The Best Boss I Ever Had

Heroes make lasting impressions, and my hero, my old boss, Allan Zwerner has done just that. His lessons will last a lifetime and his humorous mannerisms never fail to tickle me when recalled from the past. To understand the man, we all affectionately called Z, you have to picture a cross between a wise Jewish rabbi, a teacher and a marathoner. I met Allan in 1989, when I had just been appointed to Divisional Merchandise Manager at a regional department store, called Maas Brothers, a Florida division of Allied Stores. Federated Department Stores had just purchased Allied, and Allan was General Merchandise Manager at Burdines, the dynamic South Florida (part of Federated) retailer headquartered in Miami. Once rivals at Allied and Federated, we were now working in the same company and yet we were still competing in the same markets, so things didn’t exactly begin without a hitch. Rumors were rampant that the two stores would merge into one chain, creating increased competition in the marketplace.

One of my favorite things about him, is that he is so competitive, and that is how we both first encountered each other at a vendor showroom in NYC. We were both negotiating pretty hard on buy for active warm-ups and things got tense quickly. Little did I know, a mere 12 months later, I would be working for him and living in South Florida working and trying to fit into Burdine’s culture.

Great leaders make us feel safe when things are difficult and right from the start of the merger, things felt hard. I was only one of eight people who came down in the merger. I had left friends and family. Allan quickly set out to help me assimilate into the culture. He shared his passion for Burdines and the south Florida lifestyle with me. We solved problems in the business together after a run on South Beach (he was after all a marathoner- completing several Boston Marathons). He treated everyone on the team and in his pyramid with such love and respect, he was always asking questions and more importantly he was always listening. He was always teaching us, never strictly one to tell us what to do, he wanted to understand what our thoughts were on how to tackle a problem or explode a selling opportunity. He made many a notes on the backs of napkins as he worked with his team on brain-storming or problem solving, deciphering those notes was not always easy. He made the assistant buyer on the team feel like the most important person in the world when he called them up and asked their opinion or asked them to pull some selling information.

People fondly called him Z, and loved working for him. He had qualities of character, he led through collaboration, and through challenging us. He understood each of the people that reported to him, he knew how to adapt his style to the unique team member. He trusted us and we in turn trusted him. Allan’s integrity, honesty and compassion for his people, coupled with his passion for his craft were hard to beat. He loved merchandising, walking the stores and seeing the world of retail through the customer’s eyes.

I think of him as a wise rabbi because that is what he was and is to me- he had wisdom for the ages and he shared it with everyone and he taught us so much by leading by example. He was never the flashiest boss, but his incredible track record of leadership led him to incredible heights -EVP at Federated, JCrew, and President of Licensing at Perry Ellis and finally, President at Tommy Hilfiger. He was humble, but had extraordinary substance. Many of the talent he nurtured has gone on to tremendous careers in retail. He has truly been an inspiration to all who have worked for him.

And, in these last few years that has never been more obvious as Allan has valliantly battled prostate cancer. All the same qualities on display, asking first how others are doing, calling and checking on my life with my family, never complaining when he has had to endure years of constant chemotherapy. For years, he still ran and then he walked daily determined to maintain his love of exercise. He still found the time to go to dinner with friends and put his wife and family first. His strength has been remarkable, his endurance inspiring. Even now as he battles back from recent surgery to alleviate some of the painful suffering and restore his quality of life at the end, he is still fighting with dignity and valor.

Allan Zwerner is my hero, the father I never had, he has been a guiding light of wisdom and love for the 23 years I have known him. He is simply the best boss I ever had.