February 14, 2012
James Zimmerman - Great Living Cincinnatian
This story is the fourth in a series recognizing each member of the 2012 class of Great Living Cincinnatians. Awards will be presented at the Chamber Annual Dinner on February 16, 2012. More info
Over the course of 39 years, James Zimmerman worked his way to the top leadership of his company and, at the same time, became a leader in his adopted home of Cincinnati.
Zimmerman first moved to Cincinnati and the Federated headquarters in 1968 and, after serving in a wide variety of leadership positions across the country, returned to Cincinnati in 1988 as president and chief operating officer of Federated.
After a century of dominating American retailing, traditional department stores faced growing competition—both from discount stores and specialty stores. Losing electronics, toys, books and furniture forced traditional department stores to focus increasingly on clothing, a sector in which sales did not maintain pace with the rest of the economy. Federated had to adapt.
Fellow Great Living Cincinnatian John Pepper has characterized the situation Zimmerman faced as fraught with “massive challenges.”
In 1990, Zimmerman helped steer the company through bankruptcy. The acquisition of the high profile Macy’s Department Stores in 1994 and Broadway Stores in 1995 set the backdrop for Zimmerman being named chairman and chief executive officer in 1997.
Over the next seven years, Zimmerman oversaw the rationalization of the many different Federated components, closing unproductive stores and rebranding others under the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s banners. At the same time, the company navigated the transition from traditional catalogue sales to the new world of online retailing.
Between 1997 and 2004, Zimmerman “laid the foundation for Macy’s emergence today as the single strongest department store chain in America,” according to Pepper.
While with Federated, Zimmerman was always active in community affairs, whether supporting the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, serving on the Cincinnati Business Committee or helping found 3CDC. But no effort has been more important or yielded more fruit than his leadership in the field of early childhood education.
In the months after the 2001 riots, the Cincinnati Community Action Now Commission (CAN) identified a core concern of improving the prospects of at-risk, pre-school children. Recognizing that 80-90 percent of all brain development occurs before a person reaches six years of age, James Zimmerman volunteered to chair Success By 6 although he began with admittedly very little knowledge about early-childhood development.
Sallie Westheimer, the president of 4C for Children, praises Zimmerman’s ability to move things forward. “Jim has little patience for the never-ending process that often characterizes community planning efforts, and frequently says something to the effect of, ‘have we got it 90 percent right? Then let’s go.’ Much of the progress of Success By 6 over the years has been because of Jim’s just-do-it attitude.”
When faced with massive challenges, whether in the business or civic arenas, James Zimmerman has revealed the leadership skills that make good things happen.