Richard G. Shapiro, led Filene’s during glory days of retailing

By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2011

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In the days before the Internet, when shopping at a store was generally the method of acquiring goods, Richard G. Shapiro hoped the experience of going to a department store could help build a community around a shared activity.

As chairman of the board at Filene’s in the 1960s, during the glory days of retailing, Mr. Shapiro urged company officials to expand into the suburbs, rather than rely solely on drawing people to the flagship store in downtown Boston.

Mr. Shapiro, colleagues and family said, firmly understood customers and brought a sense of integrity and a matter-of-fact approach to the local retail scene.

“He had a very easy-going personality — he was not one of these my-way-or-the-highway personalities,’’ former colleague Simon Atlas said. “He encouraged people to give input, and he would listen to everyone’s input and make decisions on that basis. He was a good listener, a good mentor, and someone who would help people in their career. He was someone you could admire.’’

On weekends, he split logs and built fences, and he came home for dinner most weekday evenings, without bringing the office home with him, his family said.

Mr. Shapiro died Feb. 10 at Collingswood Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Rockville, Md. He was 86 and suffered from dementia as a result of a traumatic brain injury, according to family.

A US Army veteran of World War II, Mr. Shapiro emerged from Harvard Business School in the late 1940s, when “life was moving very fast . . . and retailing was quite dynamic,’’ said his wife, Lila. “It was an exciting time in the business world.’’

He started as an assistant buyer at Lord & Taylor and worked his way up; by 1962, he was senior vice president of the company. Three years later, he was hired, at age 39, to become president of Filene’s in Boston. A year later, he became chief executive, as well.

He often combined his sense for what people wanted with a special formula used to calculate quantities to buy, to determine how to keep customers coming back. He often gave the buyers he hired in various departments a lot of latitude to make key choices.

“He was very compassionate and identified with people who worked with him,’’ his wife said. “There was a comfortable quality; he never seemed to focus on his status as against anyone else’s. He could easily engage people and enjoyed them.’’

Mr. Shapiro helped expand Filene’s into the suburbs of Boston, hoping the store would eventually be a household name nationwide. It was, before Filene’s was sold to May Department Stores Co. in 1988 and folded into Federated Department Stores, Inc., which included the Macy’s franchise, in 2005.

“I think it was based on demographics, and he had the kind of mind that would work with facts, rather than just clear instinct, so he would study areas and demographics rather carefully,’’ his wife said.

Small details that affected the store’s image mattered to him, his wife said, such as making sure the boxes the store used for customers to carry home purchased clothing were sturdy.

He also tapped into celebrity power to bring attention to the store, while keeping a personal touch, especially during the holiday season, when he would greet customers by the escalators. For some customers, such as those in town to put on a show in a local theater, he would open the store at off-hours.

Younger employees often looked to him for advice.

“He was very savvy, and I would talk with him not just as a father-in-law, but as someone who had deep insights into understanding customers,’’ said his son-in-law, Steven Kostant of Chevy Chase, Md..

Born in New York City, Mr. Shapiro graduated from Davis High School in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in the early 1940s, although his higher education studies were interrupted by the war.

Initially, he was in an Army tank destroyer unit that was testing new bazooka rocket systems, family said. At the risk of being court-martialed, he raised concerns that the weapons lacked key safety features, and he refused to fire one until modifications were made. They were and, rather than discipline him, the Army transferred him to the intelligence corps and he studied Russian at Cornell in a total immersion program.

After his discharge, he graduated from the University of Michigan and then earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard.

He left Filene’s to become president and chief operating officer of Gimbel Brothers Inc., running both Gimbels and Saks Fifth Avenue stores, starting in 1973. In 1977, he became corporate vice president at W.R. Grace and Co., eventually heading their specialty store division. In 1982, he left that venture to start Nitrotech in New York, a company focused on energy. It was sold in 1996.

In 1972, he joined the board of trustees of Brandeis University in Waltham, during what his wife described as “a very exciting time to be part’’ of the school. He created a scholarship for foreign students and made sure they felt welcome in their new environs. He also joined the board of trustees at Simmons College in Boston.

On the tennis court, Mr. Shapiro had a good ground stroke, and he often used the game to show his children what he meant by living a life of moderation, encouraging a three-quarter pace for the first and second serves. And he would often tell them, “Don’t speak just to hear yourself talk,’’ and “Never think you’re the smartest person in the room.’’

“He had a tremendous capacity for joy,’’ his daughter Amy Kostant said.

His love of music was well known among family and friends, as he would often play his favorite tunes on the piano at family gatherings. At his memorial service, his grandchildren recalled that they noticed he was very patient with them and never seemed to be in a rush.

In addition to his daughter and his wife of 59 years, Mr. Shapiro leaves another daughter, Judith Sherer of Potomac, Md.; his son, Don of Rockville, Md.; his sister, Lois Miller of Eastchester, N.Y.; three grandsons; and three granddaughters. Services have been held.

Emma Stickgold can be reached at

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