In the Know: The irony of the 'Nordstrom of the Midwest' potentially replacing Nordstrom itself in Naples

Phil Fernandez
Naples Daily News

Von Maur's CEO appreciates your enthusiasm, and he told me this past week that can go a long way toward Naples landing his "Nordstrom of the Midwest."

"Your article was great," said Jim von Maur, the fourth-generation poobah of the Hawkeye State-based high-end chain with 33 venues. "That was incredible to see your article, and the enormous response that we got from everyone from the Naples community. That meant a lot. That was impressive."

But it's not just the full-timers here.

"A lot of snowbirds go down there from the Midwest," von Maur said. "We got such a great response from that. So many of our customers are back home now, and they still read your publication. Yeah, that was awesome. We'd love to be there, that's for sure. We love Naples."

In last week's Naples Daily News, I brought up his luxury standout, with the suddenly ironic nickname, as a top contender to replace departing Nordstrom after researching the candidates, which have rapidly dwindled during a merciless month of May in retail, as I mentioned in my column.

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Like many of you, von Maur didn't expect a vacancy like this at swanky Waterside Shops on U.S. 41, but then again, most of us didn't expect this pandemic mess, aside perhaps from a few leaders who were prepared for the possibility.

It's been catastrophic for 100,000 now dead Americans and their families. It's been catastrophic for 40 million now unemployed Americans trying to figure out a way to feed their families. And it's been catastrophic for nearly every American industry including historic mainstays like Nordstrom, which workers depend on for a check.

"I never thought we'd have the chance to be at Waterside," von Maur said of the "very intriguing opportunity." "I assumed they would have been very happy in that location. I mean, it's a phenomenal location, an excellent community. And I guess we're a little surprised they're wanting to vacate the area."

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And dear readers, there's a strong ally among you in your corner.

Well, yeah, me, of course. No, no. Just kidding.

Actually, it's his mom.

Wait, his mom?


Before the existence of both the Von Maur empire and Jim von Maur himself, his Iowa parents, Dick and Susan, wanted to find a way to travel to Collier County after marrying.

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"My mom and dad honeymooned down there in Naples in the 1950s," von Maur said. "They couldn't afford a place to go, a hotel or resort or whatever."

They were able to a secure a cabin for a getaway with the help of a relative, and it appears they knew some day they would return.

And indeed, they did in a big way when about the time of the wedding, his dad and uncle Charles teamed up to begin transforming their small downtown Davenport business that had roots dating to 1872 into one of the nation's leading family-run department store chains with a 5,000-employee force.

Naples eventually became a destination for winter stays and more.

"They returned in the 1990s, and then my uncle moved down there, and now I have two sisters who live there. And a cousin," von Maur said. "We have a real connection to the community."

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Not that any of the von Maurs would ever brag about the private family's largely untold amazing success story or real estate holdings. Not the style of an enterprise and its 50-year-old leader, who flies into Southwest Florida through budget-friendly Allegiant Air in Punta Gorda instead of the Brobdingnagian jets of his contemporaries into Naples Airport.

Not that the guy is cheap. As I spelled out in last week's column, his place has a reputation for paying better than its rivals in the service industry.

It's just that it has generally operated under the radar, with Crain's magazine previously referring to Von Maur as "stealth" and avoiding "making a splash" for most of its history. 

And no airs at all during a free-flowing phone conversation that seemingly could have gone much longer. 

Yes, that's CEO Jim von Maur of Iowa-based Von Maur wearing a stylish Cheesehead at a 2017 Wisconsin opening with members of his family. His place exudes old-fashioned values, but he's not your typical guy at the top, and there's something refreshing about that. Don't know what Hawkeyes fans think of his choice of chapeau over there in the Badger State.

Even with an operation that Crain's and Dun & Bradstreet say brings in hundreds of millions in annual revenue, Mr. CEO never seemed rushed, and I started feeling guilty about taking the dude's time in the middle of this upheaval. After all, he's trying to restart activity in 15 states.

Folks familiar with me know that I don't suck up, and that gets me into trouble sometimes. But I'm always going to be myself, and that's what I felt from von Maur.

A guy to share a couple of my favorite Cuban coffees or perhaps Arnold Palmers, looking out over the quiet greens and 50 acres of wetlands of the vintage Hole-in-the-Wall Golf Club on Goodlette Road, beyond the wall of bushes, where talking on cell phones is not permitted.

Known as the oldest private golf club in Naples, that also happens to be where a celebration of life was held last year after the passing of his dad, a former organization president.

In lieu of flowers and anything else, memorials were directed to the Neighborhood Health Clinic, which provides medical and dental care to low-income, working but uninsured Collier residents. His parents also contributed to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, according to records.

Naples has been in play in the past for the company, which with a few exceptions, has typically focused on methodically adding up to two new stories a year in what Von Maur describes as a "very steady Eddie" pace that has set them apart from considerably more aggressive and too often failing foes that are publicly traded.

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A Von Maur exception happened after eventually defunct Waterside tenant Jacobson's filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

"I'm very familiar with Waterside. Spent a lot of time there," said von Maur, who has been in charge for nearly two decades. "When Jacobson's went bankrupt, we bought a few of their stores – three of them to be exact, and we did consider Naples but we just weren't quite ready to go that far south. And we were already taking on a lot with the three Jacobson stores as it was. We have talked about it. We have looked at it."

Analysts have told me they felt distance could be a major roadblock for Naples.

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"How far can they extend logistics, regional management, brand-building and other critical functions to a region that is not contiguous to existing markets? That can be a very expensive and high risk move," said Anne Brouwer, a senior partner at Chicago-based consulting firm McMillan Doolittle. "Von Maur has carefully managed expansion in the past, and it would be a surprise if they deviated from this approach."

von Maur surprised me, too, when he said that isn't a hurdle anymore for Southwest Florida.  Since the Jacobson's deal, he has led a southern offensive, arriving in 2011 to Atlanta, then two additional in The ATL, plus picking up Alabama.

"It's just a matter of a truck driving a little further so distribution for us is not much of a limitation. We can service a pretty wide area within the country," von Maur said. "We support our Southern stores, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky with our distribution center in Davenport, Iowa. It's not a problem. It's another few hours south."

Nine hours to be exact from the Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody. That ain't no Sunday drive.

But then again, he stretched the eastern boundary to near Rochester, N.Y., about six hours from the nearest outposts in the Detroit and Columbus, Ohio areas.

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If he's ever in a bind, I suggested his many fellow Iowans who flock our way for their annual migration could help cart some stuff down.

"In their minivans," he said with a laugh. "No doubt about it."

What about setting up shop in northern or central Florida, and then working your way down?

Nope, he said. As it stands at present, Collier, which has about 75,000 or so snowbirds if you go by county government's peak season versus permanent resident estimates, would be his first choice in the Sunshine State.

"Naples is a very Midwest-oriented wintering area," von Maur said. "Certainly we would have better name recognition if we were to open a store in Naples than say other parts of Florida, especially the East side where it's more the East Coast people go down there from the Eastern Seaboard, New England."

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And even if Von Maur and Waterside have desires for each other, like Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", it's never a done deal when you get to negotiations.

Baby, baby, let me sleep on it. Let me sleep on it, and I'll give you an answer in the morning.

"I think it's what you were saying. It takes time," von Maur said. "The mall has to want us. We have to have a deal that works for both parties."

So what are we waiting for?

Oh yeah, that pesky pandemic.

"They have not reached out to us. We haven't reached out to them," von Maur said of Waterside's owners. "The last thing we're thinking about at the moment is acquiring new locations, as you can understand. We've just been really hunkered down and trying to get our existing fleet of stores opened up."

While not responding to questions by deadline for this column, Nate Forbes, president and managing partner of The Forbes Co., which owns Waterside and other malls, said for a Daily News story last week that securing a successor isn't happening right away.

"Within 60 days we will be able to aggressively pursue our options," he said. "It could take us six months to really nail down what exactly we are doing."

Forbes faces further challenges: He told CNBC his team has only collected 19% of April rents from all its tenants.

And then there's another potential pandemic punch for centers like Waterside. Too much competition, as the unknowns continue and companies potentially keep falling by the wayside creating increasing vacancies. Thus, alternative enticing options that could emerge for Von Maur to consider, as J.C. Penney, for example, closes 242 of about 850 sites.

"Of course now there are going to be so many locations available," von Maur said. "With Lord & Taylor going under, and J.C. Penney is in trouble. Sears. So we're going to have a lot of opportunity out there so it's just going to be a matter of being able to decide which ones are a good fit."

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And he should be able to get a good deal, according to Noah Shaffer, senior director for Florida-based Confidant Asset Management, which provides services for retail, industrial and office properties throughout the United States.

"The heightened number of retailers failing will also cause retail rents to drop, which provides an even better opportunity for well positioned retailers to expand in a strategic method," Shaffer told me. "There will be a great opportunity for certain retailers who have grown strategically and smartly in the past to capitalize on the vacancies left behind by overextended retailers like J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus."

It's going to be rough for awhile, said Karl M. Gibbons, president of Naples-based international industry consulting firm, Third Eye Management.

"The demise of Nordstrom and J.C. Penney is only the tip of the iceberg in this huge sea change that’s taking place," Gibbons told me. "The challenges facing department stores and shopping malls are enormous."

Von Maur does remain optimistic even if "everything is just so up in the air at the moment."

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"We've opened quite a few stores already, and we're seeing a very good response so far," von Maur said. "Never bet against America. It's going to come back strong. We're going to have a strong third and fourth quarter, and things will get back to normal. I know a lot of retail is struggling and gone permanently. We're very strong and very healthy, and we plan on being here another century. We're going to keep growing."

So what happened with the demise of many of the all-time greats in shopping while Von Maur increased annual sales the past few years during what's been described as a "retail apocalypse?" 

Nordstrom, for example, is closing Naples and some of its upscale outfits this summer as part of its rightsizing strategy while preserving all off-price Nordstrom Rack locales including Mercato just up the road off Tamiami Trail.

"You mentioned the Rack, and 'is that the way the economy is going?' We don't feel that way. We still think people want quality and quality experience, quality merchandise. They want to have an enjoyable experience, and that's what we're going to continue to provide," von Maur said. "In your article, you mentioned the piano music, and those are all things that people appreciate, and things we're going to continue to offer. We don't see that going away. We see retail changing, but we don't think the consumer is changing."

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Besides too much CEO turnover, part of the demise of his competitors has been an overemphasis on digital sales, which von Maur said is a logical component of his business plan. He said he sees the advantages, for example, of serving Southwest Florida residents online.

But he said e-commerce should not be the end-all with overspending and so many dramatic changes that it becomes detrimental for the rest of the framework. Hence, the old-school piano playing continues for shoppers.

"The piano just offers a more 'relaxing, take your blood pressure down and enjoy the shopping experience,' not feel so frenetic," said von Maur, whose grandmother was a concert pianist. "Everybody nowadays is in such a hurry, being bombarded with all these images, and when you walk into our store, you don't see like vendor images everywhere and sale signs. You're not being screamed at. That piano adds to the residential relaxing atmosphere that we think is so important."

And it's not like everything is about living in the past, such as who's in charge these days.

More than 60% of senior manager positions and nearly 85% of executive positions at Von Maur are held by women, including the chief operating officer. In the past 10 years of its executive training program, more than 90% of the participants were women.

Jim von Maur, CEO of Von Maur department stores, tours the store at Valley West Mall in West Des Moines on Friday, March 1, 2019. Von Maur believes maintaining relationships with customers and staying true to the company's core values is among the reasons the business is able to succeed while other department stores are closing.

Still, it's not like it's been complete smooth sailing for Von Maur, with furloughs, for example, during the current crisis.

"We were actually going to open a store in Rochester Hills, Michigan this fall," he said. "Had to delay that" until 2021.

The changes among the Who's Who in retail aren't lost on him.

"Every retailer used to emulate them," von Maur said of Nordstrom and the comparisons to his setup over the years. "We're flattered. It used to be, 'oh you're like Marshall Field's.'  Nordstrom is like what Marshall Field's used to be, and now it's kind of like, 'well, Von Maur is what Nordstrom used to be.'"

And now the hope is that Von Maur will be located where Nordstrom used to be in Waterside.

In the Know's new columnist, Phil Fernandez. The photo was shot in Naples Daily News studio Thursday, September, 12, 2019.

"This Covid thing has everything all messed up," von Maur said. "It would be so hard to give any kind of time frame. Best case would be a year or two."

And don't forget about the one who brung ya here, boss man: 

"It would make my mom happy."

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez ( writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.