Joseph Antonini: K mart Chairman Relishes Challenge and Change
TROY, Mich. (AP) _ Joseph E. Antonini knew he was destined for a career in the retail business at the age of 14, when he made his first sales as a part-time department store clerk in Morgantown, W.Va.
″I knew I was going into retail from day one,″ said Antonini, who in August 1986, became president of K mart Corp., the nation’s second-largest retail company.
Last October, the 46-year-old Antonini, also became chairman and chief executive officer of the company, with its nearly 4,000 stores in the 50 states, Canada and Puerto Rico.
In addition to K mart discount stores, the company operates Waldenbooks, Builders Square and Pay Less Drug Stores.
″A lot of people say, ‘Well, I like retailing because I get to work with people.’ That’s good, and you must be people oriented″ he said recently. ″But the thing to me about retailing that was so exciting from an early age was that I got to see the results almost instantaneously. That was the excitement, to see merchandise sell.″
Career moves have come quickly for Antonini, who joined the company as a management trainee after graduating from West Virginia University in 1964.
In an interview at company headquarters in Troy, Mich., Antonini said he relished each change as an opportunity to prove himself. ″It doesn’t allow you to get complacent,″ he said.
That extends to his operation of the company, which has shaken up its product mix in the last 18 months to include higher-ticket fashionable and seasonal items among the basic discount goods that fueled its growth.
This past year, the company announced an ambitious program to renovate existing stores and add dozens of new discount and specialty outlets in markets around the country.
Antonini was one of five children born to a hard-working family. ″My mother and father were born in Italy and they came to this country at early ages and taught us the work ethic about business,″ he said.
His father and grandfather worked in construction; his father later went into the footwear business.
Merchandising has always been Antonini’s greatest fascination. His animation becomes intense when he describes a coup such as K mart’s trademark ″blue-light specials″ - the aisle-jamming spot sales that last as long as a cart with a flashing light is set up where the sale item is displayed.
S.S. Kresge Co. opened the first K mart March 1, 1962, in Garden City, Mich., adding 17 more by the end of the year, and the blue-light special was not far behind, Antonini said.
″It was invented in Michigan in 1962 or 1963 as a red-light special and then it was changed to blue,″ he said. ″A store manager put a battery under a box and put a light on it and the next thing you know he had the first red- light special, and that evolved into what it is today.″
Antonini started his training in a Kresge store stockroom, managed Kresge and K mart stores and worked as a district manager for both.
″I touched all bases,″ he said, and he attributed his rise to traditional reasons. ″It’s hard work, and it’s getting results, but it’s also timing, luck.″
As president of K mart’s apparel division, before being named corporate president, Antonini was the architect of an overhaul that included adding the Jaclyn Smith line of designer clothing. He has introduced similar changes and increased specialization in other departments in K mart’s chase to close the gap with retail leader Sears, Roebuck and Co.
The goal is to maintain a base of discount items but adjust the product mix ″instead of selling a bunch of items at low prices,″ Antonini said. ″Because at some point your business will never grow, because how many cases of peanuts can you sell, so to speak?″
Antonini has emphasized marketing and is restructuring the personnel department in hopes of making his stores more ″consumer and marketing driven.″
He calls ″the masses″ his target market. ″And the masses need product quality and they also want it at affordable prices.″
He said he also wants to include ″the individuals who make between $15,000 and $55,000 a year household income, who are educated, who like nice things, but like things at good K mart prices.″
K mart Corp.’s stable as of Dec. 30 included 2,227 K mart discount stores, 21 more than a year earlier; 1,139 Waldenbooks, 118 Builders Square and 254 Pay Less Drug stores.
Plans are to open 50 new K mart stores, 60 Waldenbooks, 20 Builders Squares and 30 Pay Less Drug stores in 1988, Antonini said.
Antonini travels extensively, visiting stores every month. He said his goal is to keep the company on the move as he has done with his own career.
″We’ve moved several times over the years and that’s part of it,″ said Antonini, who has two children, 11 and 6. ″But I think it allows you to grow.″
″You can’t live on success that happened in your previous assignment, no matter how good,″ he said. ″All of a sudden you’re in a new job and a new assignment and you’ve got to prove yourself, and that’s the challenge and that’s what I like. How long will it take to prove yourself again and get your colleagues working together as a team?″