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Sears executive leaves

CHICAGO – Sears Holdings Corp. abruptly announced the departure of president and chief executive Aylwin B. Lewis on Monday, leaving a management void at the top of the department store chain controlled by Chairman Edward S. Lampert as it tries a high-stakes restructuring to reinvigorate slumping sales.

Lewis was an executive at fast-food chain Yum Brands Inc. and had little retail experience when he was hand-picked by Lampert in 2004 to run Kmart and later Sears. W. Bruce Johnson was named as interim CEO while the company looks for a permanent successor.

Monday’s announcement marked the latest chapter for the venerable retailer, which has seen its competitors snatch away customers since Lampert acquired Kmart in 2003 and Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 2005.

At the time, Lampert – a masterful hedge fund investor who controls all major decisions made at Sears Holdings – promised to reinvigorate the faded retail icons and “transform them into a great company.”

Nearly three years later, Lampert’s task has proven difficult, as the company’s 3,800 stores fail to attract customers.

For the first three quarters of the year, Sears’ profit has fallen more than 40 percent. And earlier this month the company said it managed to post third-quarter earnings of $2 million – down 99 percent from last year.

Adding to investors’ frustrations was a warning that Sears would likely post fourth-quarter earnings well below Wall Street forecasts as eroding sales push its profit down as much as 57 percent.

The company gave no timeline for finding a replacement for Lewis, who was one of the nation’s few black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, but industry experts said Sears needs to find an executive with retail experience.

Meanwhile Monday, Sears disclosed in a regulatory filing that it may still be interested in acquiring trendy retro-themed retailer Restoration Hardware Inc., but for a lower price than its $6.75-per-share November bid.