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Sara Lee CEO Resigns; Is a Breakup Next?

Stocks in this article: SLE

(Sara Lee story updated with additional analyst commentary)
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Sara Lee (SLE) announced Monday morning that the company's chairman and CEO Brenda Barnes will step down from her positions to focus on improving her health; Barnes had been on medical leave since May 14 after suffering a stroke.

Barnes, 56, has also resigned from Sara Lee's board of directors and will not run for re-election at the company's annual shareholders meeting in October.

Sara Lee
Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes steps down.

This week, Sara Lee's board has started the process of selecting a new CEO, searching both internally and externally.

During the process, Marcel Smits will continue as interim chief executive officer and Mark Garvey will continue as interim chief financial officer. James Crown, an independent director, will remain chairman of the board, a role he assumed when Barnes' leave of absence began, and he will continue to lead the Office of the Chairman, comprised of Crown, Smits and CJ Fraleigh, CEO of the company's North American Retail and Foodservice division.

"We fully support Brenda's decision to step down as Chairman and CEO so she can devote all of her time and energy toward improving her health," Crown said in a prepared statement. "She is a remarkable leader who is admired by those inside and outside of the Sara Lee family, and we fully understand and respect her decision. We will conduct a thorough process to identify a CEO successor in a timely manner, and look forward to sustaining the momentum begun under Brenda's leadership."

There is speculation that Smith, Crown and Fraleigh -- coming from diverse backgrounds -- are all frontrunners for the CEO position. All three hold positions in the Office of the Chairman, which was formed when Barnes was unavailable to lead.

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