Signet’s Big Switch Will Likely Be No Big Deal

Meet the new boss; he is kind of the old boss.

Despite the suddenness of Signet’s CEO switch this week, there is little of the nervous hand-wringing that traditionally accompanies big executive changes in the industry. Mark Light is a known quantity, having led the Signet’s U.S. division in the years when it was the company’s backbone. Heavily involved in the operational side and popular internally, he helped build Kay and Jared into the success stories they are. Just recently, his portfolio expanded to include the U.K. business and then the Zale division—and now the whole company.

“It shouldn’t make much difference,” says one vendor. “It is a great team they have, and the team has been working together for nearly 30 years, they know the business inside and out.” 

Many in the industry thought Light would ascend to CEO when Terry Burman resigned in 2010, but he took his name out of contention “for personal reasons,” according to an SEC filing. “For whatever reason, the board chose to bring in an outsider, which is very unlike Signet,” another supplier said.

That outsider was Michael Barnes. It’s not clear why Barnes, who is said to have fit in well within the Signet team, is leaving to spend more time with his family, as the company statement said. (Reuters noted the company said the same thing about chief financial officer Ron Ristau when he resigned in July.) Signet says the departure was Barnes’ decision.

However, Signet is known for having a demanding board: Former CEO Terry Burman and former Sterling CEO Nate Light are both said to have departed on mixed terms. (Burman ended up joining the competition.) Both were quite capable, as was Barnes. Despite Signet’s undeniable success, the directors may be a little more antsy considering it now has to deal with an activist shareholder with a history of proxy battles. (Barnes himself was part of a team on another board that was just ousted by an activist group.)

If Barnes has a legacy—other than the purchases of Zale and Ultra—it would be seemingly speeding up the metabolism of Signet. Under his tutelage, Signet ramped up its efforts with social media, diamond sourcing, branding, e-commerce, the list goes on. Traditionally, it was a slow but successful company; now it’s a much more speedy and aggressive one—and just as successful (and a lot bigger). 

With Mark Light in charge, we will likely see more of the same. Usually, that isn’t a good thing. Here it is. 

JCK News Director