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Sears’ CEO gives rare interview—here are some highlights

Eddie Lampert, the reclusive chairman and CEO of Sears Holdings Corp., has given a rare interview (to Vanity Fair) in which he discusses everything from his decision to manage his embattled company from a distance as to why he chose to invest in Sears’ online business as opposed to its stores.

Here are some highlights from the article, which author William Cohan calls Lampert’s first one-on-one first-person interview in 15 years.

• Lampert, who lives in Florida, dismissed criticism that he rarely visits Sears’ headquarters (some say only once a year, for the annual board meeting), and said he is a big believer in handing over power to his management team.

“There are cultures where people work from home, and they still get things done,” he said. “The ability to trust people, the ability to empower people, that’s the model.”

• With regard to the merger of Sears and Kmart in 2005, Lampert believed that Sears and Kmart were differentiated enough from Walmart to be complementary, not competitive. Lampert said he invested a lot of capital in Kmart stores, but did not get a return on his investment.

“I’m not sure Kmart on its own could ever be a great retailer,” he says. “But you put Kmart and Sears together, in combination they had a chance ... Kmart had the locations and Sears had the brands.”

• In recent years, the company has been heavily criticized for the deteriorating condition of Sears and Kmart stores. Lampert defended his decision to target his capital on improving customers’ online experience rather than on the in-store experience.

“I could have put a lot of capital in a Kmart or Sears store and it could look like Bloomingdale’s or it could look like Saks, but we didn’t have access to products that would be consistent with that,” he said. “In other words, if I built an equivalent of Nordstrom’s, it’s not like all of a sudden Nike would be selling to us.”

On the other hand, Lampert believed the company had a better chance of competing with retailers like Nordstrom and Saks online than in stores.

“I did believe that people are going to be one click away from the best possible experience, the cheapest price, and whatever product they want,” he said. “And I could have a better website than Nordstrom’s. I could have a better website than Bloomingdale’s. In other words, I don’t need to invest in fixtures, but I do need to invest in the features and the experiences.”

• Lampert did not sugarcoat Sears’ current situation.

“We’re fighting to survive — that’s pretty clear,” Lampert said. “I believe in what’s possible, and we’re doing things that are necessary to keep the company going .... It’s definitely not just humbled me, but it’s expanded my awareness of real issues that exist in our society.... I feel like I can make a contribution by being involved, O.K.?”

• He still holds out hope.

“If I didn’t believe that this company could be transformed still — the window is definitely shrinking — but if I didn’t believe that, I would try to take a different path,” he said.

To read the Vanity Fair article, click here.

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