3M Co. was left scrambling Monday when Bloomberg reported that George Buckley would like to step down as CEO in 2011, earlier than expected.

Citing three unnamed sources, Bloomberg reported the company's board of directors has begun evaluating three top 3M executives to succeed Buckley in the post he has held since December 2005. His contract calls for him to remain CEO and chairman of the Maplewood-based giant until he turns 65 in February 2012.

3M spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry, who initially declined to comment, later called the Bloomberg report factually incorrect. Buckley "has not asked the board to end his contract early," she said. Buckley was traveling and unavailable for comment, she said.

3M board member Vance Coffman declined to comment and called the Bloomberg story "irresponsible reporting."

According to Bloomberg, the three internal candidates are Inge Thulin, executive vice president of international relations; Bradley Sauer, executive vice president of health care; and Jean Lobey, executive vice president of the safety, security and protection services business.

All three men have spent their careers with 3M, though Sauer spent a few years with Imation Corp. after 3M spun it off in 1996. Sauer, 51, is from Minneapolis, and joined 3M after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1981.

Thulin, 57, first joined 3M in his native Sweden in 1979 and spent most of his career there and in Europe with the company. He's been based in Maplewood since being named head of international operations in 2003, though he travels frequently.

Lobey, 58, is from Algeria and joined 3M in 1976 after studying economics and marketing in Paris. He has worked with the company in Europe, the Middle East and Brazil and took on his current role in 2005.

Berry declined to comment on possible successors to Buckley. "I'm not going to speculate on that," she said.

Buckley took the reins of the company after James McNerney left to become CEO at Boeing Co. The two men are the only outsiders to run the company in its 108-year history.

Under Buckley, 3M has undergone a restructuring that trimmed several thousand employees worldwide, many during last year's recession when sales fell about 8 percent to $23.1 billion. The company also scaled back acquisitions, capital expenditures and research and development in 2009 to preserve cash.

3M has increased spending this year, and sales are expected to reach about $26.6 billion in 2010 and $29 billion to $30.5 billion in 2011.

Buckley, whose compensation package last year totaled nearly $15 million, stands to make more than $32 million should he resign amicably, according to SEC filings. Buckley, who left Brunswick Corp. to join 3M, is also on the boards of Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Stanley Black & Decker Inc.

The stock rose 97 cents Monday to close at $87.34.

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723