Kenneth Cort says he likes a good battle.
Last summer, when he was executive vice president and chief operating officer of Ames Department Stores Inc., he drew up a strategy to lead the Rocky Hill, Conn., company out of bankruptcy court.
On Dec. 18, a judge signed the order removing Ames from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Later that afternoon, Cort resigned from Ames. He was ready to take on a new mission.
Cort's official title Jan. 11 will be president and chief executive of the Hechinger Stores Division of Landover-based Hechinger Co. He will oversee the 70 traditional Hechinger stores, which the chain is converting to jazzier Home Project Centers to strengthen its position in a tough competitive market. He will report to Stephen E. Bachand, the Landover firm's chief operating officer.
Cort's arrival at Hechinger comes as the home-improvement retailer is squaring off against industry leader Home Depot Inc., the Atlanta-based chain that revolutionized the home do-it-yourself concept and has now moved into the Washington area.
With mammoth stores, huge inventory and deeply discounted prices, the 206-store Home Depot chain has built sales that are expected to top $7 billion this year. There already are three Home Depots in the Washington-Baltimore market, and the company plans to open eight more in 1993.
"Any time competition heats up, it's a challenge," Cort said. "That's what makes it fun."
The retail veteran said he is excited about the appointment and his new employer's history and tradition as a family business and landmark. "Hechinger enjoys a great feeling of community where it is," Cort said, "and that is priceless to a retailer."
Hechinger is following a two-pronged strategy to compete against Home Depot: converting the traditional Hechinger stores to Home Project Centers, and opening more Home Quarters Warehouse stores -- there are now 44 -- with low prices and huge selection. The Home Project Centers will stress customer service, Cort said, with expert staff on hand to advise and guide. Sixteen stores already have switched over, and the company plans to reposition the entire division by 1996.
According to analyst Ken Gassman Jr. of Davenport & Co., a Richmond-based brokerage firm, the redesigned floor plans and in-store advisers "may well be a marketing tool that will work for Hechinger. Consumers are time-poor. The new stores will offer an easier shopping experience, so I'm fairly positive about the direction they are going."
Gassman said that, in the do-it-yourself market, low prices and merchandise stacked to the ceiling -- Home Depot's forte -- are good. The same format, "plus moderate but thoughtful" customer service -- Hechinger's war whoop -- is better, he said.
"People are going to need more direction and help as they try to muddle through," Cort said. "We are very turned off when we know more about the product than the person who is trying to help us."
Cort, 50, began his retail career in 1965 with Abraham & Straus Co. in New York, where he was senior vice president when he left in 1983. From there, Cort went to Dallas, where he was chairman and chief executive of Finlay Fine Jewelry Corp. for three years. He later was chairman and chief executive of Zale Corp., and, before joining Ames in 1989, owned a Dallas-based hosiery company.
Cort and his wife, Carolyn, are relocating from Avon, Conn., with two hunter-jumper horses named Felix and Bourbon and a springer spaniel. "We have a cousin who lives in Columbia and very close friends in Baltimore," Cort said, "so I guess we'll get plenty of advice on where to live." Son Scott, 25, lives in California and daughter Robyn is a sophomore college student.
Longtime retail colleague Mel Wilmore, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Ross Stores Inc. in California, said Hechinger has picked the right person. "Kenny is a very strong merchant," Wilmore said. "I probably know him better than anybody in retail, and believe me, he will bring marketing techniques that are unusual." He said Cort is "innovative and unconventional."
"He's not afraid to try things," Wilmore said. "And I have to tell you, he's good with people. Look, the bottom line is, it's all the business of people. If he wasn't in retailing he would be a stand-up comic. I think he'll add lots of strength to Hechinger."
Cort said he he always remembers his first lesson at Abraham & Straus. "When I started, the CEO was Sidney Solomon, an icon of retailing. He got us all in a room, and he said 'All you gotta know is the following: Have the right item at the right price, and give it to the customer when she wants it.'"
Said Cort, "That is what retail has been about forever."