The Retail C.E.O. Pipeline Is Running Dry

“We’re seeing a lot more folks in the consumer space coming to us to say, ‘Hey, can you help us train our people with these skills and not just train entry-level people, but people at all levels of leadership?’” said Kathy Gersch, chief commercial officer at Kotter International, which helps large companies train potential leaders. “Attracting new talent that wants to come in and learn the industry and really come up through the leadership chain is a different challenge than it might have been 10 years ago.”

For decades, those who climbed the ranks at large retail organizations started in executive training programs run by department stores or big-box chains. Those programs provided both vast infrastructure and operational incentive for companies to bring in young, talented employees and allow them to burrow deep into all parts of its business. The programs would usually last a year to 18 months, and participants cycled through rotations in store operations, buying and product development.

Graduates of university merchandising and fashion programs would vie for spots at Macy’s, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. Being selected was widely considered a launching pad for a decades-long, upwardly mobile career in retail. In 1983, for instance, Jeff Gennette entered Macy’s program. He now runs the company.

Beyond creative minds, these training programs also required participants to have strong math and communication skills. They focused on giving those who went through them the experiences needed to eventually run divisions within brick-and-mortar store operations.

“Everyone knows that you cherry-pick your best talent from department store retail leadership development programs,” said Shawn Grain Carter, a professor of management at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who started her career at Bloomingdale’s.

Over the years, as department stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward went out of business and others, like Abraham & Straus, consolidated, those training programs were trimmed back.

“When things get tough and belts get tightened, a lot of those things are eliminated over time, or at least made much smaller,” Ms. Gersch said. “When a lot of those got eliminated, it hurt the attraction of new talent that was interested in a management trainee program.”