Auto retail giant AutoNation Inc. said CEO Cheryl Miller over the weekend asked for and was granted a leave of absence for undisclosed health reasons.
AutoNation’s board of directors met Sunday evening by telephone and approved Miller’s request and named Executive Chairman Mike Jackson to serve as CEO and president until Miller returns, AutoNation Chief Marketing Officer Marc Cannon said Monday.
The moves are effective immediately. AutoNation disclosed the change in a regulatory filing Monday.
The timing of the request comes amid the coronavirus outbreak. Cannon, when asked if Miller’s leave was related to coronavirus, said he could not comment beyond the company’s regulatory filing. He said he didn’t have any details on Miller’s health or an expected timeline for her return.
Miller, 47, was named CEO in July after the departure of Carl Liebert, an industry outsider who held the job for four months after succeeding longtime CEO Jackson, 71. She had been Jackson’s finance chief for five years. Jackson said she had been runner-up for the CEO post when Liebert was hired.
Miller had been leading the nation’s largest new-vehicle retailer through the coronavirus outbreak. She sent several messages to employees over the past several weeks about the company’s actions to keep employees and customers safe. One message, dated March 25, thanked associates for what they were doing for each other and customers.
“I want you to know, the health, safety, and well-being of each associate is our top priority,” Miller wrote. “We read and listen to your concerns daily, and where we can address them, we are acting.”
David Whiston, an analyst with Morningstar Inc. in a note to investors Monday believes Miller’s health issue “is something other than COVID-19 because we don’t think a medical leave would be announced for the virus.”
Whiston said the company is in good hands during Miller’s absence and said Jackson is “arguably the best dealer CEO around, so we can’t think of a better interim leader,” according to the note.
The company in March quickly rolled out a nationwide “store to door” home delivery function, which is gaining momentum.
Earlier this month, AutoNation said its sales of new and used vehicles fell by half in the last two weeks of March amid state lockdowns to combat the coronavirus. The company placed about 7,000 employees on unpaid leave.
The company also implemented measures to cut costs, including temporary pay cuts for staff, curtailment of advertising expenses and postponing over $50 million in capital expenditure through the second quarter of 2020.
As part of the move, the salaries of Jackson and Miller were slashed 50 percent.
AutoNation’s shares closed Monday's trading down 3.4 percent to $32.50.
Automotive News could not immediately reach Miller for comment.
AutoNation Inc., of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., ranks No. 1 on Automotive News' list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., retailing 282,602 new vehicles in 2019.
Reuters contributed to this report.