Sears crowning chair Lampert defies critics of stalled comeback

, Bloomberg

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Edward-S.-Lampert

Sears Holdings Corp. chairman Edward Lampert's selection of himself as the ailing retailer's fifth chief executive officer in seven years shows the billionaire hedge-fund manager hasn't taken his critics to heart.

Ever since he's controlled the company, Lampert has avoided putting a seasoned retail executive in charge of the department-store chain. Instead, he's handed the reins to executives from the supermarket, restaurant and telecommunications industries, and now himself.

"Eddie buys a once-great retailer but seems to be allergic to retailers," Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan and Ross School of Business, said in an interview Tuesday. "Eddie is a brilliant guy, but that doesn't make him a retailer."

Lampert, 50, will take over on Feb. 2, when Lou D'Ambrosio officially steps down because of a health matter in his family, Sears said in a Jan. 7 statement. D'Ambrosio, 48, will remain on the board until the company's next shareholder meeting in May.

Sears fell 6.4 percent to $40.16 Tuesday in New York. The shares gained 45 percent last year.

"We're positioned to have a very smooth transition," D'Ambrosio said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "We have established momentum in the company," he said, including six consecutive quarters of increased clothing sales, four quarters in a row of Ebitda growth, and a stronger balance sheet.

'Strong Bench'

"Eddie and I have worked very closely together, and we're very aligned on the strategy and vision for the company."

A "strong bench" of talent including chief merchandising officer Ron Boire will also ease the transition, he said. "The blend of skills that we have, with Eddie leading them, is the right solution for this company."

Lampert formed Greenwich, Connecticut-based ESL Investments Inc. in 1988 after working on the merger arbitrage desk of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. under Robert Rubin, who would go on to become U.S. Treasury Secretary under former President Bill Clinton.

Lampert bought Kmart Holding Corp. out of bankruptcy in 2003, then put it together with Sears, Roebuck & Co. in March 2005. His first CEO was Alan Lacy, who led Sears, Roebuck before the merger and served at consumer-products giants such as Kraft Inc. before Sears. Six months later, Lampert replaced Lacy with Aylwin Lewis, whom he'd brought over to Kmart from the restaurant industry. Lampert at the time said he'd head marketing, merchandising and Internet sales.

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