By  on March 11, 2002

NEW YORK -- With Zale Corp. getting back on its feet, chairman and chief executive officer Robert J. DiNicola is ready to step down -- for the second time.

DiNicola, who will retire in July, first became chairman and ceo of Zale in 1994, streamlined the firm and put it on a growth track. In 2000, he retired, but returned to the helm in February 2001 after the company took a sharp turn for the worse. It went after hefty comp gains as the economy cooled, spent big on marketing and merchandise and fell way short on the top and bottom lines.

Now, however, "the business is certainly stabilized and will still be improving by the time I leave at the end of July," DiNicola said. "All the objectives will have been completed," including implementing tighter controls on expenses and inventory, strengthening the management team, integrating the Piercing Pagoda kiosk operation, and seeing through the sale of the credit business.

DiNicola, 54, said he announced his decision well in advance to "insure an orderly transition." He retires July 31, the end of the jewelry retailer's fiscal year.

A search for a successor will be conducted, but a search firm has not yet been selected. DiNicola said executives inside and outside of the firm will be considered, but declined to name any. A probable top candidate is Mary Forte, chief merchandising officer. But the chain could consider others, such as divisional presidents Pam Romano at Zale, Charlene Wuellner at Gordon's, Charlie Fieramosca at Bailey's, Paul Leonard at Pagoda or John Zimmerman, president of People's.

DiNicola said he plans to spend more time with his wife and two children, rest and sail, but he would also enter into a consulting agreement with the firm.

The $2.3 billion Zale is the nation's largest jewelry retailer, with more than 2,300 stores.

The company has expressed satisfaction with its recent performance. In the quarter ended Jan. 31, the company reported net income, before an unusual item, of $93 million, or $2.64 per diluted share, an increase of 4.8 percent on a share basis. Sales were $893 million, up 3.6 percent; comp sales rose 1.4 percent.

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