Turning the Page

Why Mark Bierley left bookseller Borders for the CFO job at a convenience-store chain.

Mark Bierley’s resignation from Borders Group Inc. seemed at first like a familiar story: finance executive makes a hasty escape from a tempestuous CFO job. The second-largest company in the troubled bookselling industry (behind Barnes & Noble) announced on August 23 that Bierley, a 14-year Borders veteran, had decided to take a position at an unnamed company, just two months after assuming the additional role of COO of operating unit Borders Inc. Borders Group, and Bierley himself, said little about his departure beyond that an interim CFO had been named, inviting speculation that Bierley had soured on a company that was going through a number of strategic changes.

Indeed, Borders Group had been raising investor concerns since May, when financier Bennett LeBow invested $25 million in the company and became chairman and later CEO. The company’s stock, which then traded at around $2.25, steadily sank to $1.19 at the time of Bierley’s resignation and subsequently fell even lower, to $1.03 at one point, as the market digested the departure of a CFO whose leadership of two significant financings had been a rare bright spot for Borders in 2010.

But as it turns out, you can’t judge a bookseller’s job change by its cover. With the September 2 announcement that Bierley had landed the post of senior vice president and CFO at The Pantry Inc., effective September 27, and during a brief telephone interview with Bierley, the real story emerged. After 26 years studying and working in Michigan — earning undergraduate and graduate accounting degrees from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, respectively — “at 44 years old I was presented with another opportunity with a growing company,” says Bierley.

The Pantry, based in Cary, North Carolina, has 1,639 convenience stores, many in the Southeast, including those under its “primary operating banner,” Kangaroo Express. Its fiscal 2009 revenues, $1.81 billion, were smaller than Borders Group’s $2.82 billion. But The Pantry made a profit in its latest quarter ended June 24, while Borders announced a quarterly loss last week for the fifth time in six quarters. During the past three years, the bookselling chain has shuttered or sold half its stores.

Geographical features, Bierley adds, made the move attractive for his family. “It’s in a part of the country where I have a personal interest,” he says. “This was a life choice, and it’s best for my family, and it’s best for me.” North Carolina, he says, is “a great place for education.” As for Ann Arbor-based Borders, “I love the Borders brand. This is a personal decision. It’s a change that has nothing to do with the company’s change in strategy.”

Indeed, Bierley says he “fully agrees” with the new strategic direction at Borders, which includes selling e-books and readers and offering nonbook products in its stores, such as Build-A-Bear products for children.

And any thought that he is leaving suddenly, just after being named COO of the Borders operating unit — which brought him a $225,000 raise in base salary to $600,000, according to company filings — is not the case, according to Bierley. A move, he says, had been on his mind for a while. The promotion to Borders COO largely recognized his experience performing functions at the company that a COO would normally do, he adds.

The work Bierley did this year lining up a $90 million term loan and arranging a revised $700 million revolving credit facility — deals Borders noted when he added the COO title — “created as much of a runway as possible” for his long-held plan to move to another company in another area of the country, he says.

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