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SFA’s Succession Plan: Is Fred Wilson the One Taking the CEO Reins?

Fred Wilson, Donna Karan International’s chief, appears to be the successor to Christina Johnson as president and ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue.

NEW YORK — All arrows appear to be pointing to Fred Wilson, chief executive officer of Donna Karan International, as the one who will be heading Saks Fifth Avenue come January.

While neither Saks Inc., parent of Saks Fifth Avenue, nor officials at DKI’s parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton would confirm that Wilson would be joining Saks as president and chief executive officer, sources said that he’s Christina Johnson’s likely successor.

“I do not comment on rumors,” said Wilson on Monday. “I am the chief executive officer of the Donna Karan company. I’ve been with LVMH for 24 years.”

R. Brad Martin, chairman and ceo of Saks Inc., couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

The rumor machine went into overdrive this week over who would take over at SFA, with industry executives on both sides of the Atlantic speculating that Wilson was the chosen successor. While anything might happen between now and January, when the new SFA ceo is due to take over, sources said that Wilson is Martin’s handpicked choice for the job. Wilson and Martin are reportedly very good friends, and Martin has been asking him for a while to come and help fix the Saks Fifth Avenue stores.

“The vendor community is saying it’s him [Wilson], and it makes perfect sense,” said one source here. “He’s a mover and a shaker of business, and he has a track record of making businesses happen.”

“The deal was done about a month ago,” said a source in Paris. “It’s his dream job.”

According to industry observers, Wilson possesses many of the qualities needed to run the SFA chain. In addition to his luxury goods and retailing experience, both in the U.S. and internationally, Wilson is seen as a people person and straight shooter, with an ability to clearly articulate a position from both the commercial and creative perspectives. He also surrounds himself with talented people and is regarded as a good decision maker. However, as one source put it, “He’s not a merchant, he’s an operator.”

Within his first week on the job at DKI in October 2002, Wilson moved quickly to restructure the company by brand, not gender, and set the strategy, naming two division presidents and a new design director. Sources inside the company credit Wilson with getting DKI back on track, improving the pricing, quality, distribution and delivery of Karan’s products and hiring the right people to carry out the job.

This story first appeared in the October 29, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Prior to joining Karan, Wilson was ceo of LVMH Specialty Store Retailing. He held various posts at the firm’s DFS Group Ltd. during a 19-year career there, where he was named president and chief merchandising officer in 1998. While Wilson was president of DFS, he was responsible for developing and implementing the specialty store strategy, overseeing the marketing, merchandising, stores, operations, finance and administration.

He began his career at Federated Department Stores in 1969, and moved to Associated Dry Goods in 1976 as vice president and general merchandise manager of Stix, Baer & Fuller.

As reported, Johnson abruptly resigned last Thursday. At the time, Martin said he had already found her replacement, but that person couldn’t begin until January. He said that person’s employer had requested that he or she stay on at his current job until mid-December, and remain anonymous until that time.

SFA has been lagging luxury competitors like Neiman Marcus Group and Nordstrom in the course of the last two years. During the second quarter ended Aug. 2, the SFA chain posted operating losses of $22.1 million. This compared with a deficit of $13.8 million a year earlier. Sales ticked up 0.9 percent to $486.3 million.

Many viewed it as odd that Saks Fifth Avenue would have to wait over two months for Johnson’s successor to come on board. But a few observers believe that, in Wilson’s case, it was in Saks Inc.’s best interests not to disrupt the important vendor-retailer relationship shared between SFA and LVMH while giving LVMH enough time to find Wilson’s successor. LVMH, whose brands include Karan, Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Pucci, Christian Lacroix, Celine, Givenchy and Tag Heuer, is an indispensable customer of Saks Fifth Avenue, and sources believe that having Wilson in the top spot there could be a boon to the LVMH brands.

It was believed last week that another top contender for the SFA ceo job was Howard Socol, chairman and ceo of Barneys New York, but knowledgeable sources close to the firm vehemently denied on Tuesday that he would be taking the job. Socol, whose contract at Barneys expires Jan. 31, 2005, couldn’t be reached for comment. Earlier this month, Socol was named to Liz Claiborne’s board of directors, which he’d have to relinquish if he took the Saks job since many of Claiborne’s brands, such as Ellen Tracy and Juicy Couture, are sold at Saks. Furthermore, several executive recruiters said they would have been well aware of an executive search being conducted for Socol’s job if he were Johnson’s successor, and they were sure no such search took place.

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