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October 10, 2019 7:30 PM, EDT

Walmart’s Vaunted Turnaround Artist, Greg Foran, Leaves for Air New Zealand

Greg Foran and John Furner Greg Foran (left) and John Furner via Walmart Inc.

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Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran, the architect of the revival of Walmart Inc.’s U.S. stores, is departing to run an airline in his native New Zealand, leaving a big hole at the world’s biggest retailer on the cusp of the holiday season.

John Furner, 45, was named to replace Foran, according to a statement. A close friend of Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon, Furner started working at Walmart as an hourly associate in 1993 and rose to lead Sam’s Club in 2017. He has international experience as well, previously running merchandising and marketing in China. The change will go into effect Nov. 1.

Foran, who is in his late 50s, was largely responsible for whipping Walmart’s core business into shape over the past five years by making its 4,700 stores cleaner and easier to shop in. His efforts have led to more than three straight years of increases in quarterly same-store sales, the key metric in retail. But in recent months, tensions had emerged between Foran and Walmart’s U.S. online chief, Marc Lore.

“It’s a big blow,” Brian Yarbrough, an analyst at Edward Jones, said. “He’s been instrumental to the turnaround and people actually give him more credit than they do Doug. It’s hard to fill his shoes.”

Furner has revitalized Walmart’s warehouse division, Sam’s Club, by consolidating its confusing array of private brands and beefing up its online business.

Walmart’s U.S. stores were in dire shape when Foran took over the U.S. operations in 2014, after having served a stint in China. Stores were messy, with products out of stock, and Walmart was under threat from discounters like Dollar General and Germany’s Aldi, whose prices were often lower. Foran invested billions in cutting costs on everyday items, and also ensured that the retailer’s curbside grocery pickup service rolled out quickly.

The shares were little changed in late trading Oct. 10. Walmart stock has advanced 28% this year, outpacing the advance of the S&P 500.

Walmart Inc. ranks No. 4 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America.

Foran will be CEO of Air New Zealand Ltd., which is 49%-owned by the government and part of the nation’s effort to boost tourism and trade.

(Updates with comment from analyst in fourth paragraph.)

— With assistance from Tracy Withers.

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