NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Eddie Lampert, the controlling shareholder at retailer Sears Holdings Corp. and the largest shareholder in AutoNation Inc., met with Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally earlier this year to seek advice on how to turn around the ailing Sears-Kmart chain, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
One of the sources said that Mulally, who is due to retire from Ford in July, was left with the impression that Lampert was gauging whether Mulally might be open to the possibility of becoming Sears' next CEO. The second source said Lampert, who is currently Sears' chairman and CEO, did not offer Mulally a job and there is no search process under way for a new CEO.
Lampert is a billionaire hedge fund manager with a 22.4 percent stake (as of March 12) in AutoNation, the nation's largest auto retailer. He flew to Ford headquarters in either February or March to meet Mulally, the sources said.
In the meeting, Lampert asked Mulally about how he had turned around Ford and built an effective management structure at the automaker, the sources said.
Sears spokesman Howard Riefs declined to comment. Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel said Mulally, 68, has not decided what to do after leaving Ford.
When asked about a move to Sears, Mulally said in an interview on CNBC television today, "I am glad to share the Ford story because there are a lot of lessons learned there."
He added, "When I graduate on July 1st, I'm going to really think about where I am going to serve next."
Sears operates 1,900 Sears and Kmart discount chain stores in the United States. It was once the largest U.S. retailer by revenue, but has seen sales weaken consistently over recent years in the face of stiff competition from brick-and-mortar rivals such as Target and Wal-Mart, as well as online retailers like Amazon.com.
It would be a surprise if Mulally, who is seen as one of the most successful manufacturing executives in recent American history, considered joining Sears. Ford came out of the financial crisis much better than its U.S. rivals General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, who both went into bankruptcy and had to be rescued by the U.S. government. He came to Ford after running Boeing Co.’s commercial plane business.
Mulally has become one of the most sought after executives in corporate America.
He has signed non disclosure agreements with several companies to talk about possible leadership roles, one of the sources said. The names of the companies could not be learned.
Reuters has previously reported that he was also considered for the top job at Microsoft Corp., who eventually appointed insider Satya Nadella to the position. It is not clear how close Mulally came to being picked as the technology giant's CEO.
Lampert's meeting with Mulally also underscores the intractable problem facing big box U.S. retailers, such as Sears. They have struggled to find chief executives who have the experience and skills essential to running a modern retailer.
Building a bench
Lampert took over the CEO role early last year after Lou D'Ambrosio stepped down after just two years with Sears, citing family health matters. Under Lampert, Sears has focused on building an internal bench of talent, its spokesman Riefs said.
Such hires include Arun Arora, who leads Sears home services business and was previously general manager of global e-commerce for Staples Inc.; William Hutchinson who was brought over from Dell Inc. to head up Sears' supply chain business unit; and Norman Miller, who was president and COO of Dollar Financial Corp and is now responsible for Sears' automotive business.
"The leadership of Sears Holdings is committed to the company's successful transformation and they are excited about the momentum underway," Riefs said in an e-mailed statement. "It's also important to know that succession planning is a critical point of focus for any company and at Sears Holdings it's a continuous discipline."