Beleaguered Sears stays silent on future of Strong

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The Independent Online
Sears, the troubled Selfridges to Dolcis retailing group, was tight-lipped yesterday over a report that Liam Strong, its chief executive, was about to step down with a pay-off of up to pounds 500,000.

A spokesman for the company refused to comment on the report, but City analysts suggested that his position was growing increasingly untenable in the face of the continuing series of disasters at the group.

Mr Strong, who has been under intense pressure from shareholders to improve the group's performance, will on Tuesday unveil a new round of radical restructuring proposals alongside Sears' results for the year to January.

It is expected that profits will be wiped out by huge charges to cover the cost of shutting down parts of the British Shoe Corporation retailing operation.

One analyst said yesterday that the Shoe Express chain, a brainchild of Mr Strong, was "spiralling into disaster".

Plans to split the group into shoes, fashion retailing and the highly successful Selfridges department store are also widely forecast to be the precursor for a break-up of the whole group. If the task is not completed by Sears' current management, others are thought to be waiting in the wings to do the job for them.

UBS, the Swiss investment bank whose fund management arm PDFM holds a large stake in Sears, is rumoured to have spent several weeks attempting to line up potential bidders for the group.

After the wave of speculation which has engulfed Sears and the future of Mr Strong over the past months, the board and its advisers were last week sworn to secrecy ahead of the annual figures. However, one insider said over the weekend: "Most people think there will be radical action and there are not that many options to take." Finding a resolution to the problems in shoes was clearly a priority, he added.

Mr Strong's situation has been made more uncomfortable by the on-off negotiations to sell its Freemans mail order business. The weekend report suggests a deal with Littlewoods, the original buyer, will be unveiled on Tuesday, but it is unlikely to be on such advantageous terms as before.