Target seeks new CEO to restore chain's luster

Steinhafel departs amid fallout from a series of missteps.

CEO Gregg Steinhafel is out at Target, five months after a massive data breach that punctuated a long list of simmering problems for the discount retailer.

In a statement Monday, the company’s board said that “after extensive discussions,” its members and Steinhafel “have decided that now is the right time for new leadership.” In addition to the breach fallout, the Minneapolis-based retailer has been racing to turn around a weak rollout in Canada, trying to catch up with rivals digitally and working to rebuild excitement among U.S. shoppers.

Target has hired a search firm to help find the next CEO, who will become only the fourth person in the job since 1984 and potentially the first outsider. Whoever it is will face a formidable fix-it list, even without the enormous bills coming due for the data breach.

“How do you reinvent Target in a highly competitive U.S. market in which you have retail competitors that provide maybe the same goods at lower prices, and you have online competitors who have a wider assortment and the convenience of online shopping?” said Mark Miller, equity research analyst at William Blair & Co.

Miller and other industry analysts said they suspect Target’s board finally decided to part with Steinhafel after being updated on the company’s first-quarter results. The retailer’s first quarter ended Saturday, and results are due out May 21.

A Target spokeswoman confirmed that the board, which has been meeting monthly since the data breach, “met in the last few days.”

Neither Steinhafel nor the company’s directors would comment for this story.

Target CFO John Mulligan will serve as interim president and chief executive officer, while board member Roxanne Austin will act as interim nonexecutive chair of the board until replacements are found, the board said. Steinhafel will stay on to advise the company during the transition, it said.

The board also said it has hired Korn/Ferry International, a leading executive search firm based in Los Angeles, to advise the board on the hunt for a new CEO. That process is expected to take several months. Korn/Ferry declined to comment.

Spokeswoman Dustee Tucker Jenkins said the company will look both internally and externally. “We’re not even limiting it specifically to just the retail industry,” she said.

As late as April 12, Target was publicly supporting Steinhafel, Miller said, when the company set up a meeting for stock analysts in New York with Steinhafel, Mulligan and Casey Carl, Target’s head of multichannel.

In response to questions from the Star Tribune, the company said in a statement March 30 that Steinhafel had its full confidence and that he “is the right leader for Target to navigate through the current challenges we are facing.”

Steinhafel, 59, of Orono, is a 35-year Target veteran steeped in merchandising. He started at Target as an assistant buyer back when it had just 80 stores and was part of the former Dayton’s department store company. Eventually, he quarterbacked the company’s dive into signature labels in apparel.

He succeeded Robert Ulrich as CEO in 2008 and became chairman in 2009.

“Gregg is an excellent merchant who understood the concept of exclusivity, which was instrumental in building the Target brand,” said Twin Cities business consultant Stan Pohmer. “He helped build Target from mass-market retailer into something really unique.”

But Steinhafel could also be a polarizing figure. Some former Target employees described him as too cautious and unwilling to take risks.

In a letter posted on the company’s website, Steinhafel wrote that it was an “honor and privilege to lead this great brand.”

He added: “Target has also faced its share of difficulties, from the worst recession in our lifetime, to a high profile proxy contest and, most recently, a slow start in Canada and the 2013 data breach. Despite these challenges, our team has committed to doing right by our guests and driving our business forward.”

  • GREGG STEINHAFEL’S TARGET TENURE

    1979: Joined what became Target as a junior buyer of paints.

    1994: Named executive vice president of merchandising.

    Aug. 1999: Named president of Target.

    Jan. 2007: Named to Target’s board of directors.

    July 2007: Activist investor William Ackman announces he’s purchased Target stock and begins pushing for change and representation on the board.

    May 2008: Steinhafel succeeds Robert Ulrich as CEO.

    Feb. 2009: Steinhafel named chairman of Target’s board of directors.

    May 2009: Ackman loses proxy battle for control of Target board.

    Jan. 2011: Target announces plans to open 100 to 150 stores in Canada.

    Dec. 19, 2013: Target acknowledges massive data security breach.

    March 21, 2014: Target issues a statement that “Gregg Steinhafel has the full confidence of the board.”

    May 5, 2014: Steinhafel steps down as chairman and CEO.

    Gregg Steinhafel biography

    about steinhafel

    Age: 59

    Born: Mequon, Wis.

    Education: Carroll University, Waukesha, Wis.; M.B.A. from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

    Residence: Orono

    Family: Married, three children

    Directorships: Serves on board of directors at Toro Co., the Retail Industry Leaders Association and TreeHouse, a faith-based nonprofit in Edina.

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