Millard “Mickey” Drexler

NEW YORK Millard “Mickey” Drexler is busy fixing J. Crew, improving the assortment, narrowing the losses, rationalizing the store base and growing the Madewell division. But sources tell WWD he’s also thinking further into the future and seeking a seasoned executive to work with him and learn the business.

Though no list of candidates has surfaced, internal and external candidates are being considered, sources said. The chosen individual would likely succeed Drexler as chief executive officer, with Drexler remaining as executive chairman, working with the new ceo. In any case, it’s expected to be an orderly transition. Drexler, who has a 10 percent personal stake in the business and also holds the title of chairman, isn’t about to leave anytime soon.

Another source said succession has been on Drexler’s mind for some time, though there’s speculation he’s stepped up search efforts recently. The 72-year-old Drexler is considered one of the industry’s greatest retailers, “a merchant prince” often credited with creating “casual chic” by catapulting Gap Inc. into a household brand name in the Eighties and Nineties and generating billions of dollars in revenues. He also launched Old Navy from scratch and elevated J. Crew from a sleepy, preppy catalogue into a popular multichannel brand with quirky colorful styles, quality fabrics and a hip attitude. First Lady Michelle Obama has been a fan of J. Crew.

But the company has hit hard times, like other fashion retailers, hurt by the rise of fast-fashion and discounting as well as some of its own internal fashion misfires.

“Succession planning has been an ongoing and important consideration for our company — as with most companies — and it will be a thoughtful plan for the future growth of J. Crew. But at this time, there is no new news to report,” a spokeswoman told WWD.

Among the steps taken by Drexler to right the assortment: J. Crew has exited the bridal business, linked with New Balance for a women’s active line, and begun wholesaling J. Crew and Madewell to Nordstrom.

Private equity firms TPG Capital and Leonard Green & Partners took J. Crew private in a $3 billion deal in 2011, but that transaction came with a heavy debt load, which as of the end of the quarter amounted to $1.5 billion.

Succession is a hot topic in the retail industry, with Jeff Gennette set to succeed Terry J. Lundgren as Macy’s Inc. ceo in February, while Lundgren shifts to the title of executive chairman. In July, Tim Belk resigned as ceo of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Belk chain, which since its founding 129 years ago has been family run. Lisa Harper, a Durham native and UNC Chapel Hill graduate who previously served as ceo of Hot Topic, succeeded Belk. Months before, Belk was purchased by private equity firm Sycamore Partners in December 2015 for $3 billion. Sycamore also owns Hot Topic.

At Abercrombie & Fitch, Fran Horowitz could soon step up to ceo, succeeding Arthur Martinez, who serves as executive chairman. Horowitz is currently president and chief merchandising officer.

Among the seasoned executives who could be tapped for top retail jobs are Maureen Chiquet, former ceo of Chanel who worked at Gap Inc. earlier with Drexler, including helping to launch Old Navy, and Glen Senk, formerly ceo of Urban Outfitters Inc. and David Yurman.

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