By  on July 12, 2006

NEW YORK — Time is ticking.

Paul Charron, chairman and chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., will retire on Dec. 31 and his replacement has yet to be named.

Last month, sources were buzzing about Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, a group president at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., being in the final stages of negotiations for the job. Now there are conflicting reports over Charron's replacement. Some sources said recently that Bousquet-Chavanne is going to stay at Lauder, while others said that, because of Lauder's non-compete clause, Bousquet-Chavanne wouldn't be allowed to join Claiborne immediately but could after a certain period of time. Others point to Trudy Sullivan, president of Claiborne and the only internal candidate being considered, as having the inside track to the position. Another potential candidate who surfaced on Tuesday is Jenny Ming, who stepped down as president of Old Navy. (See related story, page 13.)

All in all, industry sources are being kept in the dark about who the board at Claiborne is considering for the job, which some sources said has to be filled by August in order to ensure a smooth transition.

"This is an industry full of yentas, everyone talks," said one headhunter not related to the search, which is being conducted by Spencer Stuart. "You would think that we would have heard something from somewhere. Seriously, no one knows what's going on over there."

Emanuel Weintraub, president and ceo of Emanuel Weintraub Associates, said he doesn't think Claiborne is in such a rush to bring someone in.

"This isn't a suffering company that needs to be turned around," he said. "They have to make the right choice, which isn't necessarily urgent in this case. I wouldn't be surprised if January comes, Paul is gone and they still haven't announced a name. Trudy Sullivan [president at Liz] is more than capable to run the company. She can do it after Paul leaves and then the board can sit back and see if they want Trudy to stay in that role or bring in someone else."

Although Liz isn't a troubled firm, whoever the new ceo will be is sure to be faced with his or her fair share of challenges at the $4.85 billion company. Claiborne has a cautious outlook for the year because of higher costs and a slowing economy. In April, the vendor reported that profits fell 34.3 percent in the first quarter, while sales declined 3.4 percent. The poor results were blamed on department store consolidation, unseasonable weather and Claiborne's own repositioning efforts, which resulted in hundreds of layoffs, including many senior executives. Further, growth of the better-priced sportswear Liz Claiborne brand has slowed, although it still accounts for more than $1 billion in sales at the firm.Charron, meanwhile, is determined to leave Liz in growth mode, with a heavy emphasis on increasing the company's direct-to-consumer presence. The segment accounted for 25 percent of total revenues last year and included results from the company's Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand and Sigrid Olsen stores, as well as e-commerce sites for brands such as C&C California and Juicy. The company's goal is to drive direct-to-consumer sales to 29 percent of total revenue before the end of this year. The firm just hired Jill Granoff as group president of direct-to-consumer. Granoff, who starts in September, was previously at Victoria's Secret Beauty as president and chief operating officer. She left that post in April.

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