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With Gap Inc.’s CEO Out and Sales Falling, Who Will Turn the Company Around?

November 12, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC

In September, Gap Inc.’s CEO Art Peck hosted an analyst day to sell the decision to spin-off Old Navy to the financial community. Now, after four years at the helm, Peck is out, leaving declining sales, uncertainty about an Old Navy spin-off, and a big question about who can reimagine an iconic American retailer.

“Obviously this was not planned,” said David Swartz, equity analyst for Morningstar.  “Christmas is a bad time to have to replace your CEO.” 

Under normal circumstances, retail boards may wait for the holiday scorecard—and even the gift card redemptions that tend to boost January—before assessing an executive’s performance, but not this time. 

“I think they could see no Christmas miracle was coming, and they had to make a major change right now,” Swartz said. 

Robert J. Fisher, chairman of the board and son of founders Doris and Donald Fisher, will serve as interim CEO. The Fisher family is the Gap’s biggest shareholder, holding 43% of the stock; Robert Fisher has been involved with company operations for 35 years.

But Fisher, 65 years old and with investments outside Gap to manage, is just an interim leader. Who can replace Peck and tackle recalibrating the $16.6 billion company’s brand portfolio? Gap Inc. owns Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta, and Intermix, a small chain of high-end boutiques.

A spokesperson for the company said it has not announced a timeline to replace Peck. But in a press release, Fisher said, “As the Board evaluates potential successors, our focus will be on strong leadership candidates with operational excellence to drive greater efficiency, speed, and profitability.”

That’s not the signal that Roxanne Meyer, managing director of MKM Partners, hoped for.

“We think the Board is making a mistake in searching for its next great operator as CEO,” she wrote in a research note. She confirmed to Fortune that she believes the company needs to recruit a merchant—someone like former Gap CEO Mickey Drexler, who was passionate about product and customers—rather than an “operator” who is mostly focused on efficiency. 

“If brand DNA is not there, advancing technology is meaningless. In our opinion, simply put, in this late stage for GPS, an operator could be the final axe, unless the goal is to spin-off Athleta or shut the majority of stores,” she wrote.

Athleisure concept Athleta has done well, but it is a fraction of sales—roughly 6% of the $16.6 billion total—and the company has not disclosed what the chain’s operating margins are.

Executive recruiters, who spoke on the agreement of anonymity, agreed with Meyer—it’s a no on another efficiency-focused operator. Gap needs a “customer-obsessed enterprise leader,” one said. They want to see someone eat, sleep, and breathe what the customers are wearing and how they want to shop.

That best describes Sonia Syngal, president and CEO of Old Navy, who installed a chyron-streaming LED screen to showcase customer comments in the company’s main lobby. Though she was widely described as Gap Inc.’s best internal candidate for CEO, Syngal would not be available if the board proceeds with the decision to spin off Old Navy. And even if Old Navy remains under Gap Inc., it may be too risky to move Syngal off the cheap-and-cheerful fashion brand, which brings in nearly half of the company’s revenue. In 2018, Old Navy was responsible for 47% of Gap Inc.’s revenue.

So who could fit at Gap Inc., the company that soared in the 1990s under Drexler but has, to varying degrees, struggled ever since?

“When you look at retail, the air gets really thin in the apparel space,” noted one recruiter, pointing to a lack of candidates who’ve held similar roles at this scale. Few speciality retailers are as large as Gap or have multiple brands.

Out of necessity, Gap may recruit outside the apparel industry from drugstore, hospitality, beauty, or consumer packaged goods. They may look for talent at Starbucks, Target, and Walmart or consider trying to woo back Stefan Larsson, who rang up 12 consecutive quarters of growth at Old Navy and then had a brief stint as CEO of Ralph Lauren. But odds on that seem slim: Larsson is currently president of PVH, which operates Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Heritage Brands, a role he took in June.

Yo-Jud Cheng, assistant professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business who studies CEO succession planning, said that the lack of an announced timeline on succession puts a cloud of uncertainty over Gap Inc. The market doesn’t know how to react, and internally, some executives may start readying their resumes and looking elsewhere.

But, she said, the Gap board shouldn’t rush someone into the role. A bad fit could lead to a “downward spiral of disruption and additional subsequent unplanned CEO successions,” she noted, citing J.C. Penney, which has had four CEOs since 2011—Ron Johnson, Mike Ullman, Marvin Ellison, and Jill Soltau—as an example of the turmoil created by a revolving door of CEOs.

With the exception of Athleta, Gap Inc. is struggling across its portfolio. In the same announcement as Peck’s departure, Gap Inc. said that comparable store sales—often cited as critical measure of a retailer’s health—were down 4% across the company for the third quarter. Even Old Navy, which has for years been the company’s most profitable and productive concept, recorded a comparable sales decline, its third in a row. Cumulatively, these results were far worse than Wall Street anticipated.  

“This was a challenging quarter, as macro impacts and slower traffic further pressured results that have been hampered by product and operating challenges across key brands,” Teri List-Stoll, Gap Inc. EVP and CFO said in the announcement. “We have tremendous confidence in our brands and the talented organization that supports them, and we are seeing progress in some key areas. However, there is more work to do to leverage the capabilities we have invested in and deliver the profitable growth we know these brands are capable of delivering.” 

Excluding Old Navy’s results, Gap Inc.’s operating margin (adjusted for earnings before interest and taxes) has been falling, from 4% percent of sales in 2016 to 2% of sales in 2018, according to unaudited figures presented at the company’s investor day.  

Given drops in shopper traffic this year, Morningstar’s Swartz speculated that profits have likely eroded further. “You look at this [news] and think, is Gap, excluding Old Navy, making any money at all?” he said.

Gap “has largely failed to perform under CEO Peck’s watch,” wrote Meyer. She also said that the third quarter earnings miss and lowered fourth quarter expectations were likely “the final straw” on Peck’s tenure.

Then there’s the other question—can Gap still afford to separate from Old Navy?

So far, the company is standing by its plan.

Following the announcement of Peck’s departure, Gap management has affirmed its belief that Old Navy can still perform better as a standalone company. The company also told analysts it will report any potential changes to the spin-off or its timing on its November 21 earnings call.

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