By  on April 3, 2006

NEW YORK — The apparel and retail industries have become expert at outsourcing their products, but they still haven't quite gotten the knack of importing top management from other industries.

The most recent addition to the crossover casualty list was William Perez, who resigned as chief executive officer of Nike Inc. in January after just 13 months of trying to fill the sizable running shoes of chairman and founder Phil Knight.

Outplacement into the fashion business has been problematic for a long lineup of otherwise successful executives. Phil Marineau has struggled to get Levi Strauss & Co. back on track since 1999, after success at Pepsi-Cola North America and Quaker Oats. The jury is still out on Paul Pressler, Gap Inc.'s ceo, but the firm's stronger balance sheet has been undercut by weak same-store sales in recent months — a far cry from his fast break to profitability at The Walt Disney Cos.

Observers are now focused on how Steve Sadove, formerly of General Foods and Bristol-Myers Squibb, will do in his stint as the ceo of the downsized Saks Inc., and whether Edward Lampert can transform Sears and Kmart in his multiple role as ceo, head merchant and largest stockholder of Sears Holdings Corp.

History suggests they all have their work cut out for them. Kenneth Wasik, director of the consumer products group for the Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin consulting firm, noted there is a high degree of executive transferability among the food, consumer electronics, lawn and garden and do-it-yourself businesses, to name just a few, but not into the highly visual, tactile world of fashion.

"Fashion is risky," he said. "Getting a shirt on the fixture at Saks is a lot different than putting a can of cat food on the shelf at D'Agostino. And the skills that make a good fashion executive today, like international sourcing, are changing, and so is the balance of power, in the direction of the retailer."

New ceo's generally arrive at apparel and retail firms for one of two reasons: either the company is in trouble, or a long-time executive is stepping down. In the latter situation, Paul Charron, who will retire at the end of the year as chairman and ceo of Liz Claiborne Inc., succeeded founding partner Art Ortenberg 12 years ago and transformed Claiborne into a diversified group. Peter Boneparth at Jones Apparel Group Inc. has gotten high marks for moving from investment banking into apparel and filling the void left by the retirement of chairman Sidney Kimmel, even as the company begins to explore the possibility of a sale. Many observers have cited the recent move by Robert Skinner into the top job at Kellwood Co. as an interesting test of how well a new ceo can alter a corporate culture long dominated by the now retired Hal Upbin. And then there's Robert Polet, who moved from frozen foods and ice cream at Unilever to succeed Domenico De Sole as president and ceo of Gucci Group.

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