NEW YORK — The high-flying, fast-growing Chico’s has placed one of its top consultants into a new executive slot to explore additional growth tracks.

On Friday, Charles L. Nesbit Jr., a former Sara Lee executive who has been working as a consultant to Chico’s since February, was named senior vice president of strategic planning and business development, foreshadowing further diversification for the specialty chain, possibly into different retail formats or products.

Nesbit will be responsible for managing the company’s strategic planning process, evaluating new business ventures and joint oversight of the Soma intimate apparel division with Chico’s chief merchandising officer Pat Kerstein. Nesbit will report to Scott A. Edmonds, Chico’s president and chief executive officer. Soma is being launched later this month.

“We need to take advantage of our brand momentum,” said Edmonds in an interview. “We don’t have footwear. We don’t have fragrances. There are a lot of categories we don’t have.” He declined to specify any other categories that could be launched.

He said the fact that Chico’s is looking to diversify doesn’t suggest any slowdown for the core Chico’s brand. “We are only in the early stages of growth with Chico’s. We only did $768 million last year, which is not much compared to Talbots or the Gap.”

Still, that was a big leap from the $531 million posted the year before.

Chico’s designs and sells private label casual-to-dressy clothing and accessories, and it draws a large audience of women in their 30s and older. The apparel tends to be somewhat looser-fitting to accommodate the middle-aged or older physique. Chico’s launched its first store in Sanibel, Fla., in 1983, went public on the Nasdaq exchange in 1993 with 75 stores and moved to the NYSE in 2001 when it had 259 stores.

Asked how big Chico’s could grow, Edmonds said, “We will let the market tell us how big the brand can grow. We have just established the brand.”

Creating freestanding Soma lingerie stores is necessary, because the Chico’s stores, which generate almost $900 in sales per square foot on average, don’t have enough space for a strong lingerie presentation. “We don’t have the square footage, so we decided to do a stand-alone,” Edmonds said.He noted that Nesbit and Kerstein will work with Terri Campana, senior merchant for Soma. The store’s name means “body” in Greek.

As reported, ten Soma by Chico’s intimate apparel stores will be launched this summer,one each in Dallas; Houston; Birmingham, Ala.; Scottsdale, Ariz., and Fort Myers and Sarasota, Fla., and several in Atlanta. Soma will offer a full range of intimate apparel, including bras, sleepwear, robes, at-home wear and basic and fashion panties.

Edmonds agreed that with the Soma startup, last year’s purchase of The White House Inc. and continued growth ahead for the core Chico’s chain, the company has a full plate of activity. “That’s the exact reason why we hired Chuck,” he said. “We needed more help and someone to spend time on new projects.”

Though Nesbit does not have retail experience, Edmonds said Nesbit’s career move will be “a pretty seamless migration.” He also noted that Nesbit does have experience running a $1 billion business, as president and ceo of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel from 1999 to 2003. As a consultant to Chico’s, “He got a good look inside this company, and we had a good chance to get to know him,” Edmonds said.

Nesbit, a 20-year veteran of Sara Lee, played key roles in the launches of Wonderbra, Barely There, Just My Size, and Hanes Her Way. Before consulting to Chico’s, he was corporate vice president and chief supply chain officer for Sara Lee’s U.S. and Canada apparel operations. He also served as president and ceo of the Bali Company from 1996 to 1999.

Chico’s operates 420 Chico’s, 24 Chico’s outlets, 137 White House/Black Market stores and one White House/Black Market outlet. Franchisees own and operate 11 Chico’s stores.

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