To the surprise of analysts, longtime CFO Sharon McCollam left Williams-Sonoma this week after 12 years with the cookware and house-furnishings retailer. The company made the announcement just hours before its fourth-quarter earnings call in which it reported a profitable quarter and year.
McCollam’s departure “was widely abrupt and widely unexpected,” said Colin McGranahan, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., during the call.
McCollam left her role as both CFO and chief operating officer on Tuesday and will step down from the board of directors on March 16, according to the company, which owns Pottery Barn, West Elm, and other brands. She will continue to receive her salary for a year.
Prompted by McGranahan’s questioning, CEO Laura Alber said McCollam had decided to retire and is taking some time off. “We wish her the best in her future endeavors,” Alber said, and stressed that the company has a strong leadership team within the finance group as well as in other areas for which McCollam was responsible. In the firm’s press release announcing her retirement, McCollam said: “The organization is deep in tenure and I leave knowing that it has never been as well-positioned as it is today to take its multi-channel strategies to the next level.”
On the Thursday call, the company reported a 6% bump in 2011 over 2010 of its net revenue, which totaled $3.5 billion for the year. It made $236.9 million in net income last year, a 6.4% increase over 2010.
While McCollam’s retirement comes as a surprise, “we did not interpret the departure of Sharon McCollam based on anything tied to the financials or the strategic direction of the company,” says Neely Tamminga, managing director and senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co.
Tamminga says McCollam was known for protecting shareholder value: “She was truly looking out for the best interest of shareholders and that was part of her legacy.” Last year the company returned $263 million to its investors through share repurchases and dividends.
Julie Whalen, Williams-Sonoma’s corporate controller and treasurer, will serve as acting CFO and assisted Alber on today’s call. She has been with the company since she joined its financial-planning team in 2001. “We will do a worldwide search for the best CFO possible, and of course Julie is a candidate for that role as well,” Alber said.
McCollam became CFO of the San Francisco–based company in 2000, after serving a brief time as vice president of finance. She previously was a divisional CFO at Dole Food Co. Last month she was selected to be honored with a lifetime achievement award as part of the Bay Area CFO of the Year Awards. Past honorees include finance chiefs from Cisco System and Intel. The announcement about the award noted that McCollam “has been a highly influential cross-functional leader and has helped the company achieve new levels of financial and operational performance.”