DiNicola returns as Zale chairman, CEO

Robert J. DiNicola, 53, the architect of Zale Corp.’s return to profitability and industry leadership in the 1990s, will return Feb. 21 as the chairman and chief executive officer of the world’s largest jewelry retailer. Sources said he would probably stay in the posts he formerly held from 1994 to 2000, for ”the long term,” possibly up to five years.

He replaces Beryl B. Raff, his protégé and long-time colleague, who resigned suddenly as Zale’s chairman and CEO on Feb. 12, only six months after her appointment to those posts in September 2000. Until DiNicola-who is moving back to Dallas, where Zale is headquartered-returns, longtime board member Richard Marcus is serving as interim chairman. Because of Raff’s resignation and DiNicola’s pending return, Zale Corp. will delay release of its official second-quarter earnings, originally set for Feb. 14, until Mar. 7.

The resignation of Raff and the return of DiNicola aren’t expected to cause changes for Zale Corp.’s other senior executives-Alan P. Shor, president and chief operating officer; Sue E. Grove, executive vice president and chief financial officer; and Mary L. Forté, executive vice president and chief administrative officer-all members, like Raff, of DiNicola’s management team.

Raff, 50, was the first woman to head Zale. She was one of the few top women executives in the retail jewelry industry and one of the few in charge of a publicly traded company. A Zale spokesperson said she left to ”devote more time to her family and her own personal interests.” Marcus issued a statement thanking her for her ”contributions to Zale’s success” and wishing her ”success in her future endeavors.”

Some financial and industry analysts speculate her departure was also a result of dissatisfaction by Zale’s board of directors with the company’s recent performance. Zale’s double-digit growth in comparable store sales, for example, slowed a few months ago, like that of much of the retail trade, when consumer spending slowed. Its comp store sales for November and December dropped 3.1% compared with a 16.3% gain for the same period in 1999 and fell 2.3% for the entire quarter (ended Jan. 31), compared with a 14.7% gain last year. Shortly after Christmas, Zale said second quarter net income would be less than analysts expected, and last month the company stated that earnings per share for the year (ending July 31) would rise less than the 20% previously predicted.

However, other observers and sources note the jewelry industry as a whole had a tough Christmas and suggest that Raff-a highly successful jewelry merchant-was less successful as a corporate chairman. ”The two are not the same, and being successful at one doesn’t mean you’ll be successful at the other,” says one analyst. ”A successful merchant pays attention to marketing details, while a chairman deals in long-range vision and strategies.” Others note that as chairman, she had ”a lot of weights she didn’t have before,” as one put it, including integration of Piercing Pagoda, a 900-outlet gold jewelry chain Zale acquired in August 2000, expansion of Zale’s e-commerce, and the slowdown in consumer spending.

The status of Zale’s e-commerce plans may have played a part in Raff’s resignation, suggested some reports. In Zale’s 2000 annual report, her first as chairman, she said Zale was ”right on course” in its `e-volution’ into the world of electronic commerce” and development of ”a complete family of Zale-brand dot coms.” However, by the 2000 holiday season, the re-launch of Zales Jewelers Web site (zales.com site) with significant enhancements, plus introduction of the upscale Bailey Banks & Biddle site, hadn’t occurred. And planned sites for other Zale Corp. brands (i.e., Gordon’s, Peoples) were also delayed. In early February, a week before Raff left, Philip Diehl, vice president of Zale.com and a senior vice president, resigned, reportedly at the board’s request. Diehl, formerly director of the U.S. Mint, had been hired by Raff in March 2000 to oversee Zale’s online subsidiary.

Raff joined Zale in October 1994, when DiNicola-a former Federated Department Stores executive hired to restore Zales’ fortunes after its bankruptcy reorganization-recruited her from R.H. Macy & Co., where she headed its eastern U.S. jewelry business for a 12-state region. She was named president of Zales Jewelers, the company’s flagship chain. In July 1997, she was appointed executive vice president and chief operating officer of Zale Corp. and a year later was made president and COO. In September 1999, she became chief executive officer. Last Sept. 6, she was named board chairman, succeeding DiNicola, who retired but remained a member of Zale’s board of directors.