Kim Biehl, 50, is one of the most visible faces in Tampa’s Neiman Marcus. With a hearty laugh and a passion for exemplary customer service, she is often seen walking the floors, helping associates and interacting with customers. Associates and managers credit Biehl as a role model and mentor who helped shape their careers in retail.
Biehl, who started working for Neiman Marcus at the age of 22, has risen through the ranks of the 108-year old company. While designers carry the creative end of the fashion industry, Biehl learned quickly how to balance her flair for fashion with savvy business skills. She’s also known as a compassionate leader and mentor among her 130 associates and employees in the store.
The threads of Neiman Marcus run deep in Biehl’s life, she even met her husband, James Hossmark, while working: she was the men’s manager while he worked as the precious jewelry manager. The couple now have a 13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Hossmark and Biehl is also a step mother to James’ daughter Christine. In this interview with GRAVITAS, Biehl shares how taking risks early in her career lead to her rise in management and how her mentors and late sister played a strong role in shaping her life.
When did your love of fashion take shape?
As a theater major, I began expressing myself through fashion, maybe subconsciously, at first, but later, consciously. My mother would tell you that we would go to Puerto Vallarta during the holidays and I would be the only person wearing a black dress on the beach. In college, the other students were very preppy but I would wear Jim Morrison t-shirts and ripped jeans. I was making my own statement.
How did you get hired at Neiman Marcus?
I was hired after college at Neiman Marcus in Newport Beach, California when I was only 22 years old. My fashion sense was evolving and I was gaining an appreciation for fabrication and the difference in apparel that was made well.
I became the assistant manager of what was then called Leisure Sportswear.
Eight months later, I was promoted to department manager in Intimate Apparel, which is where I learned the business side. This is when I learned how to take some risks in my career. We had a knockoff version of the Donna Karan top that was $110. We recieved six that all sold in one day. I went to my boss and said we needed more. She asked me to figure how many we could sell. I really had to take a calculated risk deciding how many we could order and sizes. It was a success and a great learning experience.
Why did you leave Neiman Marcus to relocate to Tampa to work for Saks Fifth Avenue?
I had been at the Newport Beach store for nine years. I felt like I had reached the top of the management level. Then, I received a cold call from Saks Fifth Avenue to open a new store as the assistant general manager in San Diego. I started as the assistant general manager and within a year was promoted to general manager. It was an opportunity to move from middle management to executive level. Unfortunately, Saks started closing several stores, including San Diego, and transferred me to the Tampa store in 2010. That was the first time my family had been to Florida.
Who were your mentors at Neiman Marcus?
Ariela Shani was my merchandise manager years ago; she recently retired from the company. She was an incredibly strong leader, very physically tall and she was such a presence in the store. She was the one that gave me a lot of confidence and told me I was onto something. I think more than anything, her trust in me, even as a very young person, meant a lot.
She also took an interest in my life outside of work and the things that I did. Jeff Byron, who was the general manager at Saks, who hired me, taught me the people side of the business. He was just a charming man with a great sense of humor, always on the floor, which is where I like to be.
Describe your management style.
I think if you ask my team, they would tell you that my management style is very hands on and out there. They always know when I’m here, since I have a very loud laugh; I believe that’s the thing that people comment on the most. My team likes to see me on the floor. I love to interact with customers, help the associates, and hear their success stories.
Is there a particular image that you try to impart to the customers, buyers and designers about the Tampa store?
I really want people to know that the Tampa store is fun with a caring and kind staff. It has always bothered me that there’s a perception of Neiman Marcus being snobby because I couldn’t work with a nicer group of people. It always makes me feel good when someone new comes into the store and they say to me “you guys are so nice, so amazing at what you do. I never thought to come here before.” We really look at our business as transforming the experience of luxury into a modern and relevant one for today’s customers.
What is your perspective on the fashion industry and its impact on women?
As a company, we are very aware of how we represent women in our advertising, especially in our recent campaign. It’s really about focusing on women who make a difference in their community and have an impact. It’s about focusing in on real women.
What fashion advice would you give our readers?
You gain confidence when you’re dressed appropriately and well for yourself. When I really know that I have an outfit that looks good on me, I always feel more confident. As a business, that’s what we really strive for, to make women feel even better. I know when I look in my closet, I have everything from a 2 to a 10. I don’t even look at sizes anymore and that’s what I advise my clients. If it fits and it feels good, it’s your size.
Where do you see the future of fashion headed?
I think that anything goes in fashion right now. I love that you can really make it your own. Instead of always seeing the trends dictated by designers, I think designers and vendors have gotten much smarter about how women dress. Now, designers give consumers more options than ever before.
What advice would you give to female executives in the fashion business?
I think it’s really about learning lessons. I realized it the moment things were kind of stagnating for me, when I felt like I wasn’t making an impact with my selling team. I made a conscious decision to change the things that I did. I could be there to listen to my associates and help them build their business. I didn’t say anything to anyone, but I remember my cosmetic manager came up to me and said, “Kim, whatever you’re doing, it’s working for you, and I wanted you to know that someone noticed.” I will never forget that. It’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes you have to change the way you do things. Just because you make the change, it doesn’t mean the way you were doing things was wrong, sometimes it’s just what the business climate is dictating. I still have to remind myself of this every day.
My late sister, Amy. In 1993, she was murdered in South Africa. Since then, our family has gone through quite a lot with that country. We have a foundation, The Amy Biehl Foundation, established there. Through the foundation, we were able to facilitate conversation and bring people together on this important issue. Currently, we’re trying to take the concepts of violence prevention and bring those home. Amy’s death had a profound effect on me and I was able to put life in a much different perspective.
How do you juggle a work-life balance in an industry that doesn’t keep traditional hours?
I feel very fortunate that I was a general manger when I had my child. Today, I have a little more flexibility in my schedule than my selling associates and department managers. I’m connected to my phone and email constantly, and there are times when my daughter says “Mom, do you really have to answer that email right now?” Thankfully, when we moved to Tampa, James was able to work from home. We didn’t know anyone here and we didn’t have a support system. That enabled me to dig into my work and do what I need do at the store. It’s hard to be the mom that often can’t be at the school functions. I think that’s the part that is always the most difficult to reconcile. I usually try to take a weekday off to be the carpool driver with Elizabeth and her friends and then I work on Saturdays.
What do you like to do as a family?
We are an active family and love to exercise. I swim at 5 a.m. during the week, and when I don’t swim, I foster my new obsession with Pilates. We enjoy being outside. We do a lot of walking and we do a lot of hiking in California, but I can’t call it hiking here, in Tampa, because there are no hills. We travel often. We try to get away on short trips; one of our new favorite spots is Amelia Island. Also, the whole family is into sports, so we try to get out to games and other sporting events.