By  on February 20, 2002

NEW YORK -- Chanel SA and its U.S. subsidiary, Chanel Inc., are getting serious about succession planning, and are on the prowl for a new U.S. chief to eventually replace Arie Kopelman, WWD has learned.

Kopelman, among the most visible figures in the fashion industry, holds the title of president and chief operating officer of Chanel Inc. and reports to Alain Wertheimer, chairman of Chanel SA. However, Kopelman's role has extended internationally, and it is believed that his successor would assume a role that could be even bigger than his.

Kopelman couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

Sources said Heidrick & Struggles, the nation's second-largest executive search firm, has just been retained by Chanel, suggesting that the search process will be broad, going beyond retail and fashion into other industries, possibly consumer products and advertising. Fifteen years ago, Chanel plucked Kopelman from Doyle Dane Bernbach, a Boston advertising agency, shocking many retailers who never thought Chanel would select someone without retail or fashion experience, though Kopelman did work on the Chanel account at DDB. Before that, he worked at Procter & Gamble.

Kopelman is said to have set his retirement at December 2004, though he might remain on the board after he leaves his executive position. A search for a successor could take several months to a year, which would still facilitate a long transition period. Often, transitions are trying times, resulting in a tug-of-war for the reins of power and confusion over who's the boss and reporting structures.

Most likely, Chanel will pick an outsider, but has not totally nixed the notion of tapping an insider. Top insiders at Chanel Inc. include Jean Hoehn Zimmerman, executive vice president of sales and marketing for fragrance and beauty for Chanel, and Barbara Cirkva, executive vice president for fashion. Another is Francoise Montenay, president of Chanel SA. Anyone in the new role will be required to spend much time in Paris, where the $2 billion Chanel is based.

Sources credit Kopelman with forging strong relations with retailers and magazine publishers and keeping Chanel in high standing as one of the world's great brand names, maintaining its sophisticated, elegant appeal, broadening the product range, most recently into such categories as jewelry and watches, and all without taking its products on a promotional path, even in difficult times. He is also credited with leading a slow and careful retail expansion in the U.S., and being very selective and patient in choosing locations for new stores.

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