NEW YORK — Ending a six-month tenure as Saks Inc.’s largest shareholder, O. Mason Hawkins appears to have used the recent speculation about the retailer’s future as a profit-taking opportunity.

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Hawkins’ Southeastern Asset Management Inc.’s most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, disclosed on Monday and reflecting transactions through May 31, listed Southeastern and its Longleaf Partners Small-Cap Fund as the holders of 17.4 million shares of Saks stock, representing 11.4 percent of those outstanding. This is 41.2 percent, or 12.2 million shares, below the level held when it last reported in February.

At that time, the stake, technically owned by Southeastern’s investment clients, totaled 29.6 million Saks shares, or 19.2 percent of its equity.

The reduction in shares drops Southeastern, formerly Saks’ biggest stakeholder, into third place behind Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, most recently on record as the owner of 15.4 percent, and Tod’s SpA chairman and chief executive officer Diego Della Valle, owner of 15.1 percent.

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The SEC filing gave no reason for the change in Southeastern’s position and calls to the firm weren’t returned at press time Monday. The company has joined with Carl Icahn in opposition to the buyout of Dell Inc. by founder and ceo Michael Dell.

Hawkins, a former investor in Saks’ predecessor company, Proffitt’s, and until 2006 a 5 percent owner of the reconstituted Saks, reported a 17.8 percent stake in Saks, about 27 million shares, in December. SEC regulations require holdings of 5 percent or more to be reported.

Monday’s filing by Southeastern was an SC 13G/A, an amended report by a company with a least 5 percent of a public firm’s equity. Such reports don’t contain specific information about recent transactions.

Still, the drama surrounding Saks’ hiring last month of Goldman Sachs to explore a potential sale might have constituted too good a selling opportunity for Southeastern to pass up. Reports of a possible takeout or combination with another retailer, such as luxe competitor Neiman Marcus Inc., drove Saks’ shares to their highest level of the year last month and they’ve yet to come down to previous levels.

Shares Monday closed at $14.76, down 2 cents, or 0.1 percent. After spending much of May below $12, they spiked late in the month as investors considered various sale and combination scenarios and hit a 52-week high of $16.17 in midday trading on May 22.

Southeastern’s remaining stake as of Monday’s close would be worth $180 million.

The appreciation of the shares sold couldn’t be determined as the purchase and sales prices aren’t known.

However, if bought at $10.62 a share on Dec. 11, when the firm’s holdings were first disclosed, and sold at Monday’s closing price, the 12.2 million shares sold would have generated a $50.4 million paper profit for Southeastern’s clients. If sold at the 52-week high of $16.17 on May 22, the profit would be $67.6 million.

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