Sears hunts new top retailing executive

Cosby leaves abruptly after sales came in weak again for June

July 13, 2004|By Becky Yerak | Becky Yerak,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Amidst a fourth straight year of falling sales, Sears, Roebuck and Co. has launched an outside search for a new executive to oversee all its stores and marketing operations.

The search to fill the new position, which carries the title of president of Sears retail, coincides with the abrupt departure yesterday of Mark Cosby. The former Kentucky Fried Chicken executive was named president of Sears' 870 mall stores in November 2002. His position is being eliminated.

Sears recently disclosed that June sales fell a disappointing 3.1 percent. June also marked the two-year anniversary of Sears' purchase of the Lands' End clothing line, but apparel results remain poor.

Cosby's departure from the Hoffman Estates, Ill., retailer is the latest in an executive suite rampant with turnover. Among the top 15 officers at the nation's largest department store chain in 2003, six were new to their posts.

The new president will oversee not only Sears' mall stores, as Cosby did, but also specialty stores such as hardware and the company's growing off-mall presence. The executive will also head marketing efforts and assume Cosby's duties in merchandising and supply chain management. Janine Bousquette will remain chief customer and marketing officer.

Furthermore, the executive will be considered second in command and a possible heir apparent to Chief Executive Officer Alan Lacy, 50. Lacy, Sears' former chief financial officer, was promoted to the top job in late 2000, but has yet to log an annual sales increase.

The ideal candidate for the new post would be an experienced merchant, "preferably someone with a successful record of running a department store or of turning around a major retailer," said Fitch Ratings analyst Philip Zahn.

Last month the bond-rating house downgraded Sears' debt, citing "weak operating performance and growing competitive pressures."

Sears spokesman Ted McDougal said the outside search does not reflect poorly on Sears' current executives. "We're looking for someone with expertise in a much more aggressive off-mall growth agenda than we've pursued in the past," he explained.

Last month, Sears said it would buy or lease 61 stand- alone stores from Kmart Holding Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to protect market share from fast-growing rivals.

After dropping 2.7 percent in 2003, sales in stores open at least a year are down another 1.6 percent year-to-date.

Sears has made a habit of hiring executives with "limited major retail store experience," a former Sears executive said yesterday. "And it wonders why sales are in the tank."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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