Why Did Robert Hanson Bail on American Eagle?

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It's hard to be the guy who always has to deliver the bad news. No one wants to be that guy, and few people even want to see him. Maybe that's what drove American Eagle (NYSE: AEO  ) CEO Robert Hanson to jump ship. Of course, it seems like his million-dollar base salary would have helped ease the burden -- in his first year Hanson actually took home $12 million  -- but money doesn't buy happiness.

The real reasons behind Hanson's departure aren't known, yet. In its statement, American Eagle simply noted that he was leaving, and that Executive Chairman of the Board Jay Schottenstein was going to fill in until a suitable replacement was found.

Robert Hanson's legacy at American Eagle
Hanson joined American Eagle at the start of 2012, coming to the company from Levi's, where he last held the global brand president role. He had been with the jeans maker for 23 years -- he made it through just two at American Eagle.

In the 2011 fiscal year, American Eagle suffered. While total sales were up, the company was immersed heavily in promotion to make those sales, and margins were declining. Earnings per share had fallen, and the business was out of favor with its teen demographic.

Things haven't "gotten better" since Hanson joined. Fiscal 2013 is wrapping up, and it looks like margins will remain compressed, and income per share will fall compared to 2012. In the company's third-quarter earnings release, Hanson said, "Our financial performance is clearly unsatisfactory and not consistent with our objectives." 

Bad news in a sea of bad news
While many teen retailers have taken a hit over the past year, American Eagle was particularly damaged. Companies like Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) and Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ: URBN  ) found a way to squeeze out the occasional win. Through the first nine months of the year, Gap managed to increase comparable sales over the first nine months of 2012. While it also managed a 1% increase during the holiday season, things started to slow down at the end of the year. Still, better off than American Eagle.

Urban Outfitters had a bumpier ride, flying high for much of the year before hitting a wall in September, when it announced lower-than-expected comparable-store sales growth. Even so, the business has grown its margins and increased its earnings per share, year to date. That's something that Hanson failed to make happen at American Eagle.

Why would Hanson leave?
There was good reason for Hanson to stick it out. In his employment agreement with American Eagle, he was offered a few options. If he left on his own, he took nothing with him. As long as he didn't leave for some horrible reason -- drug abuse, criminal behavior, taking the last cup of coffee without making a new pot -- he was set to take a nice payout with him. By leaving of his own accord, Hanson indicated that he's likely got something better waiting for him.

For American Eagle, the news couldn't come at a worse time. The weak year didn't give the business much momentum coming into 2014, and a shift at the top isn't going to propel anything forward. Hanson was seen as an industry specialist with a strong background, just the kind of person that American Eagle now needs to find -- again.

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Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder worked in retail for years, holding jobs ranging from bookseller to bank strategy analyst. He has worked for the Motley Fool since 2012, and loves coffee.

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8/28/2015 4:00 PM
AEO $16.75 Up +0.03 +0.18%
American Eagle Out… CAPS Rating: ***
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Urban Outfitters CAPS Rating: ****