The Merchandise Mart Reinvents Itself

I recently had a meeting at The Merchandise Mart in The Loop which was the first time I had been in that building since I was in high school (yep that means back in the 70’s!). Although the outside of the building looked very much the same as I remembered, and the “L” ride to The Mart brought back a lot of memories for me, once I got inside it was like I had stepped into a whole new world. The Mart had gone through a complete makeover and I hardly recognized it, and I had an “aha” moment.

First let’s review a bit of history on The Mart:

  • The Merchandise Mart (also called the Mart) is one of the largest commercial buildings in the world and the world’s largest wholesale design center.
  • At 4,200,000 square feet of floor space and 25 stories tall, the Merchandise Mart spans two city blocks along the Chicago River, and was the largest building in the world when it opened in 1930.
  • The Mart was developed by Marshall Field & Co. to create a central marketplace where stocking retailers could come to buy their wares all under one roof.
  • In the mid-1940s and 1950s, The Merchandise Mart was the single largest producer of trade shows in the United States.
  • In 1945, with Field’s wholesale business in decline, Joseph P. Kennedy purchased the Merchandise Mart. It remained Kennedy family property until sold to the Vornado Realty Trust in 1998.
  • The complex was renovated in the late 1980’s into the 1990’s, and then again with a $40MM renovation completed in 2016.
  • The Mart has undergone a resurgence in recent years, as space has been repurposed from showrooms to sprawling open offices. In 2010, 60 percent of the space was showroom and 40 percent office. That percentage has since flipped.
  • Today it features retail shops, boutiques, radio and television studios, 10 floors of office space, and 11 floors of permanent showrooms, and is visited by 38,500 people each business day.


What I saw upon my return after not visiting for 40+ years was a modern, bustling, vibrant building crowded with visitors, office workers, showroom employees, retail employees, etc., and the public spaces and food stalls were jammed. It was quite a sight and truly an inspiration. This grand old building had been through multiple owners and a huge variety of different tenants over its history. It had more than once fallen into a state of disrepair and was at times in danger of being lost forever. But here she was a vibrant and full of life as ever.

Many of us have at one time during our career worked for a company that had some aging or “old economy” assets, or the entire company might have a bit worn around the edges. In fact, some of you may be at a company that fits this description right now and you need to be driving change immediately, well before it becomes obvious to your customers and employees. If you wait that long you risk going the way of Sears and Blockbuster—but The Merchandise Mart shows you can change, modernize, and grow into a new and thriving business while retaining the bones of your original form.

It is critical for the future of your business and the well-being of your most important assets (your people—your employees) that you steer the ship towards innovation, growth, expansion, new product development, new market penetration, new machinery and production assets, etc. This will require more thoughtful and intense engagement with your customers and supply chain, a refresh of your reward/recognition structure, a re-allocation of training and CapEx expenditures, and a full commitment of everyone in the company starting with Executive Leadership.

Top Executives and your customer facing teams (sales, customer service, service techs, product development engineers, etc.) should actively engage key customers in regular discussions of their future plans, their view of innovation and growth, and how you can partner with them in their new product/market development programs. Ask to join them on visits to their customers to discuss their downstream future plans. Customers are looking for active and engaged suppliers who will be partners that they can rely on to help them drive into the future. You will benefit through their growth, receive insights into future potential skill/equipment needs, and also change the dynamic of your value to the customer over time.

Executives and your supply chain teams (purchasing, maintenance & engineering, plant management, etc.) should also actively engage key suppliers in the same manner. Quiz your suppliers on what new and innovative initiatives they have in their pipeline and how they are working with other customers. Look for opportunities to be a beta site for your suppliers’ prototype equipment and system upgrades.

Schedule visits to companies, businesses, and operations near your own that are in completely separate industries and include a diverse team of your own employees from every level of your organization. Look for unusual processes, packaging, systems, work flows, etc. Ask questions of your hosts regarding how they view innovation and new product development. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything that can spark and inspire your own team. Upon your return to your office/plant, conduct a brainstorming session with your team identifying opportunities to incorporate the days findings into concrete actions at your site. Then communicate the days’ activities and next-steps throughout the organization. This will show the full enterprise how you are looking to the future and will help recruit willing participants for the next trip.

It will also be critical to examine and change your reward/recognition structure in a way that reinforces a push towards innovation, risk-taking, and new thinking. This can be one of the most difficult changes for any organization and will likely cause some discomfort initially. Driving thoughtful risk-taking and pushing for innovation also leads to inevitable mistakes and failures. I’ve spoken in previous articles about utilizing the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) cycle to help improve your business processes across your full enterprise, and using PDCA regularly will get your teams comfortable with quick planning, execution, and adjustment cycles that include the inevitable bumps and mistakes. Also placing higher value on risk-taking and innovation (while making allowances for mistakes made along the way—they make for excellent coachable moments!) during the performance evaluation process is essential.  And finally, you have to publicly own your own mistakes while speaking about what you’re doing to adjust based on the mistake. This will show your team it’s ok to stretch, try new things, and occasionally fail along the innovation path.

Use the example of the old-school Merchandise Mart that has re-invented itself more than a few times and is once again on the cutting edge in the new economy. Steer your company towards innovation, growth, new products and new markets. Invest in your people, involve them in the quest to grow and improve the business, and reward/recognize their thoughtful risk-taking. You’ll get happier, more relaxed, safe, and engaged employees, who’ll drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

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