How Retailer Steve & Barry's Failure Rippled Through IT Careers

From its New York CIO to its help desk in India, 130 IT pros hit the pavement this year.
The closing of the Steve & Barry's retail chain hit IT pros on two continents. About 80 people in India and 50 people in New York, including programmers, administrators, and SAP talent, were put out of work.

Former CIO Mike Beller thinks all but about two of those laid off in the New York area have found jobs, with some doing contract work. He's not one of them. "It's not a great market, but I don't believe it's a dead market," he says. Beller has heard of CIO openings in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., but, with a daughter in her junior year of high school, he's not wild about relocating. So with several partners, he's launching Lightship Partners to do quick-return consulting projects, as well as provide local consulting for a startup Indian business process outsourcer aimed at specialty clothes retailers and run by former Steve & Barry's colleagues in Mumbai.

Ned Young hasn't found work, either. A 2005 Yale grad with a degree in political science, Young was director of Steve & Barry's IT project management office, providing a liaison between business users and a technology team. That's valuable, but Young's finding he's short on tech chops for many project management openings, which call for experience in specific technologies. He's considering certification in project management to play up his strong suit. "I think I'll have more luck with startups than traditional companies," he says.

Brandon Palatt brought more tech depth to the job market, as the former director of Steve and Barry's solutions architecture group working on global SAP integration. Palatt joined Steve & Barry's soon after college, so he had a hard time convincing employers that he had director-level experience when "directors at their companies have 10 or 15 years of experience," he says. Palatt landed a new job at handbag maker Coach in New York, with a less-impressive title--manager--but the pay is comparable to what he earned at Steve & Barry's, where people took lower pay because "you thought you'd be eventually rewarded with various stock options," he says.

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In Mumbai, the days of walking out of one IT job into a 20% raise at another are over, says Avi Sonpal, who was Steve & Barry's VP of international operations, which had 1,400 people supporting all of the company's sourcing operations, plus back-office support for HR, finance, and IT. At its peak, that included up to 100 people in IT.

Around two-thirds have found jobs, Sonpal says, but it's taking longer than people expected. "Before, it might have taken two weeks to a month to find your ideal job," he says. "Now it's taking a month to four months--including settling for a job and taking lower pay."

It's a hard comedown that might sound familiar to IT pros in the United States who lived through the dot-com boom and bust. "Salaries were out of control," Sonpal says. "People would be getting five job offers, each with salary hikes, and they were overrated." Sonpal says most of his former colleagues are earning $500 to $2,000 a month, depending on their skills.

As for Sonpal, he's trying the entrepreneurial route, too. He's formed Unisource Ventures--the apparel industry BPO firm for which Beller is offering U.S. consulting.