NEW YORK — Rick Leto, the head apparel merchant for Kohl’s Department Stores, is leaving the company.

In a terse statement Friday afternoon, the Menomonee Falls, Wisc.-based retailer said Leto, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of apparel and accessories, had resigned. Leto also had overseen the product development area for the 563-unit chain.

On an interim basis, Kevin Mansell, Kohl’s president, will oversee the apparel, accessories and product development functions.

“We would like to thank Rick for his many contributions to Kohl’s and we wish him well in his future endeavors,” said Larry Montgomery, Kohl’s chairman and chief executive officer, in the statement.

In an interview with WWD following the announcement, Leto characterized his move as “stepping away from something I’ve done for 31 years.” Before joining Kohl’s in June 1996, Leto had a 23-year career with Macy’s.

“I’ve had seven outstanding years here, even though last year was less outstanding than I would have liked. When I got here, we were doing less than $2 billion; now we’re over $10 billion and growing dramatically.”

Leto, who said he “ran 60 percent of the company’s business, plus private brands,” will take time to “step back and take a fresh look at a fast-changing world.” He said his plans are up in the air, adding that “the next step may not be in the department store field.”

Before joining Kohl’s as its top soft-goods merchant, Leto held “every job imaginable” at Macy’s, starting as a trainee and working up to executive vice-president of merchandising. In total, he has spent 17 years as a general merchandise manager at the two department store chains.

Leto said Kohl’s is expected to divide his job among two to three separate merchants. Kohl’s made no comment about succession on Friday.

Once a darling of the industry, Kohl’s long run of fiscal advances ended last year as net income fell 8.1 percent, to $591.2 million, and comparable-store sales slid 1.6 percent even as sales advanced 12.7 percent, to $10.28 billion, on unit expansion. Profits in the critical fourth quarter dropped 11.5 percent, to $246.8 million, as comps dropped 2.1 percent and sales expanded 11.9 percent to $3.56 billion.“Something is not working and somebody had to go, and it wasn’t going to be Kevin,” one supplier commented, referring to Mansell.

The company’s expansion into California with 28 stores in March 2003 has also met less-than-spectacular results. When releasing its results for the 39 weeks ended Nov. 1, 2003, Kohl’s reported net income dropped 6 percent to $344 million, attributing the performance in part to a tepid response in the West.

However, the chain has recently signed some dramatic deals, including one with Daisy Fuentes for a women’s sportswear line that began rolling out to 182 stores in 20 markets on March 1. And last October, the company entered an agreement with Estée Lauder Cos. to provide exclusive lines and brands for the stores beginning this fall.

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