NEW YORK — Hugh W. Mullins has resurfaced.

After curiously short chief executive stints at St. John International and Neiman Marcus Stores, Mullins on Monday was named ceo of Harold’s Stores Inc., the Dallas-based better-priced apparel chain on the mend.

Mullins succeeds Clark J. Hinkley, who will retire after a transitional period. Hinkley is credited with stabilizingthe chain and reversing its downward slide by focusing on higher-quality private label goods, closing weak stores and slashing corporate overhead. Hinkley will remain on the board.

Following stints at Macy’s West and Foley’s, Mullins worked at Neiman Marcus through most of the Nineties, joining as a divisional merchandise manager in 1991 and rising to ceo of the Neiman Marcus Stores division in 2000. He left after just nine months in that role, catching Neiman’s management and the industry by surprise. In January 2001, he became ceo of St. John in California, and in another surprise move, exited that business after only nine months.

Considering his past positions managing more luxurious businesses, running a small apparel chain where about 95 percent of the revenues are derived from private label, hardly seems like a career-enhancing move. “This job doesn’t have the profile of some of his past assignments,” said one search executive. However, the executive added that the job is geographically desirable, considering Mullins lives in Dallas and there’s potential to grow the chain after its downsizing.

Harold’s, a vertical retailer, faces tough competition from similar but much bigger specialty operations, including Talbots, J. Crew and Banana Republic, as well as department and discount stores. Spring prices at Harold’s include skirts from $78 to $138 and blouses from $68 to $98.

“The board is pleased that Clark has completed the first phase of our long-term strategic plan to reposition Harold’s as a leading apparel retailer,” William Haslam, non-executive chairman of the board, said in a statement. He added that Harold’s is entering the growth phase of its long-term strategic plan. “Hugh’s extensive retail merchandising background with highly customer-intensive better merchandise will be a great fit in further developing Harold’s market niche.”“I am very excited about joining the Harold’s team. The company has a great tradition and I am looking forward to helping to take it to the next level,” said Mullins, in a statement.

Founded in 1948, Harold’s currently operates 42 upscale ladies’ and men’s specialty stores in 19 states. Stores range from 3,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet, though most are in the 3,000-square-foot to 4,000-square-foot range. The Houston locations are known as “Harold Powell.”

Last December, the company reported net income of $1 million, its first quarterly profit since the first quarter of 2000, when net income was $44,000. Net sales for the third quarter reached $23.9 million, an 11.7 percent increase from total third-quarter sales of $21.4 million during the year-ago period, despite the closing of eight store locations during the first half of the current year. Comp-store gains were 25.6 percent.

During the year-to-date period ending Nov. 1, the net loss was $3.3 million compared with a net loss of $9.1 million for the same period in 2002. Included in the year-to-date results of 2003 are costs from closing the eight unprofitable stores and an event conducted to liquidate excess inventory.

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