, the Jackson Operation Center is packed full of high-tech equipment and gadgetry. The center has entire rooms that contain nothing but huge servers. One IBM mainframe computer can process 1,400 million instructions per second. Yet, Rodgers brags on and on not about its hardware and software, but about its people, some of whom have been with the company for decades now.

Paul Shore is one of them. Now senior vice president of human resources/talent acquisition, Shore is a native Mississippian who has been with the company for nearly 23 years, tracing all the way back to the days of McRae’s. According to Shore, approximately 10% of the center’s staff have been on board for 20 years or more.

Those associates really showed their stuff in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The center lost power for 50 hours, and was forced to use generator backup. But even with a 10,000-gallon tank, the generator quickly began running low on diesel. So, non-critical systems were shut down, including the air conditioning system. Laboring in heat and struggling to get to and from work, the staff kept the center running — no store operations were affected. The Jackson Operations Center now has two generators, and has a reserve of diesel and gasoline in case of another emergency situation.

“We have great people,” said Shore, who, like Rodgers, wishes more folks outside the center knew the scale and importance of what he and his people do. “We need to get the word out there, because we are always looking to recruit talent for our Jackson operation. Even now, people think I still work for McRae’s. Or they say, ‘Oh, yeah, Belk bought you. You work for them now.’ When I tell them I work for Saks Fifth Avenue, they say, ‘But the nearest store is in New Orleans or Birmingham, isn’t it?’” Shore just smiled and shook his head.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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