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Portland, Oregon-based New Seasons Market announced yesterday that Wendy Collie, its CEO for more than five years, is stepping down as the company rethinks its expansion plans.

Collie will be succeeded by co-presidents - Kristi McFarland, the company's chief people officer, and Forrest Hoffmaster, its CFO.

New Seasons, which is owned by the Endeavour Capital private equity group, also said that it will close the Sunnyvale, California, store that it opened less than a year ago, and will not move forward with expansion plans in the California communities of San Francisco, Carmel and Emeryville. The Oregonian writes that New Seasons “will continue to operate its four New Leaf Community Markets, a regional California chain New Seasons acquired in 2013. A new location in Aptos, near Santa Cruz, will open this year.”

The company said that no other closures are planned.

The Oregonian quotes Collie as saying that “her departure as an amicable and mutual decision with the company's board after six months of planning a new business strategy. ‘It's never easy to leave a company, especially a company that you love,’ she said. ‘I think it's time for this leadership team to move the company forward’.”

The Oregonian story notes that Collie “directed the grocer at a time of aggressive growth … The company grew from 12 to 25 stores during her tenure.” But the Sunnyvale store ended up being more expensive to build than expected, and it underperformed once it opened. And, the story says, “The company also faced growing pressure from new business models, including stores offering in-store pick-up of online orders and meal kit delivery services.”
KC's View:
I think this story is illustrative of the challenges facing so many retailers today, and private equity ownership - which generally is designed to be temporary, with companies only bought to be sold - only makes it worse. Leadership has to increase the value of the company so it can be sold at a profit, which means that physical expansion is necessary. But physical expansion can be problematic at a time when e-commerce is a steadily expanding factor. So you have to expand physically while also investing in digital initiatives, which only costs more money and hurts profitability. That makes it harder to sell the company for the price point sought by private equity, and so tensions emerge and grow. CEOs are trying to do what is right for the business while simultaneously doing what is right for the investors, but those are not always the same thing. Something’s gotta give.

I’m reasonably sure that Endeavour already has owned New Seasons longer than it wanted to. Right now, I suspect, it is just looking for an exit ramp. (It also is invested in some other supermarket companies, and I can’t help but wonder how it feels about them.)

I’ve always loved New Seasons; I live in Portland during the summers while teaching at Portland State University, and it is one of several superior retailers that I patronize. But I am constitutionally opposed to the concept of as co-presidency as any sort of sustainable option. Which makes me think that this is just temporary, as Endeavour seeks that exit ramp I was talking about above.

I’d be willing to bet that Wendy Collie - who I think is really smart, and I like a lot - probably is stepping down because ownership simply didn’t believe in her vision for how to grow the company. I suspect she looked at the marketplace and concluded - rightly - that the plans laid out when she got to New Seasons five years ago no longer were tenable, and that the road to a sustainable model was a) in a somewhat different direction and b) would have some painful potholes along the way. That view probably didn’t match Endeavour’s view of what the company’s future would be, and so a change needed to be made.

One note. I don’t know any specifics about Collie’s vision, and so I don’t know if she was right or wrong. What I’m describing here strikes me as the kinds of conversations that may be taking places between a lot of company CEOs and their private equity investors.

A friend of mine who is familiar with both the company and the market suggested that New Seasons is likely to survive the tumult: “I do think that New Seasons success across three very different CEOs, three heads of operations, three CFOs, and numerous HR and Marketing leaders, demonstrates that their success is about the collective culture and passion of the staff, their trade partners, and their customers more than it is about any one person,” my friend said.

This may be true. Though this isn’t usually the kind of assessment of intangibles that private equity folks want to hear.