Byline: Katherine Bowers

LOS ANGELES — The line of succession has taken a detour at St. John Knits International Inc.
With the sudden resignation of H.W. (Hugh) Mullins as chief executive officer Monday, chairman and founder Bob Gray has postponed his January retirement indefinitely and will groom his daughter, Kelly Gray, the company’s longtime creative director, and Bruce Fetter, St. John’s chief operating officer, to take over the ceo post jointly. Until that time, Bob Gray will reassume the ceo duties and Kelly Gray and Fetter have been named co-presidents of the Irvine, Calif.-based company. Marie Gray, Bob’s wife and Kelly’s mother, remains head designer.
This is Mullins’s second abrupt departure from a top post since last November, when he quit Neiman Marcus Stores.
“It’s very difficult when you come out of an environment like Neiman Marcus and you have a great knowledge base and move to a company and a business where you have very little knowledge,” Mullins said. “It’s almost like starting over. It wasn’t what I expected.” He joined St. John in January, and his last day will be Friday.
Last year, Mullins surprised the industry when he left Neiman’s after a decade-long career with the retailer, the last nine months as chairman and ceo. At the time, he said that he’d lost the passion for retailing, which had been his profession for 30 years.
Although declining to speculate about Mullins’s departure, Kelly Gray said she was excited about her opportunity.
“Bob Gray has been our ceo for 38 out of 39 years,” she said. “To try to replace him entirely would be a mistake. Bruce and I as a team complement each other. We each offer a different management style.”
Bob Gray called Fetter “an excellent administrator who is becoming a very good production man.”
In previous interviews, Mullins cited the accessories and retail divisions as areas for growth. Bob Gray said all plans are on track with both areas. The company currently operates 23 signature boutiques and 10 outlet stores; two stores are expected to open by the end of this year and five are slated to open next year.
In a separate development, the firm will launch a remembrance collection of limited-edition accessories and garments, with proceeds to benefit Sept. 11 disaster relief funds.
The company already has sold 1,700 units of two patriotic pin styles, raising $44,725, and will produce a new piece each month in a continuing effort, according to a spokeswoman.