Berkshire Paint Unit Names Searles Third CEO in Two Years

Benjamin Moore, the paint maker owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., named Michael Searles as its third chief executive officer in two years.

Searles, 64, was previously a chief operating officer of Stage Stores Inc., the seller of apparel, cosmetics and footwear. He also worked at retailers including Kids “R” Us and Wilsons The Leather Experts Inc., Montvale, New Jersey-based Benjamin Moore said today in an emailed statement.

Benjamin Moore, acquired by Buffett for about $1 billion in 2001, primarily distributes paint through independent retailers and has struggled as more people shop at big-box stores. Buffett said at Berkshire’s annual shareholders meeting in May that Benjamin Moore opted against selling through those types of retailers, and that such a change would have been “double-crossing” its existing network of dealers.

Searles is an “adept leader who understands the importance of the independent retailer,” Buffett, the CEO of Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire, said in today’s statement. “Mike is committed to the strategy we have set forth and the commitment we have outlined to the dealer network.”

Benjamin Moore announced on Sept. 27 that Robert Merritt, a former restaurant executive, had stepped down as CEO. The company didn’t give a reason for his departure. Merritt had replaced Denis Abrams as CEO in June 2012.

In a letter to Abrams last year posted online by the Wall Street Journal, Buffett said that the decision to replace him was “based on a differing view about distribution channels and brand strategy for the future.”

Shrinking Workforce

Headcount at Benjamin Moore slipped about 15 percent to 2,240 in the five years ended Dec. 31, according to Berkshire’s annual reports.

Stage Stores said in June that Searles left as part of the consolidation that combined a Virginia operation where he worked with the corporate headquarters in Houston. He was named CEO of Wilsons in late 2004 and stepped down in 2008 after the company announced plans to shut stores amid mounting losses.

Ted Weschler, who Buffett hired as a deputy investment manager in 2011, served on the board of Wilsons while Searles was CEO and was among the company’s largest investors in 2008, according a regulatory filing at the time.

Buffett’s financial assistant, Tracy Britt, is Benjamin Moore’s chairman. She also is chairman of building products provider Johns Manville, which in November named Mary Rhinehart CEO, replacing Todd Raba.

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