After a roller coaster year, Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s credit card chief has resigned, leaving few clues to the status of the retailing industry's biggest card portfolio.
Steven D. Goldstein, 45, said his departure as president of credit was not related to woes that included an embarrassing legal defeat and the common concern about credit quality.
Declining to speak about his management of the credit card business, Mr. Goldstein said he was moving on to launch an Internet-based electronic commerce business.
"The end of the year is a good punctuation point for me to start afresh and for Sears to start with a new meter," said Mr. Goldstein, a former American Express executive who had worked at Sears for less than two years.
He said that he and Arthur Martinez, Sears' chairman and chief executive officer, were "talking about this for a while, and it just made sense that now was the time."
The Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based retailer spent much of 1997 fighting off problems related to its $26.7 billion of credit card loans-a total about equal to that of Chase Manhattan Corp.'s card business.
"No one out there makes the kind of money on the credit card that Sears makes, and no one has the reliance on the card as a source of earnings that Sears has," said Joseph Ronning, a retailing analyst at New York-based Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co.
As word began to spread about deterioration in the 50 million-card portfolio and higher-than-average delinquency rates, Sears' stock plunged from $64.688 on Aug. 6, to $39.875 on Oct. 27. It had risen to $44.9375 in Thursday's trading.
Perhaps worse for its reputation, Sears admitted early in the year that it had illegally collected discharged debt from bankrupt cardholders. In a series of legal proceedings, Sears agreed to pay more than $200 million in penalties and reparations.
Mr. Goldstein still has not spoken publicly about these problems. In a brief telephone interview, he just said it was time to realize his dream of becoming an entrepreneur.
Mr. Goldstein did say he was proud that the culture of Sears' credit unit began to change, becoming more outwardly focused, on customers and competitors. He pointed to some test products Sears introduced this year, targeted at people with little or no credit history.
Alan J. Lacy, the company's executive vice president and chief financial officer, will succeed Mr. Goldstein as president of credit.
"Steve put the business on a good track," Mr. Lacy said. "As I walk into the job, I don't see anything that I am going to do much differently."
Mr. Lacy said Sears would continue to monitor how it extends and collects credit and would seek out more opportunities for long-term profitability.
This year Sears has opened four million accounts, two million fewer than in 1996.
And in 1998, that number will remain about the same, said Mr. Lacy, 44, who held several senior posts at Philip Morris Cos. before joining Sears in 1994. He was named chief financial officer in 1995.
For now, Mr. Lacy is guarded on the question of whether the worst is over.
"When the company reported its earnings for the third quarter, its losses and loss provisions were running way ahead of what most people would have thought," said Edward A. Weller, managing director and senior research analyst at Robertson, Stephens & Co. in San Francisco.
Mr. Lacy said Sears' challenges might continue a while longer. "We will say something in the new year as we learn more about what is happening in our portfolio and the rest of the industry," Mr. Lacy said.
Industry observers said Sears has the wherewithal to bounce back and that management had taken promising corrective actions.
Although Mr. Lacy does not have a credit card management background, "he is a very bright guy and in the past three years has had enough time to learn about the credit card business," said Brown Brothers' Mr. Ronning.
Stanley W. Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates in Arvada, Colo., said it seemed strange that Mr. Goldstein would take an entrepreneurial job now, unless Sears was blaming the problems on him.
David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report in Oxnard, Calif., credited Mr. Goldstein for the decision to outsource Sears' card processing to First Data Corp.
It reflected the company's commitment to the card business, he said, and Mr. Goldstein probably had to "persuade his superiors to go along with that proposition."