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'Boomerang' CEOs filling empty top jobs

They're called “Boomerang CEOs”. But, unlike boomerangs, these former retirees were never to come back. By CNBC's Julia Boorstin
/ Source: CNBC

There’s a new trend with companies bringing back their long-retired chief execs -- putting them in the top job.

Williams-Sonoma recently brought back retired CEO and Howard Lester to replace a CEO 11 years his junior, Ed Muller, who says he’s retiring. Lester, 70, is coming back to help bolster sales. He's hardly the first retired CEO to return from the golf course to the board room, replacing a younger departing one.

They're called “boomerang CEOs.” But, unlike boomerangs, these former retirees were never expected to come back.

“It’s due to there not being someone in place to take the reigns of the person that failed,” said Eric Wheel at the executive search firm PrincetonOne. "And in many cases, the ex-CEO who’s returning is really seen as embodying the best of that company. It’s someone who is identified by not only the business community but also by the people who work there."

Since 2000, increasing numbers of high-profile boomerangs have replaced younger CEOs. The list includes Boeing’s Harry Stonecipher, Delta Airlines’ Gerald Grinstein, Honeywell International’s Larry Bossidy, Dow Chemical’s William Stavropoulos and Lucent Technologies’ Henry Schacht.

Why are these guys, all in their mid 60s or older, replacing the younger generation? It’s not just the money. CEO turnover is at a record high, and there are tons of jobs to fill. So far this year, an average of six CEOs retire each day, according to Challenger & Gray. At this rate more CEOs will leave this year than the record 1,322 chief executives that stepped down last year.

But, turning to older executives rather than younger ones indicates the younger generation is under-prepared for the top job.

“I think progressively it has become more and more complex and a more and more difficult role with ever-broadening responsibilities and details that the person is responsible for,” said Wheel. "I think the job is still remarkably attractive, but much more complicated and a harder job to do, and do well.

This respect for the wisdom of experience is keeping these card-carrying AARP members active. But, it’s certainly frustrating those C-level executives ready for the big promotion.