By and  on January 26, 2006

NEW YORK — Paul Charron will be a tough act to follow and his successor needs to have the industry acumen to continue to steer Liz Claiborne Inc. on an aggressive expansion path.

A day after Charron said he would retire as chairman and chief executive officer of the $4.6 billion apparel conglomerate at the end of the year, analysts and industry executives on Wednesday praised his vision and leadership skills, and said his departure leaves Claiborne somewhat vulnerable.

Some said that with the promotion of Trudy Sullivan to president of the company, Claiborne could be preparing her to take the helm. Charron said that while the company will not rule anyone out, there will be various people considered for the job.

"Trudy is an extremely talented executive and we look forward to an even greater contribution from her as president," Charron said in an interview Wednesday.

"With respect to the ceo position and consistent with good corporate governance practices, the board will be looking at qualified internal and external candidates with proven leadership skills from both inside and outside the company. Beyond that, we're not going to speculate," Charron said.

Analysts wondered if Charron's departure would make a merger or takeover of Claiborne more attractive.

However, there should be few short-term effects on the company, given that Charron plans to stay on board for the rest of the year, said J.P. Morgan Chase analyst Robert Samuels.

"I expect them to continue with their diversification strategy and to continue with this push into specialty retail that they've been really doing a good job with over the past few years," Samuels said.

Claiborne has expanded its specialty retail footprint in recent years, with new stores under several brands, including Sigrid Olsen and Mexx. It also continues its talks with J. Jill about a possible acquisition of that retailer. Charron's departure will be eased by what Samuels described as a "pretty talented bench" of executives.

"The promotion of Trudy Sullivan to president obviously puts her in position to be one who will be seriously considered for the top spot," he said. "I do think that they'll first look internally."

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