When A Retail Giant Shops For A CEO, A Good Fit Is Hard To Find

J.C. Penney, American Eagle and Target are each looking to find a new CEO. As these retail chains continue their search, executive recruiters explain why it's so hard to fill those top jobs.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. There are a lot of open job slots in the top ranks of retail companies these days. J.C. Penney, American Eagle Outfitters and Target are all looking for new CEOs. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, executive recruiters say it's harder these days to fill those positions.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Once upon a time, retail wasn't so big or so complicated. And talent was as plentiful as the competition.

TOM BROOKS: Organizations in retail used to grab talent from each other. But that's becoming harder and harder to do.

NOGUCHI: Tom Brooks is executive vice president of a St. Louis company called Psychological Associates. It helps companies assess CEO candidates. He says there are an unusually large number of vacancies at some of the top national chains. Kohl's is reportedly casting about for an eventual successor. The Bon-Ton department store chain is also looking for a replacement after its CEO's term expires. And teen clothier Abercrombie and Fitch is on the market for two senior executives. Brooks says partly the challenge is that retail companies are now sprawling complicated operations. Target, for example, spans everything from clothing to its own branded items to food. It's trying to stave off competition from online stores like Amazon, while also dealing with a brand and reputation crisis because of its recent colossal credit breach. But few people can do it all. And Brooks says that means companies are forced to prioritize.

BROOKS: We can't find the perfect candidate. We're never going to find the perfect candidate, and each candidate is going to bring something different. How much value does that differentiator bring to the organization that they would say, this is the one we should bring on board?

NOGUCHI: Howard Gross is a managing partner at Boyden, an executive search firm, who has held senior positions in retail companies. He says the talent pool is thinner also because of industry consolidation.

HOWARD GROSS: As a result of that, not as many people have gone through the grooming chairs, if you will, rotating through management positions and being trained to be CEOs.

NOGUCHI: Several years ago, some retail chains looked outside the industry to fill their top ranks.

GROSS: They didn't have great success because a number of the people who came in from outside of the industry didn't adapt well.

NOGUCHI: So now they're trying to hire internally. This week, for example, Ross Stores installed its 28-year veteran employee, Barbara Rentler, as CEO. Again Howard Gross.

GROSS: You probably will see more companies looking internally and perhaps going back to trying to develop people internally, as they continue to see, at least in the retail business the talent pool thinning.

NOGUCHI: Michael Gould believes every company ought to aim for loyalty and longevity with their employees.

MICHAEL GOULD: I was the chairman and CEO of Bloomingdale's for 23 years.

NOGUCHI: Gould left that job in February, turning the reins over to his hand-picked successor Tony Spring.

GOULD: The two most important things any CEO does is to develop and nurture a strategic plan for the company and to have the proper kind of succession plan for the company.

NOGUCHI: Gould says at core that comes down to compensating people well and investing in training and education programs for employees. Even during the great recession, Bloomingdale's didn't cut its training budget.

GOULD: If you have an organization that's devoted to growing people and continuing to educate people and then being fair with them, why would anyone want to leave?

NOGUCHI: Times change and new challenges might arise, Gould says, but when it comes to attracting talent, some things never go out of style. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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