Eye on Retail: Five CEOs to Watch in 2019

BY Marianne Wilson

The door in the corner office swings fast in the retail industry as companies tap new leaders to steer their ships in today’s disrupted marketplace.

Below are five chief executives who took the reins in 2018 and face some big challenges in the coming year.

• Michael C. Appel, Rue 21: The teen apparel retailer tapped its chairman, Appel, as CEO to replace Laurie Van Brunt, who resigned in November after less than six months on the job. Interestingly, Appel served as interim CEO of the retailer from October 2017 until June 2018, when Van Brunt took the reins. Rue 21 emerged from Chapter 11 in fall 2017 after closing about 400 stores and reducing a good deal its debt. But it has struggled to regain its footing in a competitive teen market driven by online, fast fashion and social influencers.

• Shaz Kahng, Gymboree Group: A member of the Gymboree board since 2017, the 30-year retail veteran, who helped lead turnarounds of Lucy Activewear and various Nike business segments, was tapped as CEO in November. She arrives at a critical juncture at the troubled children’s clothing retailer, which recently announced plans to close its value-oriented Crazy 8 stores and “significantly” reduce the number of Gymboree locations in 2019. It also is reviewing strategic options — including a possible sale — of all its brands. All this comes some 17 months after Gymboree emerged from bankruptcy — and amid rumors it is seeking a bankruptcy loan in preparation for another Chapter 11 filing.

• Scott Key, David’s Bridal: The former Gap Inc. executive was promoted to the top spot at the nation’s leading bridal retailer in May, succeeding Paul Pressler who remains chairman. He is now steering David’s through bankruptcy (it filed for Chapter 11 in November). Key has taken a high-profile role in assuring customers that all dress orders will be delivered on time and that bridal appointments will not be affected by the bankruptcy, with all 300 stores remaining open. The retailer is optimistic that it will complete the court-supervised process by early January, with a good chunk of its debt reduced. Still, the road ahead won’t be easy for Key as he deals with increased competition from lower-priced competitors and changing bridal fashions.

• John Mehas, Victoria’s Secret: For troubled Victoria’s Secret, the appointment of a new CEO is just one step in what industry experts say is a badly needed total brand overhaul. Mehas, who most recently served as president of women’s luxury apparel brand Tory Burch and previously spent 13 years as president and CEO of Club Monaco, succeeds Jan Singer, who resigned in November after two years on the job.

He has his work cut out for him at Victoria’s Secret as the formerly high-flying lingerie retailer struggles with declining sales amid heavy competition from such brands as Aerie and Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line and rising online players like ThirdLove. Another challenge: Victoria’s Secret’s overtly sexy image, which has come under fire for being tone deaf in today’s #metoo era.

• Jill Soltau, J.C. Penney: The first woman to lead the 116-year-old department store retailer, Soltau is a 30-year retail veteran who most recently was president and CEO of the arts-and-crafts chain Joann Stores and, prior to that, served in various executive merchandising roles at Shopko Stores, Sears, and Kohl’s. She has her work cut out for — and then some — at Penney, which is struggling with slumping sales and a stock price that has been at historic lows. Industry experts are hopeful that Soltau’s deep experience of retail – especially in terms of merchandising – will prove invaluable in turning the retailer around.

Help Wanted: As of mid-December, a number of big-name retailers were still looking to fill vacancies in the corner office. Among the companies on the hunt are Pier I (whose CEO left in December), J. Crew Group, Sprouts Farmers Market, Joann Stores, Barnes & Noble, Tailored Brands, AutoNation and GameStop.


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