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Big Rise Seen in CEO Turnover

Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports 131 exits in January.

Life in the c-suite is getting riskier.

Turnover among U.S. chief executive officers reached its highest level in nearly four years in January, according to the monthly survey by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Last month, 131 ceo’s left their posts, the highest number since 132 top executives stepped down, retired, were terminated or lost their positions in some other fashion in February 2010.

By comparison, 113 ceo’s departed in January 2013 and 99 in December 2013.

Among the 131 former ceo’s were one in apparel and four in retailing. Ceo departures last month included Robert Hanson’s exit from American Eagle Outfitters Inc. William McComb, ceo of Fifth & Pacific Cos., will step down from that post on Feb. 25 after completing the transformation of the firm, formerly Liz Claiborne Inc., into Kate Spade & Co.

The financial and health-care fields tied for the largest number of ceo departures with 24 each.

“It is not unusual to see a surge in ceo turnover to start the year,” said John Challenger, ceo of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Organizations often initiate new strategies and that can mean changes in leadership. In 2010, the last time we saw this many ceo changes, the economy was just coming out of the recession, which undoubtedly prompted some organizations to shift from a survival mode to a strategy focused on maintaining one’s foothold.

“Now, we may be seeing another shift from conservation to growth,” Challenger concluded.

Retirement was the most common cause for the departures, accounting for 43, followed by resignations, cited in 32 cases. The average age of the outgoing ceo’s was 64 and the average tenure in the position, 14.8 years.