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MarketWatch First Take: Kohl’s CEO loss is Levi Strauss’s gain, says retail expert

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Tuesday’s announcement that Kohl’s Corp. CEO Michelle Gass is stepping down to join Levi Strauss & Co. is great news for the clothier best known for its blue jeans, according to retail expert Carol Spieckerman.

“It could be seen as a loss for Kohl’s and a win for Levi’s,” Spieckerman, president of retail advisory firm Spieckerman Retail, told MarketWatch.

In a statement, Kohl’s
KSS,
+7.34%

announced that Gass would step down effective Dec. 2. Board member Tom Kingsbury will serve as the suburban Milwaukee–based department-store chain’s interim CEO until a permanent replacement for Gass is named.

See: Kohl’s CEO Gass steps down to join Levi’s

Gass will begin her new role as president of Levi Strauss 
LEVI,
-3.13%

on Jan. 2. Levi’s has put in place a plan for Gass to succeed CEO Chip Bergh within the next 18 months.

Kohl’s had been coming under pressure from activist investors to make changes to its board or face another proxy fight. In July the embattled retailer ended merger talks with Franchise Group Inc.
FRG,
+3.26%
.

“There was a constant drumbeat of dissatisfaction, even as [Gass] implemented any number of new initiatives,” said Spieckerman. “There were a lot of headwinds, a lot of challenges — I think she is to be lauded for trying new things.”

See: Kohl’s stock charges higher after upbeat profit outlook, CEO to step down

The retail expert highlighted Kohl’s deal to accept Amazon.com Inc.
AMZN,
-0.61%

returns in its stores as a smart move. “The big challenge that these softlines retailers face is driving more frequent visits,” she said, additionally describing Kohl’s partnership with Sephora as a way to reach new customers.

Gass, who joined Kohl’s in 2013 as chief customer officer, added the title of chief merchandising officer in 2015. She was promoted to CEO-elect in October 2017 and became CEO in May 2018.

Prior to Kohl’s, Gass spent more than 16 years at Starbucks Corp.
SBUX,
+2.56%

in a number of roles, including president of the coffee giant’s Europe, Middle East and Africa region.

See: Kohl’s aims to grow Sephora into a $2 billion business, part of the retailer’s long-term plan

In addition to announcing Gass’s departure, Kohl’s provided an upbeat profit forecast early Tuesday, sending the company’s stock higher by 7.6% during the trading session. Levi Strauss’s stock fell 4.5%, while the S&P 500 Index
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+0.56%

rose 0.2%.

“I have to believe it’s a breath of fresh air for [Gass], just getting out of that pressure cooker,” said Spieckerman, going on to point to the history of the Levi Strauss brand and the company’s diversification into new businesses. “Levi’s has been able to create differentiated product that enables it to sell across many types of retail without any conflict or brand dilution,” she added. “I think Levi’s has also done a good job of building a multicategory business around denim without narrowing its options to just denim.”

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