By  on March 6, 2002

NEW YORK -- All hands on deck -- J. Crew is bracing for another management upheaval. The women's and men's wear brand is seeking a chief merchant who also could assume the chief executive officer title, succeeding the current ceo Mark Sarvary.

J. Crew's preppy, fun, family image is certainly distinct, but the company needs a lift and must further stand out from the wide field of other American brands, such as Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch and Tommy Hilfiger. The company has even more competition with the blending of Structure men's wear into Express Men's by the parent The Limited Inc., creating a higher quality, more fashionable collection.

"The board and Mark agreed to search for the best possible merchandising officer," said a spokesman for Texas Pacific, which owns 80 percent of J. Crew. Asked if that person would also carry the ceo title, the spokesman replied, "That's unclear." He added that the new executive's experience and skills will determine the title and responsibilities. It's practically a sure bet, however, that any top merchant recruited would insist on the ceo title, or at least a transition period into the ceo slot.

Korn/Ferry International has been hired for the search, sources told WWD. Robert Kerson, managing director of Korn/Ferry's retail practice, declined comment.

Other top retailers, including Gap Stores and Eddie Bauer, are searching for top merchants and Neiman Marcus Stores, which is being run by Burt Tansky, ceo of The Neiman Marcus Group, needs its own ceo. All that will make it more challenging for J. Crew to find the talent it needs.

However, one source said the company has some candidates and hopes to name a chief merchant in two to three months and that Sarvary has expressed interest in maintaining a key role in the company after a new chief merchant-ceo comes on board. Sarvary would function more strictly in an operating capacity. "He's more of an operator, rather than a brand merchant," said the source. "J. Crew needs a merchant with a retail background, a retail maven."

Sarvary was named ceo in May 1999, after serving as president of Nestle Frozen Foods. He received a $1 million signing bonus and a $1 million interest-free loan to purchase a primary residence in the New York metropolitan area. He also received stock options and has two years left on his five-year contract.

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