Trudy Sullivan to Retire as Talbots CEO

Specialty retailer looks for new leadership as it pares back operations.

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The Talbots Inc. is getting ready to reinvent again with a new chief executive officer.

This story first appeared in the December 6, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Trudy F. Sullivan, who has had four rocky years at Talbots as president and ceo, on Monday, unveiled plans to retire, but will stay on until a successor is found or until June 30. Over two years, she will receive exit payments totaling $5 million, which equals two times the combined value of her $1 million base salary and her $1.5 million target bonus, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

During Sullivan’s tenure, the company ran headlong into the financial crisis, merged with BPW Acquisition Corp. and adopted a poison pill in August after private equity firm Sycamore Partners took a 9.9 percent stake in the chain.

Talbots also sought to draw in new customers, updating its styling and tapping Linda Evangelista for an ad campaign. But the effort fell flat and the company was criticized for alienating its core, mature customer base.

The firm was forced to pare back its store count and last week reported a $22 million third-quarter loss while unveiling a plan to cut 9 percent of headquarters’ staff and suspend national and television advertising.

There has been speculation for the last few months that the ceo might exit or be forced out.

Sullivan had her work cut out for her when she left Liz Claiborne Inc., where she was president, to join Talbots.

“That business was on a cliff when she got there,” said one industry source, who declined to comment on the record. “She didn’t make it fall off; she just couldn’t catch it.”

Sullivan was not available for comment.

“There’s no doubting that she’s very smart,” said Elaine A. Hughes, president of executive search firm E.A. Hughes & Co., of the ceo. “But with some of these stores that have a long brand heritage, like Talbots does, it’s very difficult to try to contemporize that product.”

Hughes said the chain still has potential.

“There’s a reason for Talbots because you have an underserved customer,” she said. “That customer isn’t shopping J. Crew. She’s a middle-age woman who’s not refusing to grow old, but wants to be current and contemporary in her thought process.”

It will now fall to another executive to turn around the 551-door retailer. Talbots’ board has formed a search committee of independent directors and hired Spencer Stuart to find a new ceo.

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