SYDNEY - Myer Holdings Ltd. chief executive officer and managing director Richard Umbers has stepped down after three years, effective immediately, Australia’s largest department store chain announced Wednesday.Myer chairman Gary Hounsell has been appointed executive chairman as a search for a new ceo and managing director commences.“We are impatient for a turnaround in the company’s performance and the Board has determined that it is in the interests of all shareholders for there to be a fresh approach to drive our future direction,” said Hounsell in a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange.The news follows less than a week after the company announced its third profit warning since July, sending Myer shares down to a record low of 53 Australian cents, or 42 cents.On Feb. 9, Umbers announced the company expected to post a first-half net profit after tax of 37 million to 41 million Australian dollars, or $29 million to $32million – its worst half-year profit since 2009 – and to writedown the value of its assets.Umbers blamed the result on “challenging” retail conditions, including widespread industry discounting and a continued shift in consumer behavior, marked by reduced foot traffic and increased online shopping.At the time, halfway through a five-year "New Myer" turnaround strategy that has involved closing underperforming stores and boosting the retailer’s online presence to better compete with online rivals such as Amazon, Umbers added that he had “no doubt” that the company’s strategy was working in the low growth environment, pointing to a 49 percent increase in first-half online sales.“I’m surprised he [Umbers] didn’t go last week, to be honest,” said market strategist Evan Lucas, noting that a Myer takeover would make sense, with the stock currently so cheap.“Even with the downgrade, there’s still cash turnover there, there’s still a business to be had,” Lucas said.Veteran Australian retailer Solomon Lew has repeatedly denied Myer is in his sights – beyond the strategic 10.8 percent Myer stake his Premier Investments Limited acquired last March, making the company Myer’s largest shareholder.Since September, Lew has, however, been agitating for a Myer board spill and last week asked for Myer’s shareholder register, in a bid to call for an extraordinary general meeting.On Wednesday, Premier issued a new statement reiterating its recent claims that Myer misled the market at the time of Premier’s investment and noting that Premier reserves all of its legal rights.“Mr. Hounsell’s announcement today raises more questions than it answers, given the now executive chairman’s unqualified support for the New Myer strategy,” said Premier Investments in its latest statement.“Premier repeats its warning that Myer is in peril and needs a totally new Board in order to have any sustainable future.”
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